2018 is the 10th anniversary of the Arkansas State University Indians becoming the Red Wolves—a highly endangered species. After 10 years, what has changed? Brandon Tabor with A-State Connections takes a look at where the name red wolves came from and how the university has been impacted since then.
2008 was my first semester as an Arkansas State graduate student.
As a Wynne-native, I’ve had interactions with ASU when I was growing up. In my wonder years, I identified ASU as the Indians. So, in September of 2008, after returning to the area from my undergraduate studies elsewhere, I wanted to relive my wonder years. I decided to go to the ASU Indian’s football game.
It was A-State’s first home game of the year and they were playing against Texas Southern. I remember how astonished I was when I revisited ASU Stadium at the time. But, nothing prepared me for what I was about to encounter during the pregame.
It was the official unveiling of A-State’s newest mascot, Howl--the Red Wolf.
I forgot briefly that ASU announced earlier that year that they were going to become the Red Wolves and drop the Native American moniker. I was expecting some reluctance from the crowd, especially since Howl was dressed in a black leather jacket and driving a motorcycle across the field.
But, instead, the fans, went, bananas. And, apparently, that was not by accident.
“I cannot imagine a better transitional emotion for people that were deeply attached to one mascot to get them deeply attached to the new mascot. It worked. It simply worked.”
That’s Dr. Bill Smith. He’s the Associate Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications at the [A-State] Jonesboro campus. At the time, Smith wasn’t working for the university. In fact, he was transitioning to work here from another university that also changed their mascot.
Just like me, he was astounded by the public’s reaction to the Red Wolves mascot. Smith was also amazed with how the university handled the transition.
“You had all these institutions that were in the same position, but to someone that hadn’t come to work here yet and just watching the process, I could tell something different was happening at Arkansas State, they had worked it out better, they had solved the visual problems better, and their fans embraced it.”
It was great that the fans embraced the “Red Wolves” mascot. But, I had one big question… How did we get “Red Wolves”?
Smith told me that ASU is no stranger to changing the school mascot. In fact, the school has had multiple mascots since 1911:
“Arkansas State College had been the ‘Aggies’, and then for a brief period the ‘Gorillas’, before they became the ‘Indians’. Most people associate Arkansas State for that longer period as being ‘Indian’, but this university’s had 4 different mascots.”
During “that longer period”, the NCAA passed a rule back in 2005 prohibiting institutions—quote--“from displaying hostile and abusive racial-ethnic-national origin mascots, nicknames, or imagery.”
That language included schools who had Native American mascots, such as A-State. Schools who received permission from a tribe could continue to use its mascot.
According to an A-State news release, the Indian Family mascot was named in honor of the Osage tribe which inhabited Northern Arkansas in the 18th century. The tribe’s territory is now in Oklahoma.
Smith said ASU just wanted to keep things simple.
“Most of the universities, though, that had generic terms like ‘Indian’ that wasn’t associated with a particular tribal background generally found that it was just going to be simpler to find a new mascot. The NCAA was going to restrict whether you could host events. There was some talk, but I don’t think it ever got to the point that you would not be invited to championship events—the hosting was the main problem.”
In 2007, then-Chancellor Dr. Robert Potts formed a steering committee to look for a new mascot. After receiving tons of submissions from the public, the committee narrowed down their selections to a couple of choices. Here’s Smith again—
“Red wolf got identified very early. Train oriented mascots [got identified] because of Jonesboro’s long-standing railroad connections. Ridge Runner—ridge oriented. So, you had an animal mascot that had been identified, a geographic reference that worked for our area identified, and another cultural reference that had been identified.”
The committee settled on the Red Wolves nickname. But, harkening back to the feeling 10 years ago that I had about the new nickname—I was confused. Why red wolves? What did it have to do with ASU? Smith couldn’t tell me much more, but he introduced me to some people who could.
Smith: ‘Oh Mark...’…. <<talking and laughter>> Smith: ‘I’ll let ya’ll sort that out…”
Mark Reeves is the Director of Publications and Creative Services, but he prefers the title “Graphic Designer”. Smith said Reeves was here 10 years ago and was involved in the transition to the red wolves nickname. Reeves said he couldn’t take all of the credit. So, he introduced me to two more people on the team:
Heath Kelly is also a graphic designer. His official title at ASU is “Assistant Director of Publications and Creative Services.” As we began to sit down in the graphics department conference room in the administration building, another person walked in:
“…nice to meet you, I’m Brandon.”
Mary Melton is a Graphic Designer at ASU who also was on the team 10 years ago. Melton, Reeves, and Kelly are all graduates of Arkansas State who are now working for the university. Kelly explained why the committee settled on the red wolf.
“So, they went through a lot of different stuff and it came out that the red wolf was a naturally indigenous creature in the area along Crowley’s Ridge, and that kind of thing. And so, that’s where that kind of began.”
Now, to back up just a minute--Smith gave me another name before I met with ASU’s creative team. This person could tell me a little more about the actual red wolf. His name is Dr. Tom Risch.
