The challenge for Jim Ward was how to make a squirrel look bad-ass.
Jim is a graphic designer based in St. Louis. He does all sorts of illustrations, but he specializes in creating college mascots. He’s the artist behind such characters as the bull of California State University at Dominguez Hills, the bear of Washington University, the bearcat of Southwest Baptist University and the bison of Gallaudet University.
Last year, the athletic director at Oberlin College asked Jim to create a mascot inspired by some of its better-known residents: the albino squirrels that call the Ohio school home.
Oberlin is not alone in having a sizable squirrel population, of course. Colleges and squirrels go together like undergrads and all-nighters. Many is the student who has sat in the yard or the quad — or Tappan Square, Oberlin’s patch of green — and watched as the squirrels gamboled, envying them their carefree lives.
“You’re considered lucky if you happen to see one,” Natalie Winkelfoos, Oberlin’s athletic director, said of the albino squirrels.
Jim had done an earlier rebranding program for the college, coming up with a strong typographical design of its initials: OC. And the college already had a mascot: the Yeoman (and Yeowoman), which Webster’s defines as a person who cultivates land or provides loyal service. At sporting events, Oberlin supporters shout, “Go Yeo!”
But whenever anyone tried to draw a Yeoman, it just ended up looking like a farmer.
“Nothing against farmers, but we don’t want to rally around that,” Natalie said. “It was a failed attempt to have an illustration of a mascot.”
So, albino squirrel it was.
In addition to more common animals — bear, bull, tiger — Jim had done some unusual ones. He did the St. Louis College of Pharmacy Eutectic, which looks like a lab coat-wearing Wolfman holding a mortar and pestle. As he started his Oberlin project, he scoured the Internet for interesting squirrel pictures.
“Of course, I had a red eye to work with,” Jim said.
The best mascot designs are timeless — and simple. They have to look good painted huge in the middle of a basketball court and embroidered small on a polo shirt. The Oberlin squirrel was unveiled last New Year’s Day. Jim’s finished design was a white squirrel leaping from left to right with a sneer on its face and what Jim describes as a “wincing or winking” red eye. The campus paper, the Oberlin Review, described the new mascot as “hyper-muscular, blood-thirsty.”
Natalie the athletic director said the aim of adopting the squirrel was to make the sports teams seem more a part of the campus. Apparently the athletes have been seen as a breed apart, holding on to the Yeoman mascot while the rest of the college had long ago adopted the squirrel.
So what did the jocks think?
“The athletes really weren’t too thrilled with it,” said junior Nate Levinson, a politics major who is the Oberlin Review’s sports editor. “The squirrel just doesn’t project what they’re trying to put out.”
As sophomore swimmer Sarah Kahl told the Review: “Nobody’s scared of a squirrel.”
Oberlin isn’t the only school with a squirrel mascot. The athletes at Haverford College in Pennsylvania are known as the Black Squirrels. At Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., students are the Fighting Squirrels. As anyone who has tried to evict a squirrel from an attic knows, squirrels can be scary.
As for Jim Ward, the Walt Disney of the college mascot world, he said he still has worlds to conquer.
“One of the most widely used brands is the bulldog and I’ve not done a bulldog,” he said. “The number of griffins I've seen that are terrible is huge. A griffin can be cool . . . . I haven’t done an eagle. I’ve done a falcon, but I haven’t done an eagle.
“There are so many neat animals out there to do, it’s not even funny.”
Whenever Jim turns in his finished designs, he includes several versions for use in different applications. With Oberlin, he included some advice.
“I told them I would not use the head by itself,” he said. “Without the tail, a squirrel looks like a rat, a kind of vile vermin.”
Go Oberlin! Go Yeo! Go Vile Vermin! Go Squirrels!
Read about other organizations that have squirrels as mascots — from Mary Baldwin College’s Gladys the Fighting Squirrel to Marty the Marmot of the Victoria Royals junior hockey team — at washingtonpost.com/johnkelly. And cast a vote for your favorite.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.