Who is that behind the Bearcat?
Shhh! It's a secret. But Bearcat mascot coach Chris Helmers offers a glimpse behind the suit.
Whether he’s part of a parade along Clifton Avenue, helping the university rowing club or donning a pink tutu to race across the field of Nippert Stadium, the UC Bearcat mascot creates some pretty memorable moments.
The Bearcat has sped down a snowy hilltop on skis. He's parachuted from a glider. He gave his blessing as a nervous suitor popped the question to his fiancee during a halftime marriage proposal. But maybe the most touching scenes happen during festivities for the Crosstown Shootout, when UC basketball takes on Xavier University.
Chris Helmers, the UC Bearcat mascot coach, remembers donning the Bearcat suit as a student and visiting UC Medical Center to meet the Baby Bearcats. Helmers, a 2018 UC graduate who was a Bearcat mascot for three years, now volunteers to supervise a team of student Bearcats.
“I remember walking into the hospital and these babies, who have just been born, are all wrapped in 'Beat Xavier' blankets,” says Helmers. “The doctor takes the baby out of the mother’s hands and starts walking towards me with the baby. I am standing there in this Bearcat suit holding this adorable little newborn wrapped in UC attire, feeling my knees quake. One of the first photos this baby will have is with Bearcat. It was one of the most emotional but spectacular moments for me.”
Helmers says hospital visits aren’t the only time youngsters are offered to Bearcat.
“You don’t know how many parents at football and basketball games will bend over that wall and offer, ‘Here take my kid,’” says Helmers. “You can’t really put it into words, but people see Bearcat and they think of Bearcat as the face of the university, their hero.
"Bearcat was that cool-looking mascot these parents wanted to get a picture of when they were students and maybe couldn’t and now they are soaking up the moment with children of their own.”
Bearcat’s high-energy antics are designed to entertain while revving up school spirit during any sports event. But the mascot is also in demand for other occasions, making appearances for UC admissions, other special university events and various community requests such as weddings, birthday parties, school activities and other engagements.
I want these kids to think of Bearcat as their superhero.
Chris Helmers UC alum, former Bearcat and current mascot coach
A national audience was introduced to Bearcat’s persona when ESPN’s GameDay made its first appearance at UC as the Bearcats defeated the University of Tulsa during the Homecoming game. UC football became the first Group of Five conference team to make the College Football Playoff, wrapping up its regular session fourth in the final rankings with a record of 13-0.
The Bearcats head to Arlington, Texas, to play the University of Alabama on Dec. 31 at the Cotton Bowl in the CFP Semifinal.
Anywhere from six to eight students are asked to help meet the requests for the Bearcat mascot, which makes about 350 appearances at UC events annually along with another 150 appearances at community activities, says Helmers. Those appearances had a temporary hiatus last year due to COVID-19 concerns, but in-person gatherings returned this summer with safety guidelines.
“Last year Bearcat couldn’t do outside or school appearances due to COVID,” says Helmers. “People are starting to see more of the Bearcat on campus and within the community and we are getting many more requests.”
The term “UC Bearcat” dates back to 1914 and seems to have first appeared in the campus newspaper following a football game between UC and the University of Kentucky Wildcats. The name was inspired by a cheer and play on words for UC star player Leonard K. “Teddy” Baehr.
A chant created during the game, “They may be Wildcats, but we have a Baehr-cat on our side,” eventually led to the name being memorialized in a cartoon published in the student newspaper following Cincinnati’s win. The cartoon, by John "Paddy" Reece, depicted a bedraggled Kentucky Wildcat being chased by a creature labeled "Cincinnati Bear Cats."
UC has a live mascot as well, a binturong named Lucille. She’s the fourth in a line of Cincinnati Zoo binturongs — first was Bo, then Alice and Lucy, who retired after 12 years of service.
What does it take to be a Bearcat?
Bearcat is probably the most recognizable ambassador for UC goodwill and school spirit. But being the Bearcat mascot isn’t easy. It requires being a master of improvisation and having decent acting and dance abilities.
Helmers remembers his first tryout for the Bearcat mascot as a student. “It was a two-day tryout. The first day was like my musical theater background, lots of improv and dance moves. The second day, I did some choreography and then they put me in a suit and I did a live event as the Bearcat.”
Being physically fit and 5-foot-10 are necessities, since the Bearcat suit weighs about 35 pounds, is bulky and pretty warm. Mascots must also be able to run Nippert Stadium carrying the UC flag, climb lots of stairs and perform marketing stunts and skits. The job is very demanding and physically draining. It’s a male-dominated, but not male-exclusive, field — anyone who meets the requirements can don the suit.
“We build props, we develop skits which have been great this year,” says Helmers. “Our team is made up of a lot of creative and energetic guys wanting to entertain and hype the crowd and entertain when needed. We meet Monday nights and go over goals and decide what we want to do for Saturday games.”
It’s good to know how to sew, not necessarily a requirement, but if there is a tear or problem with the suit it’s often up to the team to fix it. “We work with a company located in Columbus, Ohio, that not only updates the Bearcat but also fixes any of his needs, but we try to only utilize them once a year,” says Helmers.
