Montpelier Fall 1998
At that year's Jan. 16 Madison/George Mason basketball game, an English bulldog with a stout, brawny physique and tremendous underbite made his debut as the official Madison mascot. The regal entrance of "Duke I" marked the advent of JMU's public push toward serious, big-time NCAA athletics.
"The name of our athletic teams are the Dukes, which implies royalty. We wanted a mascot that would represent that. That is why we chose the English bulldog," says Ray Sonner, former JMU senior vice president and current JMU Foundation president. "I had never heard the crowd yell so loud before. Their response was incredible."
Duke I handlers found, however, that a live canine was not naturally amenable to the mascot lifestyle. So after 11 years and Dukes II, III and IV, JMU unleashed a more magnanimous mutt, and student reaction to this larger-than-life showman has only grown more enthusiastic.
Today, Duke Dog crashes into stadiums on ATVs, dances to the Blues Brothers, hams it up with cheerleaders, rides a tricycle and sits in spectators' laps. This top dog has cavorted with Bob Hope, skied in Colorado, ridden an elephant and sauntered down the streets of New York City. With a wag of his stubby tail and a dash of his purple cape, this boisterous bulldog inspires players and spectators to adopt a winning attitude and then thrives on the crowd's emotion.
Despite the antics and silliness, puttin' on the dog has a serious side, according to Assistant Athletics Director Casey Carter. "Mascots serve many purposes for college athletics. They are an extremely personal and tangible aspect of collegiate sports programs."
So, while Duke IV was taken for a walk around the block, serious thought went into creating a new and improved mascot, which both Sonnet and Carter said needed to be "lovable and cartoon-like, not something that was fierce or would scare children. He had to he approachable." All 6 feet, 3 inches of JMU's purple and gold festooned furball made his first appearance in crown, cape and studded collar at the Nov. 30, 1982, JMU/VMI basketball game. His debut marked the official transition in JMU mascots from Canis familiaris to Canis dukus.
Past Duke Dog Jerry Blaze ('87) describes his role as a "goodwill ambassador. Duke Dog is there to create awareness for JMU, gain positive recognition and serve as a public relations icon." This is one of the reasons JMU alumni who served as Duke Dog took the role so seriously, he says. "I'm a clown at heart, but didn't want to do anything disrespectful that would embarrass Madison. Everyone is looking at you."
At the center of attention there's no tolerance for distemper, only a rabid enthusiasm for things Madison. "I thought that there would be at least 200 people at the try outs for Duke Dog." remarks last year's canine, Brock Leonard ('98), "so I painted my entire body purple and gold." Not surprisingly, he won Best in Show.
Leonard picked up the scent early in his JMU career. "The first football game at JMU that I ever attended I saw Duke Dog walking back and forth between the cheerleaders and the Dukettes," he says. "I knew that's where I wanted to be."
In the 17 years since JMU's affable hound became the sixth man on that first basketball squad, succeeding Duke Dogs have done some refining to create the mascot of today.
Brothers Karl and Eric Schnurr ('85) shared the honor and the identity of JMU's first Duke Dog, whose costume, Eric says, resembled a bear more than a bulldog and whose ears had to be coerced into a "floppy dog look."
Duke Dogs past and present have also bred traditions and strict codes of decorum. According to early Duke dogma the man inside the suit remained anonymous. The secrecy was taken seriously by the Schnurr brothers, who concealed their identities from fraternity brothers and friends alike. Today, secrecy is difficult to sustain because of Duke Dog strategically timed comings and goings. Roommates, friends and close supporters inevitably figure out his identity, which, in Leonard's case, had become almost common knowledge among the student body by spring 1998.
But, while it lasts, Duke Dogs put their anonymity to good use. The Schnurrs got away with kissing girls, hugging spectators and decorating professors with toilet paper in the stands. Other Duke Dogs recall those "few minutes of power, where you could do anything you wanted." Tossing buckets of popcorn over people in the crowd, lifting drinks from concession trays, and teasing opposing coaches were all done to ultimately please the crowd. And Eric Schnurr fondly remembers times he donned the costume to strut around campus and visit classrooms to impress girls.
Since the days of the Schnurrs' playful pup, another trait of obedience has managed to prevail. When the Duke Dog costume goes on, so does the muzzle.
