Steely-eyed, sternly handsome coach Jeff Davis is a menacing presence on the practice field—until he opens his mouth. Then you wonder if Richard Simmons has had a makeover. Beneath a pitiless midmorning sun last August at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Davis's players slouched toward the end of two-a-days, perspiring rivers under their gear. Concern creased Davis's face. Fatigue errors and mental lapses had abounded. Football season loomed a scant two weeks away. Finally he erupted with all the dreadful vehemence of a Broadway choreographer:
"Zippy the Kangaroo, are you alive? Then would you please keep your character going? Northwestern Wildcat, you've got a beautiful tail—now shake it! I want ceaseless tail movement! There, much better! Now we're working."
Davis, as you may have begun to surmise, is not a football coach, nor is this a vignette from anyone's football training camp. We are, rather, eavesdropping on "the bus game," a character-development drill at Mascot University, a five-day cram course in mascotry conducted several times each summer by the Universal Cheerleaders Association.
"Being a mascot is more than a game," says Davis, who's written the book on mascoting—literally. It's entitled Center Stage and Under Cover. "Mascots are evolving. We're seeing more and more elaborate costumes, down to the high school and even junior high levels. It's getting to be a sophisticated, highly trained avocation."
Befitting an enterprise of such depth and nuance, Mascot U's course load includes lessons on everything from emoting properly in costume and walking in character—"If you're a bear, you must move with the lumbering traits of a bear"—to personalized autograph-design counseling and tips on how to get along with college administrators.
"We were delighted to get Jeff," says UCA's effervescent vice-president, Kris Shepherd, once head cheerleader at Arkansas. (She won't say when. She will say it's impolite to ask.) "I think he's just the best there is." Though Davis, 24, longs to be an actor, Shepherd talked him out of a summer's auditioning and drama lessons in Los Angeles to come and teach mascots.
Davis commands great respect in mascot circles. In camp, he had a cast on his left wrist, which he'd fractured last summer in the line of duty. During home games with the Southern League (AA baseball) Memphis Chicks, Davis—the Chick—routinely "hatched" and then flipped from the top of a 10-foot egg. In one game, though, he "went over," cracking his wrist.
As you can see, life has not been all feathered suits and bus rides with cheerleaders for Jeff Davis, maestro of mascots. A decorated high school fullback, he dropped football to pursue cheerleading at Southern Mississippi. Think that didn't take guts? Davis's father is a farmer and former standout jock—named Billy Joe. "He had some problems with the cheerleading," recalls Davis. To his acute disappointment (the son's, not the father's), Jeff didn't quite have what it took to make cheerleader that year. When offered the mascot job, he hurriedly accepted. You know, anything to be close to the squad.
And for four years he never surrendered it. Davis actually received his diploma in his Golden Eagle costume, and when he graduated, popular sentiment called for him to remain on a permanent basis.
Instead, he found work in Louisiana as a pelican. As Seymore D. Fair, he traveled the world plugging the 1984 New Orleans World's Fair. He stumped Europe (where he was thrown out of the Louvre) and made a big splash at the '84 GOP convention in Dallas. He rubbed, er, limbs with numerous chiefs of state and once, at the White House, danced with the wives of Russian diplomats. Billy Joe began to come around.