In the run-up to Saturday's season-opening Kentucky-Western Kentucky football game, two WKU sports figures have been commanding national attention.
Bobby Petrino, the fallen former Arkansas football coach trying to relaunch his career as the Hilltoppers new head man, was featured last week in USA Today.
ESPN this summer, however, has mostly been the home of the red, furry orb that is Big Red, the mascot of the Hilltoppers.
In what is the latest of the character's multiple appearances in a This is SportsCenter commercial, Big Red tries over and over without success to climb into the window of the race car of NASCAR star Brad Keselowski — rather than accept the indignity of a ride in the minivan of EPSN anchor Kevin Neghandi.
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A prior Big Red commercial for ESPN, in which the genderless mascot stands, confounded, trying to decide whether to enter the men's or women's rest room, was ranked No. 34 on the list of the 50 greatest SportsCenter commercials of all time on a special hosted this summer by the comedic actor Jason Sudeikis.
WKU Athletics Director Todd Stewart says the school has not tried to quantify the value of the exposure Big Red produces for Western.
"It has to be huge," Stewart said. "Think of the cost of (buying) one commercial during SportsCenter, then think about how many times (ESPN has run) the Big Red spot this summer. Every time they do, that's national exposure for WKU."
Thirty-four years ago, a couple of male WKU cheerleaders came home to their fraternity house and told a frat brother that Western was seeking ideas for a new mascot for its sports teams.
The amorphous blob known as Big Red that resulted has enjoyed an unlikely ride to the (Hill)top.
Paula Davids' official job is staff assistant in the marketing and promotions department of the WKU athletics department. Her unofficial title is "Big Red's mom."
Day to day, Davids oversees all things relating to the WKU mascot. It is a more complicated task than it might sound.
"On any given day, we might have five Big Reds out" making public appearances, said Lindsay Boyden, WKU's associate athletics director for marketing. "We don't ever want two Big Reds to cross (paths), especially here on campus. Paula's even got spread sheets she uses to keep track of the schedules."
Western students who aspire to play Big Red have to go through a tryout. For the coming school year, seven WKU students made the cut. The two "primary" Big Reds will alternate appearances at games of the school's major sports teams. Those two receive partial scholarships, Davids said.
This year's five other Big Reds will handle many of the additional 200 to 250 public appearances the character will make in the coming year, Davids said.
Want Big Red to come to your birthday party or to your business's grand opening? For $75 an hour plus a mileage fee for trips outside of Bowling Green, WKU can make that happen.
Once, Davids said a man called and said he wanted Big Red to come to his wedding. "Lots of people want Big Red for their receptions," Davids said.
What was unexpected in this case was the man wanted the WKU mascot to stand up with him as his best man.
"I said, 'Have you run this by the bride?'" Davids said. "He hung up, and we never heard back from him."
What makes the popularity of Big Red fascinating is almost no one has a clue what the character is supposed to represent.
Zach Talton, 22, a WKU architecture student and a former Oldham County High School wrestler, was the Big Red chosen by the school to be in the ESPN commercial with Keselowski. Talton says the reigning Sprint Cup champion's first question before they began shooting the spot at the Bristol, Conn., campus of ESPN was familiar.
"Brad was like 'Now, what are you?'" said Talton.
Ever since he created the the character and suit for Big Red as a Western student in 1979, Ralph Carey has been hearing variations of the same query.
"I've heard it described a lot of different ways across the years," Carey, now a Chicago marketing executive, said last week of Big Red. "When I designed the character, it was intended to be a manifestation of the energy and excitement of sports. It does not represent anything tangible."
Before he went to Western, Carey, a Cincinnati product, worked summers at Kings Island. His job was to perform in the costumes of Hanna-Barbera characters like Yogi Bear and Quick Draw McGraw. So in the fall of 1979, when WKU sent out the call for suggestions for a new school mascot, that's why his cheerleading Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers came to him.
If you think the Big Red character seems to move with a little more assuredness than many sports mascots, that is by design. Based on his experiences at Kings Island, Carey had distinct ideas on what it took to design a successful mascot suit.
"A lot of times in mascots, (the person wearing the suit) has to look out of the mouth or even the nostrils," Carey said. "That makes it hard to see and it can really make the character clumsy. I wanted Big Red to have range of vision and to be able to see through the (suit's) eyes.
"The other really big thing, people like mascots that can move, that can dance," he said. "I designed Big Red to wear normal tennis shoes, not any kind of oversized shoes or giant feet like you see on a lot of mascots."
Now a 56-year-old, married father of three, Carey says the magnitude of how "big" the character he created for Western has become hit him in Chicago when he was in a lunch meeting with clients.
He looked up, caught a TV playing, and saw Big Red in a commercial on ESPN. "That was just surreal," Carey said.
Big Red has long been a darling of ESPN. In 2002, the network built its promotions for the 25,000th broadcast of SportsCenter around a spot that featured sportscaster Stuart Scott, NBA player Elton Brand and Big Red.
Last year, Big Red was the first inductee into the Capital One Mascot Hall of Fame.
"When you're trying to brand an athletics department, there are a lot of ways to do that," said Stewart, the Western AD. "The first way, is to have (team) success. That's the best way. But there are other ways. And, for us, Big Red is one of them. He — I should say it — has a national identity. And that helps us promote WKU."
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.
"Think about how many times (ESPN has run) the Big Red spot this summer. Every time they do, that's national exposure for WKU."
Todd Stewart, Western Kentucky University athletics director