The Year of the Mountaineer
WVU’s mascot and traditions, not to mention the state’s image, are on display like never before.
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Wearing heavy, custom buckskins and a real coonskin hat, the Mountaineer carries not just the weight of his mascot’s uniform, but the weight of West Virginia on his back. The tradition began more than 60 years ago, and while the outfit looks nearly the same, the responsibilities of the man—or woman—in buckskins have grown.
The Mountaineer attends approximately 250 events outside the realm of athletics each year, according to Sonja Wilson, the Mountaineer mascot advisor. The position is technically unpaid—mascots receive a tuition waiver for that year—but the experience is invaluable. On April 20, 2012, Jonathan Kimble officially became WVU’s 62nd mascot. Between that day and mid-June, the Franklin native had already made more than 80 public appearances. “In one week, I’ve traveled probably about 2,500 miles,” he says with a smile. “I’ve been to Paw Paw, Marlinton, Parkersburg, Wheeling, Charleston. I’m everywhere.” Over the summer, he traveled to Los Angeles to tape a commercial, went to Texas for a convention, and attended countless parades and alumni events.
The job just keeps getting bigger as the face of WVU’s mascot becomes more and more recognizable across the U.S. This year, the Mountaineer’s recognition will reach new heights as WVU enters the Big 12 Conference and the mascot, clad for adventure, introduces himself to people in Texas, Kansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma. “The Mountaineer is one of the most beloved traditions we have, not only at WVU, but for the state of West Virginia,” says Sonja. “Our Mountaineer embodies our state—strength, character, wisdom. Our Mountaineer is so much more than other school mascots.”
Not just anyone can be the Mountaineer. There’s a rigorous application process that includes essay questions and references. A selection committee—made up of alumni, faculty, athletic staff, and students from Mountain Honorary—looks for students who can handle the responsibility and time commitment, as well as be able to speak and write well. “If they’ve been involved in a ton of things before that really helps them when they get into this job—and it is a job,” Sonja says. “Once you’re the Mountaineer, you’re the Mountaineer whether you’re in the buckskins or not.”
The committee interviews the top 10 contenders. “There are 15 people around you just grilling you for a half-hour,” Jonathan says. From there, four are chosen for a cheer-off at a WVU basketball game. Finalists put on the buckskins and are judged on their interaction with the crowd and ability to handle the gun. From the moment Jonathan took the court, he was hooked. “That’s my favorite thing. I go to every single game—soccer, basketball, volleyball, football. I’m always there anyway so I know all of the people and I’ve made a lot of friends.”
HISTORY & CONTROVERSY
Some controversy exists around when the Mountaineer mascot tradition truly began. In 1927, the university had its first Mountaineer, but he wasn’t official. Boyd H. “Slim” Arnold, Mountaineer in 1937, was the first to be recognized by WVU.
Almost all of the mascots have gone on to successful careers. When you hear West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant speak, her tenure as the first female Mountaineer in 1990 often comes up. “She persevered a lot when she was the Mountaineer,” Sonja says. “People would throw cups at her. They would chant, ‘We don’t want a mountain deer. Bring us back our Mountaineer.’” But taunting only made Natalie stronger. Since then, one other female has been the Mountaineer—Rebecca Durst in 2009. Natalie says her stint as mascot helped her become who she is today. She remembers people yelling at her to “get in the kitchen,” and one particular instance when she traveled with the team to Virginia Tech. “They yelled, ‘We want a man!’ I said, ‘So do I!’ You have to use humor,” she laughs.
Before the Mountaineer, Natalie was the mascot for the North Marion High School Huskies, outside of Fairmont. She was Super Dog, wearing a costume made by her mother and dribbling the basketball between her legs, being goofy, and having fun. “I can remember my mom taking me to WVU orientation. She said, ‘You know if they had a funny sidekick to the Mountaineer, you could be it.’ But the Mountaineer was more serious.” By the time Natalie approached her senior year of college, she decided she could do it. She was active in student government, in a sorority, and felt confident. After the application process, she was one of the top two contenders, and she won, despite being booed by some in the crowd. “I wanted football season to come around so I could prove myself.”
All summer, Natalie attended alumni events and even worked in the Secretary of State’s office. She wanted to represent both WVU and the state. “While there were some people who didn’t like the idea of a woman Mountaineer, some people did. There were many mothers who wanted their children to see this,” she says.
When someone tells you you can’t do something, you’ll succeed if you’re doing it for the right reasons, Natalie says. “That can translate to anything. Do it because you want to do it and you’ll be successful.” Natalie graduated from WVU in 1991 with a journalism degree and went on to be a television reporter before running for office. She says Jonathan might be up for more scrutiny than recent Mountaineers as WVU enters the Big 12. “He does have a little extra responsibility because it will be the first time other schools are paying attention to us—as a team, as a state, as Mountaineers. They are going to ask, ‘Who is this guy running around shooting a gun off?’”
As each Mountaineer’s term ends, Sonja says passing the torch is difficult. “It’s hard for them to give that away.” Rock Wilson was the only official Mountaineer to serve three years—from 1991 through 1993. “It was totally life-changing. I’m just an average boy from small-town West Virginia, but I always loved the Mountaineers,” the Harrisville native says. He remembers working with 1981 Mountaineer Ed Cokeley’s father putting up hay in Ritchie County, when he sometimes got to work side by side with Ed. “I thought it was so cool to be hanging out with the Mountaineer,” he recalls. “The first thing I did at WVU was try out to be the Mountaineer. For the first thee years, I failed. But I was determined.” Then, he says he was liked so much he got to stick around. “Other than my children, being the Mountaineer has been one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.”
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