Georgetown’s mascot-in-training, Jack Junior, ready for Midnight Madness debut

As Jack Junior strolled through Georgetown University’s campus Wednesday afternoon, he was stopped again and again by adoring fans. They snapped photos, rubbed his velvety ears and cooed compliments: He’s gotten so big! He’s so cute! I love his little face! He looks just like Jack!

He soaked up their love with a panting, tongue-flapping grin. But then the 10-month-old bulldog caught a whiff of meatiness from a nearby food stand and started sprinting toward the enticing aroma, pulling hard on his leash.

“J.J. hasn’t really learned to control his behavior,” said Paulina Sosa, 21, a Georgetown senior from Houston who was dragged along.

“Especially around meat.”

J.J. arrived at Georgetown this spring and has been training to become the school’s next mascot. He studies under the watchful eye of the current mascot, Jack, a 9-year-old bulldog who is slowing down with age. While many schools rely on a student in a fuzzy costume to pump up crowds at games, a few schools use a live animal to do so. J.J. will be among that elite.

What does it take to be Georgetown’s mascot? Poise and chillness, especially among massive crowds, such as those that fill Verizon Center for Hoya basketball games. A mascot can’t be fearful of thundering applause, tipsy celebrators or small children. He must master looking straight at the camera for photos. Lunging at meat products is a definite no-no.

And, most important, a Georgetown mascot must be able to sprint onto the basketball court and destroy a cardboard box adorned with the colors of the opposing team — not just chew, not just rip, but destroy — as the crowd screams: “Eat that box! Eat that box!”

Crowds at lacrosse and football games haven’t bothered the puppy, said the Rev. Christopher Steck, a Jesuit priest who lives with Jack and J.J. in an apartment on the fourth floor of a dorm filled mostly with freshmen.

But at hoops-crazy Georgetown, basketball season is another world for mascots, with thousands of fans wanting any sign of good luck and network cameras seeking adorable cutaway footage.

J.J.’s first big test will be late Friday, when the season officially begins and Georgetown celebrates “Midnight Madness,” an opportunity for students to check out this year’s men’s basketball team — and the box-destroying skills of the mascot-in-training.

“It’s his big debut,” said Neve Schadler, 19, a sophomore from Connecticut who manages mascot appearances along with Sosa.

Jack and J.J. will tag-team mascot duties this school year. They share a Twitter account (@GeorgetownJack) and a golf cart dubbed the “Jack Mobile” so their short legs don’t get tired traveling to events. Next year, J.J. will jump into mascot duties full time while Jack enjoys the simple pleasures of retirement.

Last school year, it became clear that Jack was slowing down. On Selection Sunday in March, Jack was excitedly jumping on the couch and pulled his ACL, a leg injury that landed him in surgery. Shock and worry swept across campus, and the news quickly spread.

Reveille VIII, the collie mascot at Texas A&M University, sent a letter that read: “Jack, I was saddened to hear of your recent injury. As a fellow mascot I understand all the occupational hazards that come with the territory of representing your beloved University.” Jack posted the letter to his Facebook page, which filled with well wishes.

Georgetown sports teams and fans have long searched for something other than an ambiguous Hoya to rally around. In the 1960s, sports editors at the student newspaper argued that Georgetown needed a tenacious bulldog as its mascot. They raised $150 to purchase a dog they wanted to call “Hoya.” But the dog would answer only to “Jack.”

It was the start of a tradition.

After the first Jack, decades passed without a dog living on campus, though a student in a fuzzy bulldog costume would prance along the sidelines at games. A second Jack arrived in 1999, only to follow his caretaker to another university in 2003. The current Jack arrived at Georgetown in July 2003.

Jack’s roommate, Steck, quickly found that it was difficult to juggle his professional career (he was recently named chairman of the theology department) with Jack’s mascot career. He organized the Jack Crew, a team of about 20 students who manage Jack’s social calendar, take him for walks and decorate boxes for him to destroy. There’s a semester-long waiting list for volunteers.

Jack’s fame quickly soared. In 2009, the American Kennel Club released a ranking of top dogs in pop culture: Snoopy was No. 1, Georgetown’s Jack was No. 8 and Family Guy’s Brian Griffin was No. 10.

Meanwhile, the basketball team had a similar ascent. During Jack’s tenure, the Georgetown men’s basketball team has made it to the Big Dance six times, including a Final Four appearance in 2007.

As Jack started showing his age, the parents of two Georgetown students offered up a bulldog puppy they had bred. Steck traveled to California to pick up J.J. and drive him back to Washington, stopping along the way to meet alumni.

Upon the puppy’s arrival, hundreds of students and the pep band welcomed him with a collar-bestowing ceremony and a song written in his honor, with the refrain: “Hey, hey, J.J. We wanna know if you’ll be our dog.”

The university circulated a photo of the two celebrities, Jack looking straight at the camera as J.J. stared admiringly at the older dog. The puppy imitates everything the seasoned mascot does.

This week, the Jack Crew leaders, Schadler and Sosa, met to discuss Midnight Madness. They both agreed that J.J. still isn’t yet skilled enough at box shredding.

“It’s just not like Jack, who tears it up to shreds, until there’s nothing left,” Schadler said.

Instead, J.J. adores balloons — something the students discovered during Homecoming, when J.J. became enamored with a bunch of blue balloons.

“He started jumping up and popping them,” Sosa said. “It was really cute.”

The plan for Friday night: J.J. will attack a huge pile of orange and blue balloons — the chosen colors of arch rival Syracuse University — and pop them all.

Well, that’s the plan anyhow. And even if J.J. gets stage fright, reliable old Jack will be there to shred a box.