Big Red fighting for Mascot Challenge grand prize

Christian Marnon

As a 2012 inductee into the Mascot Hall of Fame, it would seem Big Red has reached the peak of achievement. But while WKU’s beloved fuzzy red troublemaker may have a storied career, it has never won The Capital One Mascot Challenge.

This year marks Big Red’s ninth entry in the challenge, which has existed for 12 years. Big Red has placed as high as fourth, but has yet to win and take home the $20,000 grand prize.

Paula Davids, a marketing coordinator for WKU’s Athletic Marketing program who’s commonly known as “Big Red’s mom,” plans for that to change this year.

“We’ve never won, so I’m really pushing to win it this year,” she said. “Every competition is going to be tough, but with the support of our fans and student body, I think we’re going to be okay.”

Each week in the Capital One Challenge, Big Red faces a new mascot opponent. Fans can vote for their mascot on the Mascot Challenge web page, and can also do challenges that can net their mascot 25 or 100 points.

One 25-point challenge posed the hypothetical question: “If you and your mascot started a band, what would your band’s name be?”

Answering that question would earn Big Red 25 points, but filming or photographing yourself in the proposed band would earn 100 points.

WKU’s mascot has come a long way since its inception.

Ralph Carey, WKU alum and Big Red’s creator, said that in 1979 Big Red was just a scribble on paper.

Two WKU administrators wanted to bring a mascot to campus, but were struggling to find a character that stuck.

Enter Carey, then a business major and employee of King’s Island Amusement Park. Carey’s experience with live shows, costume manipulation and animated Hanna Barbera characters prompted the administrators to award him full creative control of the project.

Full creative control was a terrifying responsibility, Carey said.

“Really, you would like to think there was great science behind it, the whole thing was a little bit terrifying,” he said. “It started as a scribble on the paper and all of sudden started to take a life of its own. Then came to the horrifying realization that I had to create this thing and it had to work.”

Carey said Big Red is commonly misunderstood as a re-imagination of WKU’s terrain, specifically the hill. In actuality, Big Red is an embodiment of spirit rather than a manifestation of something organic or physical.

“Western has no human or animal association, so there was really a white piece of paper to build an entity,” he said.

“This character needed to see well, to be flexible and to be fluid. It had to be very active in all those combined components to make performance engaging.”

Davids was a student at WKU when Carey was brainstorming mascot ideas. Although Davids didn’t help create Big Red, Carey said she has been integral in keeping the concept of Big Red intact for years.

“She maintained a high standard from the very beginning,” Carey said. “Big Red portrayed an image and she has held tight to that image, like any brand. By maintaining those standards, performance has not diminished and the popularity has not diminished. She has helped Big Red as an entity, and the program continues to thrive. Her role cannot be understated.”

Serving as not only the creator of Big Red, but the very first person behind the suit, Carey said looking back on Big Red’s journey is strange, yet pleasing.

“The whole thing is surreal because it happened so long ago,” he said. “It was satisfying in many ways, but it did not happen without the contribution of 100 or more people who have been involved in wearing this costume and portraying the character.”