When it comes to the state’s most well-known movers and shakers, two characters have stolen the show for decades. Simultaneously adored and loathed by legions in both the state and nation, The Tiger, at Clemson University, and Cocky, from the University of South Carolina, are two of the state’s most popular and beloved representatives.
How did a mischievous orange fuzzball and a giant garnet-colored bird become symbols of the hottest collegiate rivalries that stretch back centuries? Apparently, it was dumb luck for one, while the other had to battle it out with a Goliath of a teammate for several years. Mascot seniority can only go to one, and in the Who’s Been Around the Longest Bowl, that designation goes to The Tiger.
The story goes, according to mascot anthology Clemson Through the Eyes of The Tiger, that The Tiger made his first appearance at the Gator Bowl in 1952. Alum Roy Southerlin happened upon the suit in the Clemson University Field House and decided to take the role upon himself.
For Clemson alum Mike Bays, now an IT recruiter, the journey into the fur suit was a bit more complicated. Before he was The Tiger from 1994 to 1997, Mike would visit the Clemson campus with his family to watch games and visit with his sister, Allison Farkas, who attended the school and played in the band. “During the games, I was always watching The Tiger, wondering what he would do,” he says. “I’d think ‘Oh, it’d be funny if he did this or that,’ not ever thinking that I’d one day go to school there myself and wind up trying out.”
As a freshman, Mike got a job moving equipment for the marching band; as a result, he ended up in the same travel group as the cheerleaders, sports operations staff, and mascots. “I got to know the guy who was the mascot. He always saw me acting up and dancing around in the stands with the band.”
One day Mike approached him to inquire about what it took to do the job, and before he knew it, he had tried out and been selected as the first-string mascot. Because the second-string mascot was a cheerleader, most appearances were made by Mike. “I loved it and took it so seriously. I did it for football, baseball, and basketball,” he says with a laugh. “During football season, I didn’t want anyone else in the suit. I’d earned it!”
The Tiger is known for his tradition of doing pushups that reflect the score of the game. Mike often stayed in-suit for entire games with no backup, so that meant a lot of pushups — 2,216 over his career, to be exact. Mike is not only the feline all-time pushup record holder, he also placed third in the national mascot championships in 1996.
The University of South Carolina had no official mascot until 1971. A fearsome 7-foot-tall fighting rooster dubbed descriptively as “The Rooster” began scratching around in the 1970s. The cumbersome costume led to the hatching of a more approachable and comfortable cartoon-style mascot at the 1980 homecoming game. The only issue? Football fans weren’t at all fans of the new mascot, and he was roundly booed. Cocky reappeared later during basketball season and spent a few years as “SuperChick,” working women’s sports, before finally winning the right — and fans’ hearts — to become the official university mascot in 1982.
Cocky turned out to be a claw-footed prodigy. He strutted on the national stage when he was selected to be the official mascot of the 1981 and 1982 ESPN College World Series. In 1986, Cocky captured his first Universal Cheerleaders Association Mascot Championship and later won again in 1994. Cocky landed the NCA national championship in 2009. In 2003, Cocky won Capital One’s Mascot of the Year and was runner-up in 2012. The feather in Cocky’s cap has to be the beaked wonder’s ranking by Sports Illustrated as the seventh greatest mascot in college football history.
For University of South Carolina alumna Twyla Wofford, all it took was one football game and she was in love. “Freshman year at my first football game as an undergraduate, Cocky skydived in. I turned to my friend and said, ‘I’m going to do that. I don’t know how, but that’ll be me,’” she says. “I stalked Cocky for about two years. Finally, while living in Capstone, I met a male cheerleader and got up the nerve, after seeing him a few times, to ask him to put me in touch with The Bird.” A few chats later, Twyla discovered they were going to do tryouts. Just as she had predicted, Twyla won the right to don the tail feathers in 2003 and became The Bird until she graduated in 2005.
As The Tiger, Mike experienced a program that had a somewhat relaxed attitude. When he was unavailable for a game or event, his roommate would fill in, even though he was not officially part of the program. But that could create awkward problems. While Mike enjoyed physical humor, his roommate was well known for playing the drums. When his roommate was The Tiger, he would hop into the stands with the pep band and play on the drums during games. “When I’d be at the next game, someone would say, ‘Hey, Tiger, go play the drums!’ but I couldn’t!” he says with a laugh. For other Tigers, the conundrum also applied to back handsprings.
Everyone who wears either suit infuses it with their own talent and character. Mike still recalls the walk of The Tiger with physical precision — somewhat slouchy, arms up, a little bowlegged. Twyla recalls relying on spry, bouncing tail feathers to do the talking for Cocky.
