You don't know what it was like in 1979. Even if you were alive in 1979, you probably have kind of a hard time putting your finger on it. The world was in flux and anxious about it, three thousand different species of decline gnawed on every institution worldwide, it was impossible to get a good meal anywhere in the United States. But if the United States of 1979 was seething and panicked and perilously close to being both broken and broke, it was also a place where a college junior could draw a hasty sketch of distended, google-eyed gumdrop for an alumni relations official and, instead of being escorted bodily from the room by security staffers, be given $300 to turn it into an actual real-life foam-and-felt mascot. In a very real way, Big Red, the beloved and confounding mascot of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, could only have been born in 1979.
This means that, while it's tough to tell given his youthful vibe and remarkable physique, Big Red is squarely in the latter portion of his late thirties. The years are no easier on mascots than they are on anyone else; given the strain of myriad children's birthday parties and the odd lawsuit against Silvio Berlusconi-funded Italian copycat creatures, they are if anything much more punishing. Big Red, who has achieved a sort of superstardom among college mascots, does not take many days off. "Oh my goodness," WKU's assistant AD for marketing Zack McKay said when I asked how many times someone steps into Big Red's Jujube cavern in a given year. "At least 200 times, and that doesn't even include sporting events."
This is the usual mascot stuff—children's parties, fan events, ribbon cuttings, giving away the occasional bride at a wedding or subbing for a flower girl at a different wedding—but it is punishing. Even under the care of professionals like McKay and Paula Davids, a WKU marketing assistant who proudly refers to herself as "Big Red's mom," this means that the lifespan of a Big Red suit is short. "We try to get one every year, in a perfect world," McKay said. "But it mostly winds up being every other year." With another Big Red suit ready to be decommissioned—"we like to call that mascot heaven," McKay says—WKU's athletic department has turned to the general public to crowdfund the $7000 cost of purchasing the next Big Red.
The website that the athletic department set up looks like a standard Kickstarter-style crowdfunding page, with an explanatory video and exhortatory text and various tiers for contribution, but doesn't quite work like one. There are not specific rewards tied to the various tiers. The SpiritFunder program, which WKU developed itself, is not set up for that; the school explains that it was built to fund specific projects, and cannot be used to fund faculty or staff salaries or tuition funds. The Big Red campaign is one of SpiritFunder's three pilot programs.
The need for a new Big Red costume is, McKay says, fairly urgent; the options for funding its purchase are limited. "When things are bought with state funds," McKay explains, "it gets kind of tricky to do things like auction off a hand." Some creativity was required, but McKay says the idea had to do with more than money. The campaign's goal was not just to refresh the proverbial felt hillock, but to bring fans closer to Big Red himself. "We thought it could be fun for people to be able to point to Big Red and say, 'I helped with that,'" McKay said.
He is, unsurprisingly, not alone in this opinion; the campaign, which began on Monday, raised nearly $1,500 in its first 24 hours and was shared more than 500 times on Facebook. There is already one donor at the $1,000 Big Red Ultimate Fan level. "We are very surprised," McKay says. "We knew Big Red was loved by all, but this has been tremendous so far." If the campaign surpasses $7000, McKay says that the additional funds will go towards "further enhancements to the Big Red program," such as providing shoes for the student performers that wear the costume.
Let's agree, for the moment, not to worry too much about the bummer aspects of a public institution needing to go begging before the public. Let's give a pass, too, to the broader creepshow weirdness of college sports funding. Let's keep our focus squarely on the girthy creature at the center of this campaign. The world has its problems, as it always has; 1979 is both a long time ago and yet still very much with us in the dreariest ways. But consider this: there are still people out there who look at Big Red, in all his goofy rotundity, and see their very own big red son. They are willing to pay to keep him looking good. This seems significant. This seems, I would even say, very good.