Walt Disney (right) and UO athletics director Leo Harris (with duck) had a handshake agreement to allow the use of a UO mascot based on Disney’s Donald.

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We Love Our Duck

A brief history of Oregon’s unlikely mascot

UO Mascot on a Harley at a football gameA longer version of this story by Alice Tallmadge, MA ’87, originally appeared in the Autumn 2012 issue of Oregon Quarterly, the University of Oregon magazine.

DuckWithout saying a word, he controls a crowd of thousands with a wave of his hand or a nod of his neon orange beak. He’s got a squat physique and eyes that can melt the stoniest of hearts, but he demands respect from the burliest guys in the stands. Most college fans applaud their mascots, but Oregon fans’ delight in the Duck takes that allegiance up a notch into a stratosphere that’s not quite worship, but close.

More than 80 years ago, students chose “Webfoots” as their team name over tougher-sounding monikers such as Pioneers, Wolves, Lumberjacks, Trappers, and Yellow Jackets. Sportswriters of the time began using “Ducks” as a less-clumsy nickname, and the Duck was born, despite protests from various quarters.

“Why should a fighting football team, a brilliant basketball five, or other combinations be saddled with the name of a bird that is noteworthy only for its ability to shed water?” railed Oregon Daily Emerald sports editor Harold Mangum during the fractious naming debate. “It’s like lining a runner’s shoes with lead and expecting him to break records.”

But “the Duck” stuck, and today the big-eyed, web-footed fowl stands at the top of the college mascot heap, despite being a singularly odd fellow to be responsible for revving up sports crowds to a frenzied pitch. He doesn’t have a fang to his name. He waddles instead of swaggers. His soft paunch hints at too much bread and not enough brawn.

Puddles the duckLegend has it that as far back as the 1920s, fraternity fellows began escorting a series of live ducks to the football field, dubbing each one “Puddles.” Donald, the cartoon duck created by Walt Disney, made his first public appearance in 1934, and UO students took to the Donald image like ducks to water. In 1947, a fortuitous meeting of UO athletics director Leo Harris and Walt Disney resulted in a handshake agreement allowing the university to continue basing its mascot on Donald.

Since then, the Duck has taken all comers, even though some hard-charging coaches thought the Duck just wasn’t tough enough. Jerry Frei, Oregon’s football coach from 1967 to 1971, wanted a toothier Duck to represent his “Fighting Ducks.” Dick Harter, men’s basketball coach from 1971 to 1978, wouldn’t acknowledge the Duck, and insisted all public relations materials refer to his players as the “Kamikaze Kids.” In 1978, an Oregon Daily Emerald graphic artist created a duck of different feathers, Mallard [accent on the second syllable] Drake, fashioned to be hipper and cooler than the incumbent. Loyal fans nixed the newcomer in a landslide vote—1,068 to 590.

RoboDuckUnflappable, the Duck didn’t even blink when, during a 2002 University of Southern California football game, a buff, possible usurper dubbed RoboDuck hatched out of a giant egg-shaped structure and began doing back flips down the field. “He’s not the evil twin. He’s the more aggressive, strong, obviously more flexible Duck,” explained a spokesperson. Robo was intended to complement, not compete with the Duck, but fans weren’t having any of him, and within months he was, yes, a dead duck.

Today, the Duck basks in the limelight, leading the roar of the crowd as he charges around the football field on a Harley, pumps the requisite pushups after scores, high-fives little kids, and charms fans with his winning waddle. The Duck abides.

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