Over the years, IU has tried several different mascots, none of which have stuck. From the editors of the Indiana Daily Student proposing a goat in 1923 to the official mascot Mr. Hoosier Pride in 1979, most of the failed mascots and proposals have faded from peoples' memories over the years.
Except for one.
From 1965 to 1969, the bison was the official mascot of IU Athletics and is the longest-running mascot in school history. It represents an era that included a trip to the 1968 Rose Bowl and saw head football coach John Pont named the AFCA Coach of the Year in 1967.
Ever since IU ditched the bison 51 years ago, there have been calls to bring it back.
“I got to Bloomington in 2012 and I always wondered, ‘Why does IU not have a mascot?’” said Mike Miller, managing editor of the Crimson Quarry and former IU reporter for the Herald-Times in Bloomington. “I started looking at the history of IU mascots and found that there was a small subset of the fanbase that had yearned for the return of some sort of mascot, and at the top of the list was certainly the bison. The bison has lived on in IU lore.”
The bison mascot originates from the Seal of the State of Indiana, featuring a bucking bison, inspiring its inclusion as the mascot for the state’s flagship university.
Bison are native to Indiana, and in 2016, started roaming free in the state for the first time in almost 200 years.
“They were trying to think of something that would connect with the state of Indiana, and something that not only would personify the state of Indiana as a whole, but obviously the university,” said Chris Williams, who runs the IUArtifacts Twitter account. “An animal that is associated with Indiana because of the seal would be probably as natural of a find to represent the athletic programs at IU.”
According to a 1969 IDS article, the final incarnation of the bison mascot was designed by a Los Angeles firm that had previously made characters for Walt Disney, after IU reached out to Disney himself and he directed them to the firm.
“I love the history about the bison, and I love that there are so many artifacts from the 1960s of the bison, but I don’t know if it would ever be practical to bring it back,” said Williams. “If you think about it, you’re not gonna have a live animal mascot like a lot of other programs, and if you look at the history of the representation of the bison that they used in the late 1960s, it just looked ridiculous.”
Williams said he believes that much of the bison’s popularity stems from it becoming the mascot of the iconic Bloomington bar and restaurant Nick’s English Hut around the same time.
“Twitter can be a false representation of the broader consensus, simply because it's just a fraction of the population that’s engaging, normally some of the more ardent fans,” said Chronic Hoosier, the name of an IU-themed Twitter account — whose owner wishes to remain anonymous — and co-host of the “Mind Your Banners” podcast for the Indianapolis Star. “But it certainly has been something since I started engaging on social media.”
Chronic Hoosier said one of his earliest memories is having an IU bison trash can in his childhood bedroom, which he thought was a bull.
While Twitter is only a portion of the fanbase, IU related bison merchandise has been a popular purchase for Hoosier fans young and old.
“We launched our company in August of 2018, and the bison hoodie has been the most popular item on the site since day one,” said Connor Hitchcock, owner and CEO of Homefield Apparel. “It’s just something that’s different. At IU, we don’t have a mascot, and yet it’s been our best-selling item.”
Homefield Apparel currently sells five items with three original designs that feature the bison, and two bison items are among the three most popular IU items on the website.
Hitchcock said some of the classic IU bison logos on their shirts were also used and recolored by other schools such as Marshall University and the University of Colorado at the same time IU was prominently using the mascot.
Even with the bison’s popularity, there still remains some debate as to how, or if, the university should bring back the long-gone mascot.
Williams said he has concerns about the practicality of bringing back the bison mascot. Without a live animal mascot like other schools across the country, he said he’s concerned the mascot on the sidelines may mirror the “ridiculous” representation used in the late 1960s.
Others, however, have an admiration for the retired beast.
“The worst thing IU could do is bring back this beloved bison and Poochie-fy it, giving it sunglasses and some attitude just to connect with the kids,” Miller said. “If they bring it back, it needs to be a big ‘ol furry boy with no expression. Just a giant, humpbacked, moon-faced ox.”
Regardless of whether or not the bison makes its triumphant return to the sidelines of Memorial Stadium, its popularity certainly is not fading any time soon.
As for if it will ever come back, supporters are still holding out.
“I hold hope that the bison will return, and return in short order,” Miller said. “And with that, I hope that they really lean into the previous incarnation of the bison.”