"No college mascot ever speaks," says JMU Spirit Coach Ricky Hill, who coaches the cheerleaders, Dukettes and Duke Dog. "Duke Dog mimes and gestures. He won't even speak to me. If I ask him something, he'll shake his head, and I have to say, 'Hey, it's me. Speak!' Once he gets into character, his persona just takes over. It amazes me because I can't keep my own mouth shut."
In Duke Dog's dressing room, the transition is a phenomenon to behold. "One minute, he's standing there speaking to you as a normal human being," says Assistant Sports Information Director Curt Dudley, "but once that head goes on, mum's the word, and it's all sign language and hand signals."
The duties of man's best friend stretch beyond the center of attention at football and basketball games. Duke Dog tries to appear at all of JMU's sporting events at least once a season. In the past, he even made appearances at birthday parties for Harrisonburg-area children. But the demands on Duke Dog had to be curtailed as requests became too numerous to meet.
Despite the responsibility on his haunches, nothing can slow this proud pooch down. Even when his team is losing, Duke Dog doesn't retire to the doghouse. "You took responsibility upon yourself to stay up," 1984-87 Duke Dog John Love ('86) explains. Because, Karl Schnurr points out, Duke Dog inspires the crowd by adding "a human aspect to the game." Inspiring the crowd in turn, inspires the players, which in turn, can turn defeat into victory. "You don't play on the court," Schnurr says, "but as the Duke Dog you had something to do with the team's win."
"I'm considered part of a great team that works hard," last year's Duke Dog affirms. "You're there to support the team, but you can entertain so many people." Leonard's canine charisma received confirmation when he won Most Collegiate Mascot in August 1997 from the National Cheerleaders Association summer camp for cheerleaders, mascots and dance teams and third-place finishes ill the association's 1997 and 1998 Mascot National Championships.
Duke Dogs take special glee in small moments with fans. "I love keeping the tradition going, making people crack up over a big dumb dog," Leonard says. "You get to make so many people smile."
"I loved seeing how the kids would look straight into the eyes of Duke Dog," recalls Love. "They didn't know that you were looking back out of the mouth at them."
Moments Like those had to sustain him, because during the early Duke Dog days the job of mascot lacked some of the glamour that it now holds. Casey Carter laughs as she recalls how she "used to take the Duke Dog costume home, wash it and hang it up on the line in her yard to dry afterwards. My neighbors must have wondered what in the world I was doing." If it wasn't drying on the line, "it was stored in the trunk of my car in between games."
Not too long ago, it was common for the Duke Dog to lose 10 pounds of water weight a game because the costume was so hot inside. A coin toss would decide which Duke Dog would climb inside for the second half of the game. "If there was a Saturday afternoon game, and your partner had gone out on Friday night, they would have sweated out all of the beer they drank the night before into the costume during the first half," Love chuckles.
Until 1997, Duke Dog was strictly a volunteer, a minor meal stipend for away games being the only tangible bone these dogged mascots were thrown. Duke Dog status, however, has climbed in prestige so that the 1997-98 mascot was the first to receive a $1,000 scholarship toward his tuition. Although Duke Dog's life is mostly fun and games, Love remembers when "a VMI cadet tried to forcibly remove my head. I pulled the cadet out of the stands and left him lying on the ground," he bristles.
A few years later, relations at the Nov. 5, 1994, game at VMI turned downright dog-eat-dog. "It was the first football game of my career," sniffs Leonard. "Some silly kangaroo with boxing gloves was trying to get me to come over to VMI's side. I wasn't going over there. Next thing I know, while the game was still going on, a sea of gray comes storming across the field. I started sprinting. They wanted my head, which happened to be attached to my body. There were about 200 cadets on top of me, then JMU's football team started cleaning house."
That's an understandable exaggeration coming from a traumatized Duke Dog, who simply took refuge behind the Dukes' bench and the formidable wall of JMU's football team.
"No other school has a football team that defends its mascot," Duke Dog says, clinging stubbornly to a version of events that turned horror and humiliation into pride. JMU lore, after all, will record that incident as proof that its mascot runs in the tall weeds with the big dogs.
Whether there's a pack of perversely inspired cadets nipping at his heels or a pair of sparkling youthful eyes staring into his permanently smiling snout, Duke Dog can brag that he's truly a breed apart.
During their college careers many students can say they were athletes or scholars, Eric Schnurr boasts, but only a "few people can say they were Duke Dog, and that they passed along happiness, joy and kindness to crowds of people."