A DAY TO REMEMBER
Early one April morning in 1979, Dr. Ray Bowman walked
around campus on a mission. Placing signs where students would see them, Bowman
hoped to influence the election of a mascot at the University of North Florida.
History shows he succeeded. As recorded in UNF’s archives,
the campaign signs helped sway the vote toward the osprey, and prevented future
students from being called armadillos or seagulls.
Reflecting back on that morning 37 years ago, Bowman, now a
retired professor emeritus of chemistry, said the signs encouraged students to
write-in an osprey vote, as the majestic hawk wasn’t one of the creatures
listed on the ballot. Adorned with a drawing created by art student Julie
Mercer, the signs touted the osprey’s beauty and its benevolent nature.
Students responded with a 47 percent write-in vote, setting
the stage for an osprey win. “The osprey was just a much better choice for a
mascot,” Bowman said.
But there’s more to the story, according to Bowman.
In the early days when there was only idle talk about
selecting a mascot, Bowman and colleague Dr. William Caldwell, then-chair of
the Department of Mathematical Sciences, decided to have some fun. Using the
letters of armadillo spelled backward, Caldwell wrote letters to UNF’s student
newspaper, the Spinnaker, under the name of Olli Damra. Bowman championed the
manatee as writer e.e. tanam.
“And he would make fun of the manatees saying they had
chubby knees,” Bowman said. “And I would call armadillos nature’s speed bumps,
and we went back and forth. We were mostly having fun and really didn’t want
either one as a mascot.”
Caldwell, who retired from UNF in 2007, remembered
challenging each other to duels. “And Bowman wrote that the armadillo’s worst
enemy was a Buick,” Caldwell said. “The articles were good reading, and
everyone kept picking up the Spinnaker to see what the latest challenge would
be. No one knew it was us doing the writing.”
Soon reporters from the Jacksonville Journal and The Florida
Times-Union got in on the act.
“They would send reporters out and write articles about
people who were championing certain animals,” Bowman said. “They were having a
ball with it. It wasn’t a controversy really, more of a competition.”
Before the election, Bowman and Caldwell became concerned
that the armadillo and manatee had gotten too much attention, and agreed that
an osprey would make a much better mascot. A plan was hatched.
“I had been observing the elections in Jacksonville and
realized the way to win an election was with yard signs,” Bowman said. “Bill
and I agreed, he paid for the signs, and I placed them on campus the morning of
“I’m just glad it worked, and now the University has a
wonderful mascot,” Bowman said.
Caldwell agreed. “It’s a great mascot,” he said. “It really is.
I’m pleased that I had a part in it.”
A MASCOT OF OUR OWN
Acknowledging the student vote and subsequent approval from
alumni, President Thomas G. Carpenter announced the osprey as the official UNF
mascot at a November 1979 news conference. The bird of prey that had fished the
campus lakes since the school opened finally had been accepted by the
educational community as one of its own.
No longer did the University have to stand idly by before
the parade of other Florida mascots like the gator, dolphin, eagle and panther.
Yet the UNF mascot had no costume, no name and no sports
fans to entertain.
The sports fans arrived first. Four years after choosing the
osprey, UNF began its intercollegiate athletics program, becoming a member of
the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in 1983.
Five years after that the Spinnaker revealed the mascot
costume in a January 1988 photo, reporting that the outfit cost more than $800.
The image showed a tall, white osprey-like creature in a ballcap holding a bat
and standing next to baseball coach Dusty Rhodes.
Rhodes, who joined UNF in 1986, founded the UNF baseball
program and served as head coach from 1988 –2010. He remembers those early
years of sports at UNF and the first time the mascot appeared at a game.
“When you looked around at those times, you would see the
mascot for the University of Miami on TV,” Rhodes said. “So having a mascot at
UNF was a good thing. It really connected the students to the athletics and
solidified that UNF officially had sports teams.”
