In the world of sports, very few elements are immune to high rates of turnover common among athletes, coaches and staff. At the collegiate level, this is even more prevalent, with two championship teams sometimes having entirely different rosters just years apart.
While legendary figures can stand in as relics of past glory, there is one constant presence at virtually every college athletic program: the mascot. For USF fans past, present and future, Rocky the Bull is that constant, and there is no stat sheet to quantify his worth.
Rocky has paraded the sidelines at USF athletic events for nearly 50 years, proudly sporting green and gold. Although in that time he’s undergone a few redesigns, his current look is nearing its 18th birthday.
Mike Mashke, who wore Rocky’s suit while he was a USF student, was asked to contribute to Rocky’s latest redesign in 2003. With experience working as Rocky in the 1980s and 25 years in the mascot business postgraduation, Mashke jumped at the opportunity to help create an iconic new look. Rocky’s makeover was just in time for one of the most important transitions in the history of the athletic department.
“[In 2003], USF was going through an evolution,” Mashke said. “When I started there, we were in the Sun Belt [Conference]. We didn’t even have football. So every time we went through a major change we tried to update the costume a little bit.”
The football program lined up in Tampa for the first time in 1997. With the move to FBS and Conference USA just a few years later, the school wanted to modernize its athletic image.
Enter the current “U” logo, stylized with upright bull horns and more earth-toned and natural shades of green and gold. It has since become so popular with the university that a new academic logo debuted in 2019 was met with enough backlash to be hooked shortly thereafter.
As the logo changed, Rocky was in need of a makeover as well, and the horns were the best place to start.
“We wanted to pick up the new logo,” Mashke said. “USF went to the iconic horn logo right around this time. We wanted the horns of the mascot to look like the horns of the logo.”
Every new iteration of Rocky since the first in the 1970s made concessions when it came to realism. The Rocky of the late 1990s certainly did not resemble an actual bull with his humanlike eyes, but the new costume in 2003 leaned further into caricature than any before it, as Rocky debuted golden horns that resembled those on the logo.
“It’s probably not really what a real bull’s horns look like, certainly not the old Rocky’s horns,” Mashke said of the slightly cartoonish look. “So it [was] a big transition from what we had in the early 80s to where we [are now].”
Besides just what sat on top of his head, Rocky’s latest makeover also included larger eyes, a pronounced furrowed brow, flared nostrils and a confident grin. The only thing to remain consistent with past Rockys was his athletic frame. As Mashke would tell it, the uniquely lean body could actually hinder a mascot in a world of characters dominated by larger frames.
“[Raymond, the Tampa Bay Rays mascot has] got a really big body frame that he can wiggle around. And when he walks it kind of jiggles and moves around. Those kinds of movements in the costume bring that character to life,” Mashke said. “Rocky doesn’t [have] that same effect. He’s got a bounce in his walk and he’s got to swing his arms and he’s got to bob his head and do things. He’s got to bring that character to life.”
Without dwelling on the amusing image of Rocky moving into Castor Hall, it’s notable that the new design is approaching college freshman age. It’s safe to say it has been a hit among the USF fan base, both now and at the time of its debut.
“I do remember [after the unveiling], we heard a lot of real positive comments about the new costume,” Mashke said. “[The fans] really liked what we did with the character.”
Present-day Rocky has been around for some of the most high-profile moments in USF Athletics history. When the football program began the 2007 season 6-0 and reached No. 2 in the BCS rankings, Rocky’s golden horns perused the perimeter of the gridiron. The Bulls would play on national television a total of 10 times that year, including three on major channels such as ABC and CBS.
Rocky also participated in the Capital One Mascot Challenge in 2013, a contest based on fan voting to determine the mascot of the year. Despite being tabbed to finish last by Phil Steele’s Mascot Meter rankings, Rocky won the award, a show of how much support USF fans have for their beloved bull. The university also recognized how important Rocky is to its image going forward.
“[Former USF President Judy Genshaft’s husband] Steve Greenbaum made the mascot program his pet project [in the 2000s],” Mashke said. “Rocky wasn’t really well-funded until Steve came along.”
Nowadays, Rocky is celebrated every year with a birthday bash during USF Week, which took place April 7 this year. It’s a chance for students, university faculty and the greater USF community to show their appreciation for him.
“That’s the thing about [Rocky],” Mashke said of the mascot’s longevity. “He’s consistent. He’s there for the bad years as much as the good years.”