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Mascot Audition: Dog Day Afternoon

Yale searches for a new Handsome Dan

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By Ben Reiter

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A previous Dan beat Mugsy to SI's cover in 1956.
Jerry Cooke
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No bull: The dogs' response to crimson was key.
Diana Eliazov

Back in 1889 when Yale students wanted an animal to symbolize their football team's grit and pluck, the process was simple: One of them bought a bulldog for five dollars from a local blacksmith. Handsome Dan, they called the fierce little creature, and a tradition was born. But when Handsome Dan XV died of a possible heart attack last January after nine years on the job, finding a suitable replacement for America's longest-running live-animal mascot was not easy. First, came a press release, followed by stories in newspapers and on radio about the school's search for canine candidates, as the release put it, "athletic enough to climb stairs, walk the sidelines of a game for four quarters and dodge out-of-bounds football players." Then Steve Conn, Yale's director of sports publicity, evaluated essays and photos from 40 applicants, and enlisted Chris Getman, Handsome Dan XV's caretaker, to help him winnow the field to 10. On April 26, as the Yale Precision Marching Band played How Much Is that Doggie in the Window and several hundred spectators gathered on the New Haven, Conn., campus to watch, the finalists competed to become -- with apologies to Georgia's UGA -- college sports' boss bulldog.

Even though Handsome Dan earns no money for prowling the sidelines at home games (and, often, away games, graduation ceremonies and hockey matches as well), the stakes felt high and the tension was palpable. Five judges evaluated the dogs on their ability to walk near the band without getting flustered, and also observed the animals' reactions to a crimson blanket (symbolizing Harvard, of course) and a stuffed-toy tiger (Princeton) that band members waved. Judge Jeff Mroz, Yale's quarterback, said he was also interested in "how the dogs interact with little kids." Cheerleader Christie Yang, another judge, said she was "looking for a dog that smells clean."

The dogs quickly sorted themselves out according to ability. A four-month-old male named Genugh seemed terrified by the proceedings and spent most of the day nestled in his female owner's arms. Meanwhile, five-year-old Lars emerged as an early favorite after he repeatedly lunged for the tiger with a fury that would have made Handsome Dan I proud. (Legend has it that the original mascot, who now sits stuffed in a gymnasium trophy room, would work himself into a foamy rage when told to "speak to Harvard.")

The winner, though, was two-year-old Mugsy, who impressed the judges with his size (69 pounds, the largest there) and his decision to focus on the red blanket instead of the tiger. "We beat Princeton three of four years," Mroz said. "We want to beat Harvard." Mugsy's owner, Bob Sansone, a 63-year-old middle school language arts teacher from nearby Hamden, said he looked forward to attending games with his pet: "He loves big crowds," Sansone said.

Finally, the band played the school's Bulldog fight song, and Mugsy put his paw print on a contract, agreeing "to serve as the Yale University Athletics mascot, to be patient with young and old alike and to bring good fortune to the playing fields." As the crowd thinned and the losers trotted back to anonymity, Sansone took out Mugsy's favorite toy, a football, and hurled it across the quad. Then Handsome Dan XVI tore happily after it, his tongue flapping in the wind.

Issue date: May 9, 2005

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