As the program evolved, the mascot also connected the school
to the city, Rhodes recalled. When the Jacksonville Suns mascot, Southpaw, had
a birthday, the Suns would invite all the mascots from the area to his birthday
“There were a lot of people who attended, so it really made
a difference for the visibility of the University and its sports program.”
Rhodes arrived at UNF after the students had selected the
mascot, but said he was always happy they chose the graceful osprey as the
symbol to represent UNF.
So with sports teams in place and the costume ready to go,
the University, with the Presidential Envoys leading the charge, asked for name
In response, students, faculty and staff submitted 15 “O”
names — Omar, Oscar, Otis, Ollie, Opie, Orvil, Otto and Ozzie, as well as a
variety of others bringing the total to 34. Voters submitted their top three
choices, and Ozzie was it!
The University created a plaque to immortalize those who
entered the Ozzie name into the contest: John James Gillespie, Dottie Kent,
Jeff McBride, Lynne Raiser, Susanne Lowery and Lori Weitzel.
Only one thing remained: finding someone to bring the
character to life. Tryouts produced three students whose names were announced
in the Spinnaker: Joe Rickey as captain, Beth Funk and Sandee Winnow as
On March 6, 1988, 16 years after UNF had opened its doors,
Ozzie the Osprey took to the sidelines at a statewide-televised baseball game
for everyone to see.
Year after year, auditions attracted those willing to wear
the bird suit. Occasionally, a performer’s photo would appear in the student
newspaper, but more often than not, they remained anonymous.
The only visible change over the years was the outfit. After
that first costume, Ozzie’s look would change three more times to his
Robin Redfearn, now a copy editor with The New York Times,
wore the original costume for the first time in 1990 as a sophomore. She worked
as a student assistant in the Division of University Relations, which handled
“They needed someone to perform for an event and couldn’t
find anyone,” Redfearn recalled. “They said, ‘You’d fit. Here, try it on.’”
For the next year, Redfearn was one of three or four
students who would switch out Ozzie duties. A few of her performances included
a baseball game, a fundraising event at the Boathouse and a reading event at
the Jacksonville Landing.
“The outside events were incredibly hot, and the suit
smelled to high heaven,” Redfearn said laughing. “I was the first one to
actually wash it, which made a world of difference.”
People also told her she waddled in the suit, which Redfearn
said couldn’t be helped because the tail was so heavy. The only comfort she
recalled was wearing the huge shoes, which took some practice to walk in but
felt like soft slippers.
Despite it all, Redfearn said she actually had a lot of fun
and is proud of what she did. “And when people ask, ‘What’s the strangest thing
about you?’ I say, ‘I was a college mascot,’ and they say ‘What?’ It’s a nice
trivia thing to have in your back pocket when you need a conversation starter.”
According to records from the library’s Special Collections,
the notion of a female mascot surfaced in the fall of 1994. The Advisory
Council of Student Organization Presidents approved of the idea, purchased new
costumes and agreed to the name Harriet, chosen from the 1950s show “The
Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Matching white and blue costumes featured the
No. 19 for Harriet and the No. 72 for Ozzie, so spectators would see the year
UNF opened its doors when the duo stood together.
Elmer Pearsol, a groundskeeper at UNF, remembers that
costume well. It was the first one he performed in as Ozzie, a job he
“To me it was a gift,” Pearsol said. “I enjoyed it so much
because I could carry on as much as I wanted in the costume. I always had fun,
but as I told other student mascots, you always have to remember you are
representing the University.”
Pearsol recalled the many antics he performed, including
flips on the court, tossing basketballs from midcourt and even staging laughs
with fake 500-pound dumbbells. He and Harriet would mop each other’s brows and
take turns straining to lift the weights.
