Winter 2018 - Features

Our Tiger: Celebrating Aubie at 40

Our Tiger: Aubie at 40; There are icons, and then there is Aubie. More than a mascot, more than a symbol, Auburn University’s king of clowning around occupies a unique place in the pantheon of collegiate spirit. The nine-time National Mascot Champion and first-ballot inductee into the Mascot Hall of Fame is the spirit of Auburn. This is his story.; By Derek Herscovici '14

Before Aubie was the friendly tiger we know and love today, he was a vicious beast stalking opponents’ mascots on the covers of Auburn football programs. The creation of Birmingham News Cartoonist Phil Neel, from 1957 until 1976 “the tiger” terrorized every school Auburn played through a limitless arsenal of tricks, traps and cartoon hijinks. The tiger’s personality existed before he had a name.

“I just used the name ‘Aubie’ when I was drawing an Auburn vs. Clemson cover, where the Clemson tiger was called ‘Cousin Clem’,” Neel told the Auburn News. “It had something to do with ‘population control’ in the Tiger Family; Cousin Clem was going to have to be eliminated.”

Neel’s “Aubie covers” ended in 1976, but for generations of Auburn fans, the mischievous character was as iconic as Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. For then-Student Government Association Spirit Director James Lloyd ’79, who was searching for a method to channel the Auburn Spirit in a tangible form, Aubie was the perfect opportunity. But, Lloyd admits, bringing Neel’s character to life was less a priority as was having a tiger for a mascot.

“We were tired of being called ‘Plainsmen’ or ‘War Eagles;’ nobody even knew what we were,” said Lloyd. “We needed something to create more spirit and keep people in the stands, because this was during the Barfield years when football was so bad, everybody was leaving at halftime.”

Lloyd spent the summer of 1978 looking for costume manufacturers, eventually landing on official costumer for Saturday Night Live Brooks & Van Horn. Coincidentally, Aubie was designed by Tony-winning designer Franne Lee, the creator of John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd’s “Killer Bee” costumes. 

Lloyd sent one of Neel’s football programs to Lee for inspiration. She sent him their best tiger-like swatches. Things were running smoothly until Lloyd got the bill: $1,300, exceeding their $400 annual budget. Lloyd asked everyone for assistance; none would take the chance, except Julian Holmes ’62, the assistant director of the alumni association.

Aubie copying referee at a 1979 basketball game

“Holmes told me ‘James, go ahead and order it, I’ll pay for it out of my pocket if we don’t raise the money’,” Lloyd remembers. The suit arrived just in time for the 1979 SEC Basketball Tournament in Birmingham. At Holmes’ insistence, Aubie arrived with Lloyd for his first official public appearance, propelling Auburn over Georgia in the first round, then to a four-overtime thriller against Vanderbilt in the second.

Despite one other appearance, at the 1979 A-Day, Aubie made few public appearances but drew a considerable turnout for the first “Friend of Aubie” tryouts in the summer, which consisted of a six-minute skit competition and a series of one-on-one interviews with Lloyd. After whittling down the candidates, the inaugural class was set: Barry Mask ’80 was the primary “Friend,” while Vicki Leach Woerner ’82 (the first and only woman chosen yet) and Bob Harris ’82 were the designated alternates.

For Mask, who grew up drawing Aubie from Neel’s covers, it was a dream come true, but he admits there was some hesitation toward Aubie in the beginning. No one knew what to do with him, or how to handle him, or what to expect.

“There was a lot of uncertainty, but we knew what we were doing,” said Mask. “We knew we wanted to make him a character, not just a mascot.”

Dancing with the inaugural Tiger Paws, directing traffic at Toomer’s Corner, stepping with Kappa Alpha Psi, clowning around with students on campus — Aubie’s antics soon captivated the Auburn Family, but it was hard work preparing for every appearance. Nothing prepared the Friends for working on hot afternoons, though. The first suit used a quilt-like fabric with shaped padding to give a realistic appearance, but made for a truly miserable experience in the heat. For generations of Friends, it became a rite of passage.

“Oh, it was bad, especially if you were an alternate and put it on behind someone else,” said Lloyd. “It’s one thing if it’s your sweat; it’s another thing if it’s someone else’s sweat.”

