Athletics

The Steering Committee

How does a university go about replacing a live mascot?

September 08, 2017

Courtesy of the U. of Texas at Austin
The newest Bevo, mascot of the U. of Texas, stands with John Baker, whose family has supplied and cared for the famous steers since 1988.

Five weeks after the death of Bevo, the University of Texas’ beloved mascot, in 2015, Ricky Brennes brought a half-dozen young longhorn steers into Texas Memorial Stadium to see if they could stand the sound of a 375-piece marching band playing the hits of Stevie Ray Vaughan without freaking out.

"Can we use the hoses under the bleachers to clean up after any messes a young/nervous steer might create?" Mr. Brennes had written to the stadium facilities coordinator earlier that week. He was a bit on edge himself. Bevo, like the Pope, encompasses both an office and the individual who holds it. As director of the Silver Spurs Alumni Association, Mr. Brennes oversaw both. Now he was in charge of the first Bevo conclave in more than a decade.

It was three days before the final home football game of the year, and the Longhorn band was in full dress-rehearsal mode. The horns blasted their way through "The House Is Rockin’," "Texas Flood," and "Boom-Bapa-Boom," accompanied by a thunderous percussion section. Jimmie Vaughan, brother of the late guitar legend, was playing blues licks on his Stratocaster.

Mr. Brennes watched the young steers. They were keeping their cool. Some of them chewed their cud, a sign of contentment similar to a cat purring. None of them tried to bolt. He was pleased.

On a college campus, everybody is evaluating somebody. Admissions officers recruit applicants for each incoming class. Professors administer tests to those already enrolled. Faculty committees vet new hires for their departments. Board members scour the industry for would-be presidents, often with the aid of high-priced search firms.

But what about when a university needs a new mascot? And what about when that mascot is a one-ton animal with a public-relations mandate and horns like medieval pole weapons?

There were wild Bevos in the early days. According to a 2004 article in The Alcalde, the university’s alumni magazine, the original steer mascot had been seized by lawmen during a raid on cattle rustlers in West Texas. Stephen Pinckney, a 1911 graduate of the university’s law program, bought the steer out of federal custody and had him shipped to Austin by train, where he was dragged into the stadium in chains during halftime. Later, at a photo shoot, he charged a photographer. At the end of his tenure, students ate him at a banquet.

Bevo II kicked a hole in the side of his trailer during a 1932 pep rally, and was eventually barred from games by the university’s athletic council. In 1949, Bevo IV rammed a parked car on his way into the stadium.

Those days are long over. It has become necessary for Bevo to be a docile, insurable, and reliable prop for fund-raising events that may involve children or society people. Bevo XIV was afraid of flags, but he was a peaceful schmoozer. For $3,000, the steer would hang out at parties, munching on hay bales while UT alums drank cocktails. He was an honored guest at weddings (including Mr. Brennes’s) and funerals. After George W. Bush’s presidential inaugurations, Bevo ate hay at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in D.C. while Texas dignitaries milled about in tuxedos and cowboy boots.

Bevo XIV died of bovine leukemia in October 2015. His passing was noted by ESPN, TMZ, and The Washington Post. War Eagle VII, Auburn University’s golden-eagle mascot, sent flowers.

Messages began pouring into the university from around the state — and also from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Florida, Washington State. People were not just sending condolences; they were sending glamour shots of their steers.

Kevin Millin, then the president of the Silver Spurs Alumni Association, became the chair of an ad hoc committee tasked with picking a new Bevo. He was shocked by the deluge of unsolicited photos and sales pitches. "No one had ever said, ‘Hey, send us a picture of your longhorn,’" he says. "Had we done that, I think we would have gotten 10,000 inquiries."

