Sparky the Sun Devil is, in a lot of ways, the physical manifestation of ASU. He can be seen in both physical and cartoon form at close to every Sun Devil event.
Some, like Marissa Watson, a PAB student-representative and emotional and behavioral science senior, view him as an inspiration.
“Sparky is spirit, pride and tradition,” Watson said. “He represents what we all want to be. He not just our football mascot. He is the embodiment of what student pride should be.”
I’m all the way up pic.twitter.com/I7QrCddFWV
— Sparky The Sun Devil (@SparkyArizonaSt) October 29, 2016
According to University archivist Robert Spindler, Sparky’s history started when he was designed by artist and former Disney employee Berk Anthony in the late 1940s. He wasn’t designed as a mascot, but rather a logo.
Sparky’s story as a mascot of the Sun Devils starts not long after in the early 1950s. Spindler states that the original Sparky performed in Goodwin Stadium, the former home of the Sun Devils, from 1951 to 1953. He was portrayed and designed by AAU gymnast and ASU student Dick Jacobs.
“His costume was pretty simple,” Spindler said. “It was a silk jumpsuit with a long tail and he also in fact carried a pitchfork in those performances in the early 50s.”
Jacobs’ Sparky, who was soon joined by two Sparkettes named Peggy Holiday and Peggy Sparkman, performed stunts on the field of Goodwin stadium. Spindler said while this Sparky may have had the University's blessing, his antics would probably not be supported by a modern ASU.
“He was doing handstands off of one upright of a goalpost without any padding underneath,” Spindler said.
Spindler also stated that Jacobs, being a trained gymnast, would do tumbling acts up and down the bleachers of Goodwin Stadium.
“He did things without protections that today would be seen as very dangerous,” Spindler said.
Sparky, of course, was not the original mascot of the University. The school’s athletic teams were formerly known as the Normals and the Bulldogs. Spindler stated that the sometimes referenced second team name of the school, the Owls, probably never actually existed.
“Frankly, I have read all kinds of sports coverage and published newspapers from that period and I have never ever seen a published reference to the team being called the Owls.”
According to Spindler, the 1899 Normals team photo featured a leashed owl perched next to the Territorial Cup, which probably lead to the misunderstanding.
The team transitioned to the Sun Devil moniker after, according to Spindler, University boosters worried that the Bulldogs team name was not unique and was more easily associated with the University of Georgia.
“We needed a moniker that really represented our place in the southwest that stood out from other institutions,” Spindler said.
Spindler added that the Sun Devil name itself was reportedly conceived by ASU’s then track coach Don Kinzel. He was on an early morning run when he saw a dust devil on the bed of the Salt River, which served as the inspiration for the concept of a Sun Devil.
Since then, ASU has seen Sparky all around the University and its functions. He even often gets requests to appear at weddings. There is one place, however, that has seen less of Sparky in recent years.
After the redesign of the uniforms worn by ASU’s various athletic teams along with Sparky’s own look, Sparky was no longer a constant fixture of ASU’s jerseys and equipment. For example, he was replaced on the side of football helmets with the pitchfork logo seen today.
According to Doug Tamarro, assistant athletic director of media relations at ASU, this redesign wasn’t to get rid of Sparky in any way. Rather, the redesign was an effort to give the Sun Devils a more modern look while keeping Sparky as the metaphorical face of ASU athletics.
“The pitchfork is a great marketing logo,” Tamarro said. “It’s very strong. It makes its impact with recruits.”
Tamarro said that Sparky and the pitchfork go hand in hand, comparing him to Notre Dame’s leprechaun and the “ND” logo that is now regularly on their football helmets.
“We’re like many schools in that we have two different logos or markings that we use,” Tamarro said.
Tamarro, himself a fan of Sparky, summed up the Sun Devil’s importance to ASU, stating that he is one of the most likable figures in sports.
“I think he’s the heart and soul of our athletics department,” Tamarro said. “Everybody can relate to him because if you’re a small kid you like Sparky, if you’re a grown-up, you can remember liking Sparky as a small kid.”
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