Aubie’s debut home football game was Sept. 15, 1979, a one o’clock kickoff. Mask’s plan to have Aubie leap out of a box at center field was nearly derailed by the heat. As a precaution, team equipment manager Frank Cox ’75 had taped a thermometer inside the chest. When announcer Carl Stephens said ‘introducing a new Auburn tradition, Aubie the Tiger!’ Aubie burst out of the box, into a dance routine with the band, then hurried into the tunnel. When Mask checked the thermometer, it exceeded 115 degrees.

As Aubie’s exploits were documented in Sunday newspapers around the South, he became a target for other schools: an ugly boxing match with “Albert,” the University of Florida’s gator mascot; a confrontation with country singer Bobby Goldsboro and the Tennessee Walking Horse; an Iron Bowl entrance involving a houndstooth hat and a plow to mock Bear Bryant’s claim that if Alabama lost, he’d “go home and plow.”

No incident, however, is more infamous than the Georgia Tech game. Days before they traveled to Bobby Dodd Stadium, word spread that a Tech alumnus had put a bounty on Aubie’s tail. The Tech ‘gauntlet’ tradition, where students formed a corridor for the football team to run through, was viewed with unease by the Auburn spirit squad. Aubie was standing beside cheerleader George Godwin ’81 when a security guard ran up and yelled “y’all need to get ya tiger back, they coming after him!”

“About that time we heard a whistle blow and here they come,” recalled Mask. “Aubie had been practicing running in those big feet, so he turned and ran down to the other corner of the field where the Auburn band was sitting. Aubie jumped a fence and climbed up with the band when these students started climbing over. I’ll never forget, band director Johnny Vincent said “hit ’em with your instruments!”

In the end, Aubie’s tail was stolen, but Auburn won the game and the ensuing drama made headlines in the Atlanta Constitution the next day, making him a household name around the SEC.

Viki Woerner ’82 — Aubie #1 (1979-1980)

“Aubie thought it would be a great idea to bring [UGA mascot] Uga a gift, so the agriculture guys wrapped a cow leg in orange and blue cellophane with a big bow that he took to Athens. As he made his way down the field, waving that giant bone to the crowd, a Georgia state trooper stopped him. Aubie was about ten feet from the “dawg house,” where the bulldog was laying on a bag of ice, and they wouldn’t let him near the dog or deliver the bone! The Auburn fans booed as the trooper walked Aubie back to the Auburn side of the 50-yard line.

Mask declined to try out as a Friend again, helping organize the infrastructure around Aubie instead. A major goal was to get a new suit — better ventilation, more mobility, better visibility — using suggestions Mask had sketched. Short on funds again, Mask suggested the first Aubie calendar.

“I said ‘hey, why don’t we do a calendar’,” said Mask. “If the fraternities can sell 500 calendars, we can sell 1,500 with Aubie in it and raise money for the second suit. We shot the first calendar that summer of 1980 and sold out 1,500 calendars in one month.”

Aubie tryouts cartoon, Aubie motioning timeout, Aubie

The final proof for Mask that Aubie had taken off was the dozens of phone calls from other universities — including Alabama — asking how Auburn conducted its mascot tryouts. By the time of Bart Harmon ’83, the auditions included “impromptus,” where candidates interacted with a live crowd. In Mask’s telling, it was the spontaneous reactions that separated the “pretenders from the contenders.” 

Bart Harmon ’83 — Aubie #4 (1982-1983)

“Aubie was always getting in trouble for breaking the rules of the athletic department. He went on the field once (in the end zone) to high-five a player who scored a touchdown. He thought he’d gotten away with it, except the picture of Aubie and the player, Greg Pratt, was on the front page of the
Opelika newspaper. Aubie was called into the office of [Aubie faculty advisor] Ford Laumer
62 and chewed out. However, after Greg Pratt died in practice a few weeks later, that picture was placed in a special memorial section of the old Sewell Hall.”

Unlike Aubie’s ultra-detailed schedule now, in Harmon’s time there wasn’t even a travel budget for Aubie. “For out of town games, Aubie slept on a couch in the male cheerleaders’ hotel room and had to beg Laumer to reimburse him for a kids’ meal,” said Harmon.