The mascot world has three key, mostly unwritten, rules. One big no-no is talking. “You don’t talk in the suit,” admonishes Mike. Another mascot sin is taking the head off in public. Mike recalls former Clemson University President James Barker’s affinity for dressing up as The Tiger at football games. “He’d do pushups, then take the head off, and the crowd would go nuts because it was the president of the university,” he says.
But Mike and the other mascots were conflicted; it was a great moment during the game, for sure, but as the keepers of the fur it filled them with dismay. “You can’t take the head off no matter who you are. It takes away from the mystique. You never see Mickey Mouse take his head off!” The former mascots took one for The Tiger and wrote a letter to then President Barker asking him to please stop for a simple reason. “You have to remember that 5-year-old kid who still thinks The Tiger is a real tiger,” he says.
This element leads to the third rule of mascoting: the gig has to be kept on the down low, as much as possible. “I’m in a sorority, so I’d say a good many knew, but it was before social media was really a thing,” says Twyla. “My parents were both very proud and lived in two different cities, so there wasn’t a lot of secrecy unfortunately.”
Mike agrees. “People found out. People saw you. You didn’t go around telling people about it or flaunting who you were. People figured it out. And your regular fans got to know you, too.”
The one time it’s okay to let the secret out of the bag is at graduation, when matriculating mascots at both schools have relatively modern traditions of revealing their mascot alter ego to their graduating class and guests. At Clemson, Mike says the mascot reveal was not much of a tradition until the mid-’90s. “When I graduated, I wore the gloves and a tail and threw a couple of T-shirts as I went across the stage,” he says. “There’s always this huge cheer. It’s really cool.”
At South Carolina, the reveal involves one of Cocky’s most recognizable features. “I loved wearing my feet at graduation! Thank you, John Routh, for being the first Cocky to start that tradition before I was born,” says Twyla. “I apologized to the person behind me at graduation and told her to wait so they’d say her name again. I wasn’t trying to be ‘cocky,’ but I knew it wasn’t going to be fair to her or her family. I wrote a note on my name card asking the reader to wait.”
Mascot involvement with both programs often continues beyond graduation. Mike even subbed once when he was in his late 30s. “I got in the suit and did an appearance at a basketball game,” he says with a laugh. “I’m 45 now and I’ve had a hip replacement, but every now and then I’ll hop in the suit when I’m with my kids at a baseball game or something. That’s about all I can handle now.”
Just like the fans in the stands, mascots experience a mix of glory and agony in the role. Mike says one of the first questions he usually gets is about the suit and the heat. Fans do not realize how hard it can be for The Tiger to breathe. “Go outside and run a mile in 90-degree weather; you’ll be hot,” he points out. “Now, go outside and run that mile in a fur coat with your mouth and nose mostly covered with a mask. The hard thing isn’t the fur and heat, it’s that you’re essentially hyperventilating and breathing in carbon dioxide.”
Twyla’s last football appearance as Cocky was a true heartbreaker: the 2004 South Carolina-Clemson game. She says simply, “My last football game was ‘The Fight.’” The so-called state championship game in 2004 was marred by pre-game fighting and an in-game free-for-all that resulted in both teams forfeiting post-season bowl play.
Most of the time, however, being the university’s silent spokesperson is pure, unbridled joy. “Football games were fun because the crowd was so big, but it didn’t allow for much intimacy with fans,” says Twyla. “The soccer games, volleyball matches, and equestrian meets have smaller crowds where you can be more interactive.”
One of Mike’s favorite memories happened at a YMCA appearance in Laurens, South Carolina, where Cocky and The Tiger were both appearing. “We used to do so many appearances together, so we knew each other well,” he says. “We were both seniors, and we trusted each other, so we decided to switch outfits. When I came out as Cocky and he was The Tiger, it was crazy. The people who loved me a second ago absolutely hated me. It was such a cool but weird experience.”
For both Twyla and Mike, the mascot experience was as magical as they could have imagined. “I have something I always tell the participants in the program. They’ll ask me if I think they should try something out in the suit or not. Sometimes it’s hard to know if an action crosses the line,” he says. “But I tell them you can either be known as The Tiger or the guy that played The Tiger. It’s up to you.”
Fifteen years after she danced in the big yellow feet, Twyla still loves talking about her years of beak flapping as Cocky, noting it always provides an easy way to open a job interview. “Only a small group of people can say they’ve been the best mascot in the country,” she says.