Wazoo Revealed! On the trail of the elusive WSU mascot

August 9, 2011

Currents Magazine, Featured

By Brett Ayers

Ever wondered who’s the real Wazoo?

This reporter did. With Homecoming in mind, I began asking around. Uncharacteristically for the always friendly Winona State community, I ran into a brick wall.

It seems that the person filling the costume of Wazoo, the beloved Winona State mascot, is a closely guarded secret. Perhaps it’s part of the Warrior code of silence: never reveal your plan of attack. Name, rank, and serial number only.

But I did talk to a few people who had surprising insight into the origins of Wazoo, although they all denied ever filling his oversized Warrior head, muscular chest plate, and Trojan sandals.

According to professor Peter Henderson’s history of Winona State, Her Star Shall Not Dim, the college called itself the “Peds,” short for “Pedagogists,” throughout the 1920s. That proved to be a problem, however, because archrival La Crosse State Teachers College used the same name for its sports teams at the time. It’s unclear what a “Pedagogists” costume might have looked like.

In 1936, Winona State students decided to find a new nickname. Whatever was selected, purple would be a part of the look. Purple and white had been the official school colors since 1895, chosen just before Winona played its first football game.

Students came up with a number of mascot ideas, some reflective of the local area such as “Eagles,” others creative but politically incorrect like “Windians.”

After a week of campaigning, “Warriors” eventually won out. “Werewolves” came in a close second, possibly inspired by the movie Werewolves of London that debuted in theaters the year before.

The Warrior slowly replaced “Peds” and came into wider use during the 1950s, Henderson says in his book. One longtime mascot, who cannot be named, believes that the Warrior has always been portrayed as a Trojan or Spartan foot soldier rather than as a Native American warrior. In 2005, the NCAA deemed that the Winona State Warrior did not refer to Native American culture in the organization’s effort to ban offensive mascots in intercollegiate athletics.

Cheer squads were active throughout the fifties and sixties — the “Warriorettes” even emerged in 1958 to perform at halftimes – but there’s little evidence of an actual Warrior mascot character until much later. The same longtime mascot cited above believes the first Warrior mascot came to life in 1984 or 1985, following an unexplainable one-year experiment with a Purple Penguin costume.

The 1984-85 mascot consisted of just a Warrior head. Another Wazoo insider recalls that the Prentice-Lucas Residence Hall Council commissioned the first “full-on” mascot costume in 1999.

In 2006, the Warrior got a complete makeover, led by Federated Insurance employee and alumnus Jim Meyer ’85 and funded by a number of supporters. This version of Wazoo – the same one fans see today –was a winner. The men’s basketball team won its first national championship a few months after it was introduced.

Eventually, Wazoo acquired a carbon fiber chariot built by Winona State composite materials engineering students. That high-tech solution proved safer than an entrance to Maxwell Field by horse, which had been tried once and quickly abandoned after a nervous Warrior was nearly thrown to the turf.

Wazoo has appeared in the usual places over the years, at football and basketball games, Homecoming parades, and university events. But the Warrior has found itself in unexpected places, too: center field in the Metrodome; on a float at the Steamboat Days Parade; roaming the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair; cheering at a John Marshall High School game in Rochester. One current mascot dreams of throwing out the first pitch to open Twins game at Target Field.

And whither the name, “Wazoo?” Memories were foggy and its origins became one of the more difficult things to verify. Research revealed that it’s a fairly recent development, the result of a campus-wide naming contest in 2004. The winning moniker reflects a phonetic approximation of pronouncing of letters “W-S-U.”

A strict code of conduct has developed among wearers of the Warrior. Never dress or undress in public. No negative gestures. Never touch the referees. The outside does what you do inside, so keep smiling no matter what. Always clean the foam interior, because it can get pretty sweaty in there.

But we’ll never really know the “real” Wazoo, what goes on among the inner circle of mascot alumni. Perhaps it’s better to sit back, watch the game, and join the cheers.

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About Winona State University

Founded in 1858, Winona State University is a comprehensive public university with more than 8,500 students. The oldest member of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, Winona State offers 80 undergraduate, pre-professional, licensure, graduate, and doctorate programs on its three campuses: the original Main Campus in Winona, the West Campus in Winona, and Winona State University-Rochester.

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