It was difficult being a football fan and a Friend at the same time, Harmon admits — besides poor visibility, Aubie is always supposed to face the crowd — but he traded off with alternates to watch big games so Aubie could have fun. Thanks to each incoming generation, Aubie was and remains always on top of the day’s latest dance trends, which brought in the era of the “breakdancing Friend of Aubie” Ken Cope ’85.

1982: Aubie pictured in the calendar cramming for finals
Ken Cope ’85 — Aubie #6 (1984-1985)

“One of Aubie’s favorite things to do was to push the edge of the envelope regarding game-time antics. Once, he learned he’d crossed the line — at a basketball game during the 1984-85 season, Aubie spotted a small kid in an opposing team’s jersey. He seemed a good sport and pretty light, so Aubie held him upside down from his ankles at the free throw line, shot baskets with his shoes, then gently lowered him into a courtside trash can.”

Not everyone was always happy to see Aubie; Cope recalls some football players politely asking him to leave the locker room because he smelled worse than they did. The first football game that Warren Weeks ’86 dressed out for, he sweat out ten pounds.

“We had an unwritten rule: if you throw up in it, you’re staying in it” said Weeks.

Once, on a live telethon, Aubie was coerced into performing backflips and landed on his neck. There was no lasting damage, thankfully, but Aubie would use the same kind of self-effacing humor to warm the hearts of sick children.

Warren Weeks ’86 — Aubie #7 (1985-1986)

“Aubie did a visit to Father Walter Memorial Center for Handicap Children (now Montgomery Children’s Specialty Center); there was a little girl there that was real taken with Aubie and the whole staff there was really nice. Seeing sick kids being able to smile and dance, enjoy life a little bit, when they shouldn’t be in a hospital at that age — that was a time that stood out.”

One of Week’s co-Friends that year was Jef Arnold ’86, a future colonel in the United States Marine Corps who fought in the first Gulf War and who tragically died in a plane crash in 2007. To celebrate Arnold’s life, the AUBIE Fund for Excellence in Support of Auburn University’s Official Mascot was renamed The Jefrey M. Arnold AUBIE Fund for Excellence. It remains the only endowment fund that goes directly into the Aubie Program.

Laurence Cartledge ’89 — Aubie #8 (1986-1987)

“This was the first time Carmen and Jacinta “Juice” Crawford appeared in the pre-game skit. Women of color had never before taken the spotlight with Aubie in the stadium. Carmen and Jacinta played “Robert Palmer Bond Girls” who enforced some dog training on a stand-in Georgia Bulldog mascot (Friend Rob Jameson ’88). Aubie ‘beat’ the dog with a rolled up newspaper and the girls joined in. They immediately jumped up on the cheer podium and started jamming and rapping to “Soulsonic Force” — the student section went wild.”

Aubie, Carmen and Jacinta
David Sharp and Aubie in the BMW
Andy Sokol ’93 — Aubie #9 (1987-1988)

“Aubie was making an appearance at an Easter egg hunt for a local elementary school in the spring of 1987 at the president’s home during James Martin’s administration. It was hot — Aubie was hot and sweaty. Aubie was given the keys to this BMW owned by The Plainsman editor David Sharp. Aubie motioned to David to hop in and they bolted from the event and took a joy ride down College Street. I guess the thrill of hoisting a BMW and driving it down the campus was so exciting Aubie never acknowledged the pain of his tail being caught in the door.”

In 1991, Mike Jernigan ’92, Chris Wood ’92 and Rob Thompson ’91 helped Aubie win his first of nine Universal Cheerleaders Association Mascot National Championships. Auburn had claimed a UCA ‘blue ribbon’ awarded to the top mascot at its annual camp six times in the past, but this was the first national award of its kind.

“Aubie is comparatively young to have made such an accomplishment,” Phil Neel said in the 1992 Glomerata. “It’s a thrill for me that he’s done such a wonderful thing. I am proud of him and the students who work with him.”

Mike Jernigan ’92 — Aubie #10 & #12 (1988-1991)

“Aubie had been practicing backflips for weeks in “the Barn” using mats and the foam pit. The first public backflip he did was at the Georgia football game; he climbed up onto the platform, waved to the ground, and nailed it. As Aubie was midair, the crowd roared. When he landed I thought, “wow, that was a great response,” only to realize that mid-flip, an Auburn player was on his way running for a long score. Aubie takes credit for those points.”

