He's the guy or she's the gal inside the suit. They bring GUBA, the Great University Bear of Alberta, and his cohort, Patches, to life. Most often found at sporting events, these two likeable mascots have become recognizable symbols of the University, and they have found a special place in the memories of many University of Alberta students and alumni — not to mention numerous children (possible future alumni) who have met and hugged GUBA or Patches.
But, what is it like being inside the suit? Where do these mascots get their endless energy, outrageous antics, and go-hard-or-go-home attitude?
Suited up as GUBA, there was almost nothing that Bill Bagshaw, '96 BEd, wouldn't do or at least try. As GUBA, he rapelled from the roof of the Butterdome, and in his best Superman impression he came flying down from the ceiling of the Main Gym on a zip line. He even ran for Students' Union president. "Student elections always seemed a bit stale, so I thought I could liven them up a bit." Indeed he did until he was disqualified — because GUBA was leading in the polls he says.
"It gave me the freedom to be more exuberant than I would be without the suit." says Bagshaw, recalling some of his gutsy GUBA moments. "Physically, it felt very heavy and limiting because you can't see very well. But mentally, I don't know, I felt bigger than I was because GUBA's a strong guy."
Bagshaw compares the GUBA getup to a sleeping bag. "It's hot and confining and after you sweat in it, it gets even heavier," he says. "Sure, there's a fan," he concedes in a yah-right tone of voice. But apparently, the battery-operated fan located in GUBA's head is temperamental at best. And when it did work, it didn't actually cool things off, it just circulated the air to make breathing easier, says Bagshaw, who got used to working in the sauna-like suit and "losing about eight to 12 pounds every game."
Costume conditions aside, Bagshaw says as GUBA he was "goofy, more goofy" than his everyday self. In costume — and incognito — Bagshaw took on a persona that would do things that he would never do if he were in street clothes. "I would never run and slide on the floor in front of an attractive, young woman without the suit on," he says, smiling. Then, pausing and shaking his head, he adds, "Or do things that would cause me such pain."
A dislocated finger. A fractured heel. Whiplash. It was all part of the GUBA experience for Bagshaw, who says most, if not all, of his injuries were self-inflicted. For example there was the football game with what Bagshaw describes quite bluntly as "a deadbeat crowd." GUBA was working hard to get fans pumped. He took a garbage can, turned it upside down, and dove onto the concrete track a few times. Dove? "It was a dive," affirms Bagshaw, smacking his hands together to emphasize the crashing sound of GUBA hitting the ground. GUBA also dove onto Barney, the University of Calgary's mascot. "That really hurt. I bruised my ribs and got whiplash."
It may sound extreme, but it was for the fans. "I always felt that I was there to entertain and get the crowd into the game," says Bagshaw. Right from the start, he was determined to live up to the high standards that he set for himself as GUBA. "When I get passionate about something I really go hard for it,' he says. "And I really went hard for this."
Bagshaw's gig as GUBA started in 1994 as a result of a dare. "A friend of mine was on the cheer team, and I told her that I thought the GUBA was crummy," says Bagshaw. Told to put his money where his mouth was by his friend, he did. After volunteering to wear the suit, Bagshaw did such a good job for a first-time GUBA that he was asked by Athletics to play the part for the rest of the year.
"It's kind of funny," says Bagshaw, with a philosophical tone. He explains that in his first year at the U of A he saw an ad in the Gateway for GUBA tryouts. "I thought it would be fun to do, but being a first-year student, I was too intimidated to do anything about it."
Never at a loss for crowd-enticing ideas, Bagshaw had a hoot creating characters during his two-year, full-time stint as the U of A's mascot. He was GUBA-Bond, GUBA-Skywalker, and GUBA-cowboy. High energy and stunt-savvy, Bagshaw took GUBA to the ultimate extreme, says Julien McNulty, a recent GUBA veteran. "GUBA truly worked his mojo when his role was filled by Bill Bagshaw," says McNulty.
While GUBA sometimes scares children, Patches has always been a big hit with the youngsters. Being Patches is very different than being GUBA, says
Jacqui Alderson, '00 BEd, '00 BPE, who first dressed up as Patches in 1996 and has also filled in as GUBA. The difference: "Patches is more snuggly," says Alderson.
But, like the GUBA-gear, Patches' costume is "blistering hot," says Alderson. In fact, that is her immediate response when she is asked what it was like to be in the suit. "And there's no fan," she quickly adds.
As Patches, Alderson was there to have fun. "I liked to dance and give people hugs and high-fives." She also teased the crowds, who were always eager to know what gender the big panda was. "I'd just shrug my shoulders," she says, laughing. One of her fondest memories is of the time when a wide-eyed little girl came up to her and said, "These people say that you're a human in there, but Patches, even if you are, I still love you." She then gave Patches a huge hug. Watching all of this was the little girl's brother, about three-years-old. Not wanting to be left out, he quietly said, "I love you if you're a human too."
Although the suit gives the wearer a celebrity status, there is a downside. Alderson says the worst is when people take advantage of the fact that you are in the mascot costume. "There are times when kids kick or punch — actually, sometimes students will too," she says. Bagshaw and McNulty agree. As GUBA, these two have both experienced gang beatings by unruly kids. Another annoyance, says Bagshaw, is the really intoxicated guy who tries to pick a fight with the University's Great Bear.
