Birth of the bird: Video recalls how the Phoenix got its name

UW-Green Bay Phoenix mascotViewers of the nationally cablecast Green Bay/Butler game will hear about one of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s most distinctive features: its Phoenix mascot.

The game matching the top two men’s teams in the Horizon League tips off at 8 p.m. Friday (Jan. 29), live from the Resch Center in Green Bay. As part of every game during what ESPNU calls “Campus Connection Week,” the network is making time available for student-generated content from the host schools.

At UW-Green Bay, the student staff of the closed-circuit campus television station, Phlash TV (Channel 20), elected to submit a short feature on the Phoenix mascot and its history.

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The students led by sports director Sarah Bielejeski gathered vintage newsclips and photos of early incarnations of the Phoenix mascot for the piece. They also interviewed alumni and fans including graduating senior Candace Hulsey, class of 2010, longtime booster Rich Spangenberg, class of ’71, and University communications director Christopher Sampson, also a former UW-Green Bay student.

(Click thumbnails to enter slideshow view.)
Early UW-Green Bay Phoenix mascot imagesEarly UW-Green Bay Phoenix mascot imagesEarly UW-Green Bay Phoenix mascot imagesEarly UW-Green Bay Phoenix mascot imagesEarly UW-Green Bay Phoenix mascot imagesEarly UW-Green Bay Phoenix mascot imagesEarly UW-Green Bay Phoenix mascot imagesEarly UW-Green Bay Phoenix mascot images

The group’s adviser, staff member Erek Steliga of Computing and Information Technology, says ESPNU has not told them precisely when the “Extra Credit” segment will air during the game. The cut-in will be a pared-down version of the full two-minute video (archived above).

For decades, UW-Green Bay was the only NCAA Division I sports program with the nickname “Phoenix.” Then, a few years ago, D-1 newcomer Elon College in North Carolina decided there should be two Phoenix. (Phoenixes? Phoeni? It’s a singular noun, which UW-Green Bay officials say perfectly reflects the closeness of the program, campus and community.) At the small-college level, Swarthmore College and Wilson College have also jumped on the Phoenix bandwagon.

UW-Green Bay embraced “Phoenix” as a replacement for “Bay Badgers” in May 1970, when students voted in a pick-the-mascot contest run by the student newspaper, the Fourth Estate.

UWGB pennant

The move came as UW-Green Bay prepared to graduate its first class of seniors and conclude its first year of intercollegiate competition. It was time to cut the cord with the flagship parent campus in Madison and send the school’s first-year sports emblem — a water-skiing Bucky Badger — on permanent vacation.

According to a 1992 account written by Sampson for the Inside UWGB campus magazine, more than 40 choices were suggested.

The Earthmen, Eco-nauts, The Environmentalists and E-Gulls (“they clean up the environment”) played to a principal academic emphasis of the new school. Bison, Dolphins, Sharks and Beavers also billed themselves as eco-friendly. Nicolets paid homage to a 17th century European explorer, while Loggers boasted a rough outdoors spirit.

A favorite bit of early UWGB lore is that massive vote fraud pushed the off-beat entry “Tomatoes” to a first-place finish. The newspaper’s editor, Patrick Madden, class of ’71, even confirms that version.

“(The newspaper) was running the election,” Madden said in a 1992 interview. “On the last day before publication some guy came in with a sketch of a tomato he had made in blue ink on notebook paper.”

Madden had to re-touch the art before it could appear in the newspaper on the official ballot. When Tomatoes squeaked to a 10-vote victory, as Madden tells the story, he revisited the rule book and declared the entry had not met the requirements for a “reproducible drawing.”

He also spared himself the agony of having to tell Founding Chancellor Edward Weidner that his beloved institution would have a Fighting Tomato as its mascot, its teams would have tomato-red jerseys, and its fans would rally players with shouts of “C’mon Tomatoes, ketch up!”

“Phoenix was accepted right away,” says Madden, who went on to a distinguished law career as a Wisconsin circuit court judge. “And there’s been no question it has been a great nickname.”

Inside magazine cover, spring 1992 issue
For a PDF of the “Phoenix-Tomatoes” article from the campus Inside magazine, click here.