Instead the number was in the low hundreds. Still, it was a lot to sort through, and soon the committee talked about narrowing the search. The mascot of the Texas Longhorns had to be an actual Texas longhorn, born and bred in the state. The steer would have to have burnt-orange hide, not liver or maroon or any other shade that might be confused with the colors of certain rival teams. (Texas A&M University was no longer in the same athletic conference as the University of Texas, but passions still linger. In 1963, students from A&M kidnapped Bevo VII in an elaborate heist.)

Also, the animal had to be young. A young steer could be more easily conditioned to the demands of the job — travel, garden-party etiquette, a high tolerance for humans. It was a lot to ask of a full-grown steer accustomed to the relative quiet of uninterrupted ranch life. Mr. Millin, now 67, was a handler decades ago, and he remembers grappling with Bevo VIII, a notoriously ill-tempered animal that was donated as an adult by a member of the Board of Regents.

The days of wrestling dyspeptic Bevos into submission were over. Liability was a concern; Mr. Brennes would not go into detail about the mascot’s insurance policies, but said the annual payments are "significant." Animal-rights activists were also a sticking point; the University of Texas has had to fight the assumption that Bevo does not like being constantly made to appear at games and fund raisers. After Bevo XIV died, the university declined an invitation to appear on ESPN’s Outside the Lines opposite a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Without prompting, several people affiliated with Bevo told The Chronicle that, contrary to any rumors, the steer is never drugged.

The rough-and-tumble era of fickle beasts and prank kidnappings made for good stories, says Mr. Millin, "but I think the regents of the university would like for there to be no more stories like that." They would prefer stories about a steady bovine ambassador presiding over charity and school-pride events at which everybody gets a photo op and nobody gets gored.

Two weeks after Bevo XIV passed away, three members of the search committee — Mr. Millin, Mr. Brennes, and a young alumnus named Jason Craig — drove to Sunrise Ranch to see the Bakers.

It was the first stop in the search for the new Bevo, and as he and Mr. Craig drove west from Houston, Mr. Millin began to wonder if it would be the last. John T. Baker and his wife, Betty, had been the university’s Bevo suppliers and caretakers since 1988. (In return, they get four tickets to every football game.)

Over the years the Bakers had become close with Mr. Brennes, and Mr. Craig had come to admire them during his own time as a student handler. On the drive, Mr. Craig gushed about the couple. The Bakers were some of the few people he had stayed in touch with after graduating in 2002, and he would take his family to their ranch every time he was in town. He had come to see Mr. Baker as a role model, a man who always knows what to do and say. Mr. Craig was prepared to take whatever recommendation Mr. Baker was willing to make.

"Great," Mr. Millin remembers saying, somewhat ruefully, "I’ve been made the chairman of this committee, but the decision’s already been made."

By the time they left the ranch, however, it was Mr. Millin who needed reining in. He had met the Bakers, who seemed like fine people, but he had also met a bull calf that really impressed him. The calf had been standing in the middle of the road as they drove out to the pasture and had not yielded for the truck, a gesture that suggested, to Mr. Millin, both fearlessness and good humor.

Courtesy of Kevin Millin
Even at less than a year old, the young calf who would become Bevo XV impressed visitors to Sunrise Ranch with his fearlessness and good humor.

The calf was less than a year old, colored white and orange — the right shade — with stubby little horns and the number "31" tagged to its ear. Mr. Millin describes it as love at first sight, although Mr. Craig tells it slightly differently: "I think I remember him saying, ‘What’s wrong with that one?’" he says.

"But then he made a joke, like, ‘Hey pal, you could be the next Bevo.’"

The two men drove back to Houston together, and this time they were both gushing. "We looked at each other and said, ‘My mind’s made up.’"

Mr. Brennes's was not. Officially, he says, the search was far from over. Mr. Baker had urged caution: You never knew how a calf would grow, or whether one of its horns would come out crooked. There was also the all-important question of noise tolerance. It was one thing to appear unbothered by a truck on a country road, another to withstand the harmonized brass of the Longhorn Band at 100 decibels.

