Phlash from the Past
History of UW-Green Bay's Mascot
By Pierce Klas
Born from the fire, the Phoenix, a large mythological bird, looks like an eagle, ferocious, but beautiful. The Phoenix, which is found in Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese and Persian mythology, is the master of the sky. When the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay adopted the Phoenix as its mascot, it became the first and only Division I school to allow the Phoenix to take flight. This did not come without a conflict. Soon after the Phoenix was inducted as the new mascot, a controversy erupted at the school that nearly clipped the bird's wings and would put the Phoenix to rest.
During its first year of existence as a four-year university, UW-Green Bay struggled to set itself apart from the larger, better-known university in the state, UW-Madison. Because UW-Green Bay was originally a sister school of UW-Madison, it adopted the badger mascot. After that first year, students decided it was time to create their own mascot. In May 1970, students got their wish.
With a $100 prize for the winning entry, 40 students submitted ideas for a new mascot. Ideas ranging from the GeeBee Guzzlers to the Ecomen quickly found their ways onto a ballot. The students voted on Friday, May 22, 1970, and a new mascot was crowned.
After the Phoenix won and the Omega Kappa fraternity was awarded the prize money, many students began protesting. The Phoenix had received 125 of the 577 votes cast or 22 percent of the vote. On top of that, the early favorite may have been disqualified. According to Chris Sampson, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay's communications director, there was a rumor that the Fighting Tomatoes, the frontrunner in the election, was disqualified because its supporters had supposedly stuffed the ballot box. Another report said this rumor had been created to hide the truth that the Fighting Tomatoes won the vote, but the judges disqualified it because they believed it was a joke.
Donna Lipper, a 1971 alumna and one of the judges, said the Phoenix did not win, but the real winner was so "ludicrous" that the judges decided to remove it from the ballot.
Patrick Madden, another 1971 alumnus, said it was his fault the name was thrown out because the judges ruled that it "had not met the requirements for a 'reproducible drawing.'" Madden had to retouch the art, so it could appear in the school newspaper for the official ballot. The original drawing had a lot of detail that would have blurred together had it been reprinted in a newspaper.
Despite the controversy surrounding the Fighting Tomatoes, Green Bay students came to school the next semester as the Phoenix. According to Madden, the mascot was accepted immediately, and "there was no doubt that it was a great nickname." As for the Tomatoes, they became a little-known story around campus and the controversy surrounding the name faded.
Many students, as well as most faculty members, still like the idea of being Phoenix.
"The concept of the Phoenix is so cool because it lives for a couple thousand years, dies and is reborn from the ashes," said junior human biology major Amanda Fanning. "I think it is the perfect mascot for this school."
Sampson said the Phoenix rising out of the ashes symbolizes bringing in a new way of learning. Because University of Wisconsin-Green Bay was founded on the idea of teaching and learning in new, experimental ways, the Phoenix captured those ideas, he said.
Phlash, the Phoenix
In the original sketches of the mythical creature, the lanky bird had a long neck. This design was difficult to replicate as a costume. The first attempt was a plaster of paris shell molded to fit its wearer's head. When the shell did not fit the successor, new costume designs were created. They became more flexible and promoted interaction with the crowd.
In 1979, the second costume was created. Designed by Miller Armstrong Costume Service of Milwaukee, the creators of the Milwaukee Bucks' mascot, Bango, the second costume was created just as UW-Green Bay had asked. The costume allowed for more movement, so the wearer could interact with the cheerleaders and fans. The costume also did not scare little children, which was a problem with the original costume.
When the new costume arrived, UW-Green Bay chose to name the mascot Phlash.
The costume held up for 11 years before Green Bay men's basketball team created the need for a new costume. The team had reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in 1990, under the coaching of Dick Bennett. The old costume was beat-up by this time and was due for a change, considering it would be seen on national television. In 1991, WNFL Radio raised nearly $2,000 to replace the old costume. With the new costume, Phlash became less fierce and more cartoonish, similar to the costume used today.
Kurt Eggebrecht, a senior German language major, wore the costume from 2007 to 2009. In the costume he wore in 2007, the costume's giant head sat directly atop his shoulders, greatly restricting movement above his neck causing him to have to move his entire body just to move his head. Eggebrecht said the costume was changed in 2009 to a much more comfortable outfit. It allowed his neck full-range of movements and the costume had holes that his hands could stick through to sign autographs and shake hands with children and fans. The previous costume had wings that completely covered his arms.
"The costume is really hot, but I can move freely and be really energized," said the current mascot who wished to remain anonymous.
Eggebrecht agreed that the costume was uncomfortably warm, but he said it was a great experience to go out there and help motivate the crowd. Although the costume has usually generated positive reactions from fans, some students have a problem with the costume.
"I understand that the school's colors are green and white, but I have never seen a green Phoenix in any mythological drawings," said Damon Gutsch, a freshman human biology major at UW-Green Bay. "It's supposed to be born from the flames, so it does not make any sense" Fanning agrees with Gutsch.
"It does seem ridiculous that Phlash is green. I think that they should have used red as the dominant color, considering that red is used on the athletic logo anyway."
Like Phlash, UW-Green Bay's logo has changed many times since its creation. The original logo was simply the abbreviation of the school, UWGB, all in lower-case letters. Later, in the 1970s, there was a silhouette of the Cofrin Library that was added to the lettering. This remained the logo until the 1980s when Green Bay was spelled out, but the UW remained abbreviated. There were many variations of the 1980s version of the logo. It was most commonly spelled in green lettering.
In 1996, the current logo was created. The name of the university was spelled out, and it read University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. An emblem of the Phoenix was placed above the words and the entire logo is green.
The logo became controversial because of a new athletics logo created in 2007. According to Sampson, the new athletics logo was created to sell apparel. The athletics marketing team did not believe that the university logo was flashy enough to sell merchandise, and therefore wanted to change the image for the athletics department in order to sell merchandise at sports events.
Not everyone was happy about the decision and the issue became sensitive. Some people thought it was an effort to separate athletics from the school.
"The logo was made for branding," Athletics Special Events Coordinator Marilyn McCarey said, "It was never meant to be disrespectful or to distance the athletics department from the rest of the school. The Wisconsin Badgers have a separate logo that brings instant recognition to their athletics program. That's all the athletics department at UW-Green Bay is trying to do as well."
Despite controversies about the mascot and logo, UW-Green Bay had created an image many students feel reflects what the school is and who the students are.
Though the true winner of the mascot ballot may never be known, the Phoenix came out victorious and has been the image of the campus for 40 years. However, because UW-Green Bay has strived to remain a unique campus and more campuses have taken on the Phoenix mascot, maybe the Fighting Tomatoes will find justice some day after all.