And two very important rules: Bearcat never speaks and no one outside of the team and athletic officials know who the Bearcat mascots are. Breaking either rule spoils the illusion of Bearcat.
“When we have off-campus events, we have a secret room that Bearcat uses to change in. We don’t want to ruin the identity of Bearcat,” says Helmers.
“It’s a big deal to us and the program,” says Helmers. “There are some mascots that don’t have a secret identity but we do. We do it for the kids and the imagery effect it has on people. When you were little, you were always excited for Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy. Well, we want that same excitement with Bearcat.
“I want these kids to think of Bearcat as their superhero,” says Helmers. “I met the Bearcat and this is the greatest day of my life. I feel if my peers know who you are and what you do, they may come up and ask, ‘Is that Chris in the suit?’ It would ruin the whole effect.”
“We have a saying in our program and that is that ‘Bearcat is Bearcat,’” says Helmers. “So no matter who is in the suit, no matter what time it is, Bearcat is Bearcat. It is not Shaun or Tommy or Zach, it’s Bearcat. When someone asks us who is in the suit that is the response.”
That means the team not only learns a similar set of personality traits and characteristics, but mascots must also be masters of improvisation and enjoy reacting and entertaining regardless of the situation when wearing the suit. “It’s not some random person who walked in off the street and is getting into a suit,” says Helmers. “Our team is trained for this and built for this.”
It goes without saying that anyone wanting to be a Bearcat mascot had better be pretty enthusiastic about UC.
"How passionate are you about the University of Cincinnati?" askes Helmers.
“We are looking for someone who is a diehard Bearcat fan. We are looking for people that want to be the number one Bearcat fan in the land. They need to have that mentality no matter the situation. In or out of the Bearcat suit, you’re an ambassador for the University of Cincinnati. It could be a sporting event or a community appearance, there will be a Bearcat fan and they will come up and say ‘Go Bearcats’ and you need to be able to react and engage.”
“You need to know your knowledge about UC sports. You have to be a fan first and it helps with social media. It also makes your energy level stay at 110% every single time,” says Helmers. “All the other things, such as the Bearcat walk, personality traits, dancing, prop building and social media can be taught. That’s what I am here for. But being a true Cincinnati Bearcat fan makes my job easier.”
Tabatha Fagan, head coach of the UC Cheer Team, is among the panel that oversees Bearcat auditions. She echoed sentiments shared by Helmers.
“During the tryout process we evaluate the potential Bearcats in the suit as well as get to know their personality out of the suit,” says Fagan. “We look for an individual who is hard-working, creative, can manage their time wisely, and has passion for UC. If you can dance, that’s a huge bonus.”
Fagan was among those who reviewed Helmers’ audition as a Bearcat when he attended UC.
“He is a huge Bearcat fan which made him such a great mascot. He was always pushing the limits without stepping over the line,” says Fagan. “His creativity and energy took our mascot program to another level when he was a student. We needed someone with mascotting expertise to lead our current team and he was the one person that came to mind. Chris has experience at UC and professionally. He is the perfect person to lead our young team.”
The identities of the Bearcat mascot are usually disclosed when students donning the suit graduate.
“When our team members graduate we wear the hands and feet of the Bearcat at commencement,” says Helmers. “We do to congratulate the guys who gave what they did to the mascot program. In my three years, I did 450 events. It is a wonderful recognition. The president sees you when you walk across that stage and congratulates you for your service.”
“These guys are student athletes,” says Helmers. “They get the perks of UC athletes. They enroll in classes early and get the gear and backpacks and bags. They are student athletes and they work just as hard as any other student athlete.”
The Bearcat mascot competes yearly for a National Championship just like any other sport at UC and submits a video highlighting abilities in five categories: gameday activity, crowd involvement, community service, school activities and cheer/band/dance interaction. During this year’s competition, the Cincinnati Bearcat mascot’s entry video placed second.
The team meets at least twice weekly, often more, and holds practice sessions that include time for skits, making costumes and reviewing previous events. Many events are filmed so the team can review what worked and what might be improved for the next time.
Fagan says the ideas for skits are always brought to the attention of the coaches and supervisors in athletics for review to ensure nothing offensive inadvertently is performed.
“The mascots work diligently each week to come up with ideas for costumes, skits, and signs for the week’s games,” says Fagan. “I think the most impressive idea this year was the Lee Corso head. No one has ever done that. This just shows the skillset of our team of mascots. They work for hours to get their game day arsenal in order.
“It is truly a team effort from the beginning of the thought process, to the approval, to the time when you see the props, costumes, and skits in action at the games,” says Fagan.
For Helmers the Bearcat mascot program is one of his favorite topics of conversation. “It was by far one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” says Helmers. “It made me grow closer to the university as a whole and it made me an even bigger University of Cincinnati sports fan.”
Featured image of Bearcat at a UC football game taken by UC Creative + Brand.
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