Hostile fans not included, being the University's mascot was a positive experience for these alumni of the suit. And when they shared their memories, their reminiscences were often interrupted with laughter.
But there comes a time to pass on the suit and the experience to someone else. Bagshaw says he felt it was time to retire when he had exhausted every stunt that he could think of — or could do in the suit. However, GUBA will always be an enormous part of his U of A experience, and he hopes that he can be supportive to whoever is in the suit. "What's most important is to get GUBA out there."
How it all started: the making of a mascot
GUBA made his debut on campus in early seventies — the same time that people were watching Marcus Welby M.D. and Hawaii Five-O on the TV, listening to American Woman on the radio, and wearing bell-bottoms. GUBA's creator was Chuck Moser, 64 BPE, 72 MA, who at the time was the assistant athletic director at the University.
The idea for GUBA came about when Moser, who now works in development and alumni affairs for the faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, was honeymooning in Hawaii. There he and his bride took in the Rainbow Classic, a basketball tournament. "I was always interested in improving things at the U of A to promote athletics," says Moser, who saw the Rainbow Classic as a great opportunity to garner new ideas. And, at the same time, he and his wife, who is a huge fan of the sport, were anticipating watching some "darn good basketball."
Although the tournament drew teams from universities across the States, it was the Brigham Young Cougars that stood out for Moser. It wasn't the team or even the female lance troupe that caught Moser's attention, it was the team's mascot. "He was unbelievable — I couldn't take my eyes off the things that he did," recalls Moser. "He had the Hawaiian people — everyone — eating out of his hands."
Eureka! Moser turnrned to his wife and said, "This is what I'm going to do when I get home I'm going to get a mascot for the Golden Bears."
Creating and designing the mascot was "fun and exciting." At a local costume shop, after several meetings, senior seamstresses made the first GUBA suit using gold, fuzzy, could-be-a-chesterfield material. A rubber mask (worn close to the face) and gloves completed the look.
To fill the suit Moser didn't need to look farther than the U of A's basketball courts. That's where he found John Struger, 76 BEd, who Moser recalls as being "a gym rat."
Sitting in Moser's office for hours, these two would meet almost daily to discuss the mission of the mascot. After a few weeks, Moser and the athletics department decided that it was time to unveil the mascot (who at this point was nameless). They picked the men's basketball game where the U of A was taking on UBC — a big game because the last time these two teams met the U of A won in overtime.
The time came for the mascot's debut, and according to Moser, "If you were a movie producer you couldn't have written a better script."
The main gym was packed. There was fanfare as the cheer squad carried the covered mascot into the gym on a stretcher. When in position, the mascot whipped off the sheet and started running around the gym — hands in the air. After playing with some kids, it was time for the mascot to do something. So, the mascot took a green-and-gold-coloured basketball; it looked like as if he was going to take a shot from around the foul line.
"Now John had played basketball — he wasn't Golden Bear calibre, but he was good enough that he could dribble," says Moser, who remembers thinking, "Okay John, take your time, pick your shot, make sure it's something you can make." But with a very gutsy attitude, the mascot looked at the crowd, shook his head, and backed up to the very top of the key. "Now, the crowd is hushed; they are waiting to see what this guy can do. And I'm sweating because I said to him, 'John, don't try something that's going to make you look like an idiot — start with something successful.'"
Egged on by the cheer squad and the crowd, the mascot continued to back up. "I'm going crazy," says Moser in a voice that evokes the same anxiety that he felt at that moment. "John backs up all the way to the centre line, and I'm thinking he is going to wreck the whole thing by trying to do a long shot — there isn't a hope in hell." The crowd fell silent as Struger pretended to get ready and faked a few shots. "Then he gets down into position, puts the ball up, and, I tell you, I will never forget this moment for as long as I live," says Moser. "The ball arched up and never made a sound as it went right through the hoop."
"Swoosh," remembers Struger. "Everyone went bananas and so did I." Struger says he recalls winding up for the shot and aiming. The rest, he says, was luck. (Although he does say that he would wear the suit when he practised.)
On the weekend following the mascot's grand entrance there was a name-the-bear contest in conjunction with a Bears' basketball game. Moser recalls that there were "a ton of entries," including The Cub, which made it to the final cut. But it was GUBA, Great University Bear Alberta — submitted by then student Dave Zaharko, who went on to become a CFL linebacker — that won over the naming committee. "In fact the committee was almost unanimous," says Moser. "The name had the most insightful approach, the most imagination, and it was short and snappy," says Moser. (By the way, Zaharko won a keg of beer for his winning entry.)
Moser, who rejoined the staff of the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation about a year ago, was not on campus for the mascot's makeover in the early 1990s. However, the transformation was inevitable, he says. "This new GUBA is part of the new era of mascots where you are not supposed to see human eyes." It was also around this same time that Patches, GUBA's partner-in-crowd-pleasing crime, arrived onto the campus scene.
As with the others who were inside the suit, Struger who played the part for one year says, life as GUBA was good. Now a teacher at Kenilworth Junior High, Struger can often be found sitting in the stands cheering on U of A teams. His reaction when he sees GUBA: "I smile because I know what he, or she, is going through, and how hard they are working to get the crowd going in a positive way."
And how they must be sweating in that suit, jokes Struger. Those who have been GUBA or Patches remember many things about their suited-up experience, but most of all they all remember how hot it was. Apparently, even after 31 years, some things never change.
Published Summer 2001.