JG Carver ’99 — Aubie #20  (1998-1999)

“Back in ’97, there was an open end zone at Miss. State where the cheerleaders and Aubie were located. There also happened to be an extremely boring game going on. Aubie spotted a John Deere Gator that looked like it needed a test run. Aubie, being a certified master mechanic, thought it a wise and a kind gesture to do their university a favor and test it out behind the end zone. The entire place erupted, then things started looking like a Benny Hill skit — security diving and falling after him. Eventually, they grabbed Aubie and escorted him out of the stadium, which was odd, being that he was doing a favor and all.”

As Aubie’s fame grew, the secrecy surrounding both the program and the identities of the Friends grew also, remaining one of Auburn’s most carefully guarded programs to this day. When picking Auburn, “College Gameday” co-host Lee Corso must don an Auburn helmet, not the mascot’s head like other universities. In 2006, Aubie was formally inducted into the Mascot Hall of Fame, his first time on the ballot. To be formally considered eligible, mascots must have existed for at least 10 years, have an impact on their sport and community, inspire their fans and consistently give memorable and groundbreaking performances.

Aubie on the John Deere Gator and Aubie Claus in Jordan Hare
Tyler Weldon ’10 — Aubie # 30 & 31 (2008-2010)

“One of my proudest memories is creating ‘Aubie Claus.’ Aubie took pictures in Santa’s chair at the local mall around Christmas, but in 2008 I went to [the Director of Community Relations & Spirit] Latisha Durroh ’93 and said ‘we can’t have Aubie wearing red and white. This has to stop.’ She told me if we built it, they’d pay for it; well, my mom is a seamstress, so I found the fabric, ordered it and we built that orange-and-blue Santa suit and premiered it at a basketball game. That’s the thing — you were a Friend of Aubie, but it takes a village and a lot of support. Aubie still wears the suit today, which is a huge point of pride for my mom and I.

Peyton Alsobrook ’14 — Aubie #34 (2012-2013)

“I was a part of the program when Aubie decided he wanted a Twitter account. Aubie really only communicated to fans through e-mail or letters, but that gave him the opportunity to connect with his fans instantly. Today, Aubie has nearly 200,000 followers across social media, which allows Auburn fans to keep up with Aubie even from thousands of miles away.”

2004: Aubie takes a dip with the swim team for the calendar

For Aubie Director Sarah Perez ’16, watching Aubie light faces up at his weekly visits to community events, hospitals and local schools always instilled a sense of pride in the program. But it was preparing for game days that she’ll never forget.

“Getting to be down on the field with Aubie is cool, but I especially loved pre-game events,” said Perez. “Driving the Aubie cart around campus with music blasting, Aubie dancing in the back and getting people pumped up is one of the coolest feelings.”

Today, Aubie’s impact extends beyond Auburn. For Kevin Bryant ’16, it meant traveling to Schmid Elementary in Chicago after a YouTube video of their class reciting the Auburn Creed and singing the fight song went viral.

Kevin Bryant ’16 — Aubie #37 (2015-2016)

“I still remember how shocked they were — not only did university administrators come all the way from Auburn to visit them, but then Aubie also shows up — they were just in awe. The teachers were emotional because they truly understood how special this was, and how much of an impact it would have on the students’ lives. That day, it truly sunk in how just the presence of this furry, mischievous tiger could really impact someone and brighten their day.”

Aubie at Schmid Elementary School

Aubie later welcomed the Schmid Elementary students to Auburn when members of the Chicago Auburn Club flew them down for a weekend on the Plains. “Being a part of their introduction into the Auburn Family will forever be one of the highlights of my time as a Friend of Aubie,” said Bryant.

On September 22, 2018, the “Aubie Family” convened on the Plains to celebrate Aubie’s 40th birthday. Hosted every five years, reunions number in the hundreds and continue to grow each year. These days Aubie makes over 1,300 different appearances throughout the year, requiring precise coordination from a team of Friends and Aubie Directors.

Calling Aubie the mascot of Auburn is imprecise. He’s the physical embodiment of the Auburn Spirit, but he’s also, as Julian Holmes put it, “Auburn’s best-known and most-photographed goodwill ambassador.”

Every Auburn fan has their own description of Aubie, but the one thing they’ll all tell you is Aubie isn’t just a tiger.

He’s our tiger.