Like Memorial Stadium, the brand identity of Cal Athletics has recently been renovated. Nothing too radical, mind you; the colors are unchanged and the Cal script remains the chief identifier. The only big change is the new bear logo. Gone is the striding giant of yesteryear, its stately silhouette imparting a certain timeless nobility to football helmets and hoodies. The new bear does not pass by. The new bear charges—teeth bared, ears back, eyes narrowed.
The old bear was live and let live.
The new bear is fixin’ to maul your @$$.
Cal used real bears as mascots until 1941. Not golden bears, mind you. The state animal (ursus arctos californicus) was already extinct, the last confirmed specimen having been gunned down in 1922—the same year construction began on the original stadium. That’s a sad footnote, to be sure, but largely beside the point for this discussion. After all, mascots have always existed more in the realm of magic than reality—as talismans, as bringers of good luck. The word mascot, in fact, derives from French gambler’s slang, la mascotte, itself derived from mascotto, a Provençal word for witch.
Not that there was ever any sorcery in dear old Oski—arguably the true Cal bear—who stepped in when the real bears were retired. From the beginning, Oski was a pick-me-up for down-in-the-dumps Cal fans. An affable loser is how the artist Warrington Colescott ’42, M.A. ’47, thought of his creation, which first appeared as a cartoon in The Daily Californian in 1940. The strip ran twice a week in football season. On Friday the little guy would be in hot pursuit of a young lady named Rosy Bowl. On Monday, he was generally beat up.
It was another student, William C. Rockwell ’48, who turned Colescott’s cartoon into a costume. Rockwell wanted to name him Algy, but Colescott urged him to go with Oski, after the old Berkeley battle cry, the Oski Yell. Which is strange when you think about it, since Oski was mute.
Was, and is. When the new bear logo, designed by Nike, was unveiled last April, the shoe company took pains to make it clear that Oski was not going away. “Many of the older Cal marks, such as drawings of Oski, are enduring images for Golden Bear fans and will remain available on a wide range of items, such as T-shirts and sweatshirts.” Which is a relief to many, no doubt, and also a reminder of another feature of mascots—that these days they are not so much totems as trademarks.
From the Spring 2014 Branding issue of California.