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The evolution of Ozzie

First UNF mascot

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 the election.

 

“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 party.

 

“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 suggestions.

 

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 alternates.

 

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.

 

Ozzie at game with UNF fans THE OZZIES

 

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 present-day attire.

 

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 Ozzie’s appearances.

 

“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 absolutely loved.

 

“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 go crazy.”

 

In 2002, a new costume made the mascot look a little more Osprey-like.

 

“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 mascot.’”

 

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 always great.”

 

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,” he said.

 

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 slow.”

 

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?”Ozzie with student fan taking selfie

 

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.