That’s how Mr. Brennes ended up at band practice that November with a half-dozen young longhorns courtesy of Mr. Baker — including "31." The band played, the calves chewed their cuds, and they all passed the test.

Other Texas cattle raisers knew about the Bakers. Some of them surely assumed that another mascot from the Baker stock was inevitable. Still, the thought of providing Bevo was tantalizing, and a number of Texans salivated at the chance to put their prize longhorns in the running to wear the halter.

Two days before the Baker prospects aced the marching-band test, Ken Herman, a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, nominated an underdog steer from the unincorporated community of Oatmeal, Texas, a place whose most famous figure is a water tank painted to resemble a box of oatmeal. The 7-year-old animal’s name was, in fact, "Bevo" — a name given by his owners, a retired postmaster named Bill Steffek and his wife, Mary Ann, because it connoted strength. This Bevo was an orphan. The Steffeks had nursed him with a bottle after his mother died. Now they wondered if he could become royalty.

Mr. Herman pitched him as the people’s Bevo. "What if it’s time for a Bevo that perhaps represents something closer to middle-class steerdom," the columnist wrote, "than the top 1 percent?"

Other contenders entered the picture — or attempted to. That January, at an annual "cowgirl breakfast" held at Sugars, a San Antonio strip club, a young steer named Vegas sat peacefully outside the club while dancers and patrons took turns straddling him for photos. The man who brought the steer struck up a conversation with Mary Lanoue-Gers, an ad-seller for a local radio station. Vegas, the man told her, was in the running to be the next Bevo.

The committee had politely responded to everyone who sent in materials, says Mr. Millin, and they had tried not to give anyone false hope. But that didn’t stop some people from saying their steer was formally under consideration.

A man in East Texas named Daniel Allen told a local TV news crew that his 6-year-old steer, Bubba, was in the running to be the next Bevo. Bubba was orange and white, with horns that measured more than six feet tip-to-tip. And he didn’t scare easily, according to Mr. Allen, who had devised his own noise-tolerance test that involved a shotgun and explosives. For gravitas, Mr. Allen had invited a county judge in a robe to read a statement on camera certifying Bubba’s fitness for duty.

"While Bevo XIV has passed on to longhorn heaven," the reporter said in a solemn voice-over as Mr. Allen and Bubba bounded through a glade, "Bubba looks to honor his memory and follow in the hoofsteps of greatness."

At the university, the death of Bevo XIV had left a hole. A chunk of the mascot’s appearance fees went to funding a local outreach program for disadvantaged students. The previous year, the mascot had helped raise $172,570; without him, the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement had struggled to keep up that pace. "It’s been rough not having a Bevo since October," wrote Rebecca Haden, an associate athletics director, in an email to a colleague late that January. "Fundraising has flatlined."

David Handschuh, NY Daily News Archive, Getty Images
Bevo XIII traveled to Washington, D.C., for photo ops at an event celebrating the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush.
People were asking about an heir. The chancellor of Texas A&M wanted to know if there would be a new Bevo in time for the opening of that university’s veterinary school. An alum working as a producer for NBC wanted to do a story on the search, and maybe even pitch her bosses on revealing the new mascot live on the Today show. The 100th anniversary of Bevo was fast approaching; commemorative T-shirts, keychains, stuffed animals, beer cozies, reusable grocery bags, and other items were in the offing. All that was missing was Bevo himself.

Back at the Sunrise Ranch, "31" was growing into himself. The Bakers had named him Sunrise Swish for his active tail. Swish was still an adolescent, and his horns had not yet blossomed into huge, curving lengths of bone, but the rest of him looked great. "If you look at his rear end," says Ms. Baker, "he’s got muscle back there like you wouldn’t believe."