“When it was all over, a little cheerleader would come over
and pick up both dumbbells and carry them off,” Pearsol said. “Everybody would
In 2002, a new costume made the mascot look a little more
“We took Ozzie and Harriet to as many places as we could,”
Pearsol said. “So people realized, ‘Hey, the University of North Florida has a
In the fall of 2004, Kristen Iannuzzi transferred to UNF as
a junior, stepped into the Harriet costume and performed until she graduated
two years later. Now a teacher with Orange County Public Schools in Central
Florida, Iannuzzi said the view from inside is unique. “You get to see the
reaction of the crowd,” she said. “You get to see school spirit from the center
of school spirit.”
A former mascot all four years of high school, Iannuzzi
said, “Getting to see kids smile and being able to interact with the fans was
She recalled working with Pearsol. When health issues forced
his retirement, Iannuzzi continued as Harriet, sometimes performing alone.
“I would dance with the dance team and perform stunts with
the cheerleaders,” Iannuzzi said.
Pearsol said he hated giving up the mascot gig. “But it was
never about the person in the suit,” Pearsol said. “It was about Ozzie. He’s
the University of North Florida.”
A DEVOTED OZZIE, DIVISION 1 AND A BIGGER STAGE
Matt Biegun stepped into the Ozzie suit in 2007, never
imaging it would be 2016 before he stepped out. During the Biegun decade, UNF
sports took off, Ozzie received an updated look and Harriet stopped performing
by his side.
“The suits are very expensive,” Biegun said, “and I think a
decision was made to go with just one mascot.”
Biegun, who retires this fall, designed the current Ozzie
costume, saying he was very particular about the look of Ozzie and the
performance ease of the costume. He insisted Ozzie look friendly so children
would not be afraid. He chose the body shape, head design and the big bird’s
oversize shoes, working with three different companies to make the sections.
The new suit finally came together in 2009, the same year
UNF became competition eligible in NCAA Division 1 sports. Today, Ozzie is 7
feet 2 inches tall. When in costume and kids would ask his shoe size, Biegun
said he would hold up two fingers on each hand for size 22. “They are massive,”
Over the years, Biegun created a personality for Ozzie and
may long be remembered for introducing the belly roll, which he said he stole
from the Philly Fanatic and every other mascot out there. “All mascots do some
form of that, I just made it a little different,” Biegun said. “Mine’s kind of
slower, and if I’m trying to get someone’s attention, the belly roll is real
In 2015, Biegun, as mascot, attracted national attention.
Ozzie the Osprey was selected by Sports Illustrated as one of the top 12
mascots of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, ranking No. 10. His signature
belly roll was on full display during the men’s basketball team’s first-round
game in Dayton, Ohio.
As the longest-running mascot to date, Biegun said he
intended to perform as mascot for maybe a year or two. Yet he kept coming back.
For him, the allure of performing was all about the laughter and the kids.
“There’s just something about getting that laugh,” he said.
“There’s an addiction to that. If I can make somebody smile for that split
second and forget any worries or fears they’ve got in their life, that’s what
it’s all about.” The greatest Ozzie benefits go to the kids, Biegun said,
explaining that he would always stop whatever he was doing to amuse a child.
“Ozzie is so much bigger than I could ever be,” Biegun said.
“Who would have ever guessed that this 30-plus pounds of fur, plastic and foam
would become the icon of a rising university?”
He knows whoever suits up next will craft a new personality
for Ozzie, and he’s fine with that. He simply wants to see Ozzie endure.
Athletic Director Lee Moon thinks the person in the suit
matters as well. He said he always enjoyed watching kids react to Matt as
Ozzie, running up to him to get hugs. Because the fan experience is such a
driving force in athletics, having a mascot makes a difference and having a
talented mascot adds that much more, Moon said.
“When you get a great mascot like Matt’s been for us over
the years, you’re very lucky,” Moon said. “It takes a special talent to do what
he’s done, to interact with the crowd and the children the way he does. He’s
going to be hard to replace.”
Auditions for the new Ozzie were scheduled in late August.