“So, the story of the red wolf is part of human settlement in the westward ways of the settlement of America…”
Risch heads the Arkansas Biosciences Institute at ASU. The institute is also the national repository of red wolf DNA, sanctioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Risch said Crowley’s Ridge is part of the historic boundary of the native [PAUSE] American red wolves, which inhabited much of the South. He said the species was nearly wiped out because early settlers were killing the animal out of fear that the wolves would kill their livestock. Now, Risch said, there are only a handful of red wolves left in America. Majority of them held in captivity to help rebuild the population.
“So, all told, there’s somewhere around in the neighborhood of about 240 [red wolves] in all of these facilities, for the entire species. So this is the most endangered dog-like animal/canid in the entire world. They’re critically endangered. A lot of them really need a lot of attention from us as caretakers of the environment, and we think it’s important that we save these species.”
Back in the graphic design conference room Reeves, Melton, and Kelly were showing me their presentation book of the red wolf mascot they showed to Chancellor Potts. When the committee was narrowing their choices down for mascots, Kelly said the team had very little time for input.
“When they finally asked us to do some work on it, they gave us a week and a half—I think it was 10 days—and said, ‘we need something’.”
Reeves said since they were in on mascot selection process, they had the chance to look at other submitted design concepts. He said the three of them basically went all in on just one mascot.
“We had already figured out what we would like to do if we had a chance, that’s why when it came down to our submission, when we put our logo together, we did one. We just did one image. We put all of our eggs, kind of, in one basket. [We] came up with how it could look on billboards, license plates…. We really took one that we all liked, settled on it, presented our reasons why we liked it, and pushed it forward.”
Melton said the feeling was instinctual:
“I think we all instantly knew it when we saw it that [the red wolf] was the one. It may’ve needed some tweaks here and there, but I think we all had worked on different sketches; different things and I think when that one came out, we were all like, ‘yep *snaps*, that’s it!’. I think it was, instantly, we kind of knew.”
As I was flipping through the book, I saw various designs, fonts, and potential marketing ideas for the red wolves. ASU’s creative team was up against an outside design firm with ideas. The committee chose the creative teams’ designs and ideas in the book, which are being used today—all except for one:
Yes. Before we got “Howl” the Red Wolf mascot, as in H-O-W-L, there was [PAUSE] “Hal”—H-A-L, a plush GRAY wolf. Once a logo and a nickname was settled, the team worked with the Athletics Department on design concepts for Howl the mascot. Reeves said the original concept for Howl was a FAR cry from the version we have today.
“[The Athletic Department] would send us a mock-up of the mascot company and what they were doing, and originally [Howl] had sharp teeth.”
Yep. The cuddly-Howl mascot had fangs. Reeves said, that CANNOT work and the fangs had to go….
“…because this mascot’s going to be interacting with kids; with children and we thought that he can’t be too fierce. He has to be a good representation of what we got, but not standoffish to kids.”
So, after 10 years of A-State becoming the Red Wolves, what has changed other than the signage and the physical mascot?
Smith said it enhanced the pride for the school.
“I think it has brought a new unity to the entire community. And by that, I am told, while there was great pride in the Indian mascot, you just didn’t see a lot of merchandise walking around town.”
The design team also said that marketing the red wolves was easier than the Native American mascot. Melton said the red wolf was also easier to market than A-State’s previous physical mascot, “Red.”—unveiled in 2003 as an unofficial sprit character since the ASU Indian reflected more of the fighting spirit of Native Americans.
“We were just in limbo for so many years. We had ‘Red’, which was a fun character, but it wasn’t—I don’t know if it had the same connection to the university and to our mascot that Howl does.”
Reeves said that it’s humbling seeing people embrace the new mascot and their design.
“I know for me, and I’m sure for [Kelly and Melton] as well, seeing the shirts and seeing the things when you go out in public. Seeing that embraced is really been kind of nice, because I don’t remember recall seeing as much other stuff out there. I think it was widely accepted, you see it a lot more; and watching TV and seeing a news report and seeing a kid in the classroom wearing a Red Wolves shirt is really kind of a nice feeling.”
The benefits for A-State becoming the Red Wolves also brought a new sense of awareness of the red wolf species. Smith said with the red wolf DNA repository on campus, it has created opportunities for future bio-scientists to learn more about endangered species locally.
“Our biological sciences program is becoming more and more involved with the Endangered Red Wolf Center out of St. Louis and other national organizations. There is great learning opportunities through our mascot that simply wouldn’t have been there if we weren’t the red wolves.”
Risch agreed. He said his department has engaged with the public to bring attention to red wolves conservation. Risch said opportunities for students also go beyond the biosciences department.
“We have people in education that have been really involved. We’ve had people started thinking about marketing. In some ways, marketing and education of a species go hand in hand, so, we’ve gotten a lot of people interested in that.”
So, it seems like after multiple nicknames and mascots, the red wolves nickname will be here to stay for a long time. And even though there may be some, like me, who misses ASU’s Native American roots, in a way, they aren’t gone. Because, ASU has traded one Native American nickname for another… the elusive American red wolf.
For A-State Connections, I’m Brandon Tabor.