That put him in a good position to pad his résumé at livestock shows. Long horns are nice, but they aren’t the only thing a judge looks for in a steer. "It’s like a beauty contest, and you look out there and see a great-looking girl, and maybe her face isn’t so gorgeous but she’s got the most outstanding body you’ve ever seen, and she’s just built, I mean, really good," says Ms. Baker. "That’s kind of how he was, he just stood out, like, Wow."

A few weeks after Mr. Brennes had taken him to band practice, the Bakers entered Sunrise Swish in a Youth Steer competition in Decatur, Texas, where he took home the title of junior champion. Ms. Baker, who regularly texted updates on Swish’s progress to members of the committee, shared the news. A few months after that, in March, he competed for another junior championship in Houston. This time, Mr. Brennes, Mr. Millin, and Mr. Craig were all there to cheer him on.

They were all but certain of their choice by then, says Mr. Craig. "It was more fear that he was going to show his ass at that show and not place well," he says, "and then we’d be like, ‘Well, we can’t ever tell that story again.’"

Fortunately, Swish won the junior championship.

It was all gravy. The university did not announce the selection of a new mascot until late May, and Mr. Brennes says the search was active all spring, but key members of the selection committee had settled on a new Bevo far earlier: It was the same impassive young animal that had stopped Mr. Millin and Mr. Craig on the road at the Sunrise Ranch the previous October. In the end, no other steer was seriously considered.

You can’t please everybody.

This is the lesson every search committee learns, whether they are picking the next mathematics professor, starting quarterback, or university president. Everybody has their idea of perfection. Somebody will be disappointed.

University of Texas fans aren’t livestock judges; to them, "longhorns" means "long horns." And Bevo XV, for all his posterior musculature, did not have them yet.

Nevertheless, the Bevo hype machine kicked into gear. That summer, a videographer made multiple trips to the Sunrise Ranch to film Bevo’s training for a segment that would air on the day of the big reveal. A Bevo XV account appeared on Twitter and started tweeting photos of the mascot’s trailer, his stadium pen, his personalized halter.

On September 4, 2016, in front of a packed house at Texas Memorial Stadium, Bevo XV finally emerged into the spotlight, led by a pair of students in orange shirts and white cowboy hats. The crowd rose to its feet and cheered, with some fans making horn shapes with their fingers. The new Bevo walked hesitantly, swishing his tail. His horns were about the length of his handlers’ forearms. He stopped several times, and his handlers gently tugged him to his enclosure in the corner of the end zone.

After the game, Mr. Brennes got an email from a man named Paul J. Verheyden. He was one of nearly two dozen Texas graduates in his family. Mr. Verheyden had watched Bevo’s debut on television, and was beside himself.

"THIS IS DISGRACEFUL!!!!!!" wrote Mr. Verheyden. "When I first saw the new Bevo, I almost vomited. Why have we not had backups of real longhorns waiting in line for the past Bevo 14? This animal does not have long horns!!!!! We should expect better care of this long standing of our mascot. He’s supposed to be a longhorn, not a short horn!!!!"

Mr. Brennes wrote back with a courteous note. He explained that previous Bevos had debuted before their horns had reached their full length, and that Bevo XV had already won several awards for his good looks. "Bevo XV," he promised, "when fully grown, will be one of the largest and most physically impressive Bevos in the history of the university."

Mr. Verheyden was not reassured. He said he had friends in Dallas who breed truly impressive longhorns. He offered to put them in touch. "I am sure that Longhorn nation would support an effort to get a real long-horned longhorn," he wrote. "Please do not continue using this unfit animal as the mascot for the Longhorn football games."

This time, Mr. Brennes’s reply was firm. "Just to clarify, we are happy with our pick," he wrote. "We looked at hundreds of longhorn steers and experts will tell you that we picked the top young steer in the state." Mr. Verheyden was the only person to complain, he continued, while "thousands" of others had praised the selection.

"We aren’t interested in another longhorn steer," he wrote. "We already picked the best one."

Steve Kolowich writes about writes about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and extraordinary people in ordinary times. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.