It’s football season, and while I may not be a football fan, I am reminded of my alma mater, the University of Oregon, and its unique mascot history with Disney.
Yes, as you may already know and can see here, Donald Duck was (and still kind of is) the mascot for the University of Oregon. But just how?
The mascot history of the UO begins in 1894, when the football team was labeled “webfoots” in a newspaper article, due to the near constant rains in Oregon. In 1904, the name caught on at the UO, and was used officially by the University in 1902 as the title of the yearbook. However, and ironically, the term didn’t stick with the press, who began calling the University of Oregon sports teams the Ducks.
Greek lawn displays became pretty common around campus during game days, and many featured Donald Duck like images, beginning as early as 1941.
Legitimate Donald Duck images appeared in the 1943 yearbook, and featured Donald reading the yearbook, fighting in a snowball fight, and fighting in the war, while dreaming of school activities. Almost each image features “W.D.P.,” standing for Walt Disney Productions, in the corner. Additionally, on the first page featuring Donald, text in the corner reads “All Donald Ducks appearing in the 1943 Oregona are reproduced with the permission of Walt Disney Productions.” However just how that permission was achieved I could not uncover!
According to some sources, by the 1920s a fraternity had started a tradition of catching a duck from the nearby millrace and bringing it to games. By 1946 the live duck mascot had been embraced, given the name of Puddles, and even began appearing in the yearbook.
During this time both “Webfoots” and “Ducks” were being used to describe the student body. However, there is much debate when “Ducks” took over formally, all the way up to 1995 in fact. The year 1947 also marked the arrival of Leo Harris as the new Athletic Director at the UO. Harris, shortly after his arrival, in one way or another, struck an informal, handshake agreement with the one and only Walt Disney to use Donald Duck’s image as the official mascot for the UO, free of charge, as long as he was used in a respectable manner. The Walt Disney Studio produced multiple versions of Donald for the UO. The most iconic of which is Donald, in full University of Oregon gear, emerging from a giant yellow and green letter O.
What is unclear is just how Harris knew Walt. Harris hailed from Santa Cruz, went to Stanford where he played basketball, and was apparently well known in California education circles. So perhaps their paths crossed then?
A couple years after the agreement, in 1949, Donald’s image was appearing on posters and on the jackets for the UO athletes.
The yearbook also mentions that “Puddles, Oregon duck mascot, was on hand at all the games.” Puddles continued to be mentioned on and off through the years in the yearbooks, including Puddles’ death, when apparently Bill Bowerman’s (yes, the same Bill Bowerman who went onto Nike fame) “pet coon, Phoo” killed Puddles and a “black-bordered front-page obituary” was published for the student paper, The Daily Emerald. The yearbook went on to note that a replacement mascot was acquired from a junior high student. It is interesting that a live version of Puddles was noted as late as 1953, because, according the the UO’s sports website, the live animal version of Puddles was gone by “the early 1940s when repeated complaints from the Humane Society finally sucked the fun out of bringing a live duck to games.”
It wasn’t until 1956 that I ran across a human mascot, and two different versions of it at that! In various captions of the human mascot is called the “Ducks human mascot” and “the Oregon Webfoot” however on the page about the Rally Board, it reads that they went on to “re-establish the campus mascot ‘Puddles.'”
And that is the last time “Puddles” was seen in text. The years continued with various different incarnations of a human mascot, and Donald being featured on various sports uniforms, but soon there was a small hitch.
In 1966 Walt Disney passed away, and the Walt Disney Company quickly realized there was no formal contract between Walt and the UO. When called into question, the UO presented a lone photo of Harris and Walt, who donned a UO letterman jacket featuring Donald.
The Company deemed the photo enough evidence to support that the UO using Donald as something Walt would have wanted, and over the next seven years the University and the Walt Disney Company worked on a formal contract, which was finalized in 1973.
Not all people where a fan of being represented by Donald, or a duck, in fact from 1971 to 1978, Dick Harter, the basketball coach at the time, refused to acknowledge the Duck! In 1978 student and Daily Emerald graphic artist, Steven Sandstorm simply wasn’t a fan of Donald, and created “Mallard Drake,” who more or less looked like Daffy Duck, as a potential new mascot. He even illustrated Mallard giving Donald the boot. The debate went to a student vote, and was even recorded in the yearbook, the “ballot included an amendment to change the UO mascot from Donald Duck to Mallard Drake…most UO students thought that Mallard was just a snobby Daffy Duck look-alike. Donald won with a 2-1 margin over Mallard.”
Donald was beloved so much that in 1984, for his 50th birthday, the UO made him an honorary alumnus when he arrived at the Eugene airport, part of a tour Donald was doing for his birthday. Sadly I cannot find any photographic evidence of this particular visit, but according to the UO Sports’ site, “thousands of area residents signed a congratulatory scroll for Donald, and that document is now part of Disney’s corporate archives.”
By the late 1970s the iconic fighting Donald through the O began to be featured on more items at the University, including signs and paper cups.
Sometime in the 70s or 80s, the human mascot costume was revamped to look a bit more like Donald, and became part of the contract with the Walt Disney Company. The contract included a “character usage agreement” and outlined approved appearances for the mascot. If the UO wanted to use the costumed mascot outside of those pre-approved events, they had to get written approval from Disney. This became an issue during my time at the UO. The performer was also required to properly represent Donald, however I can find no evidence if Disney was involved in the casting process, or if they trusted the UO with that. If the contract was canceled, the costume had to be destroyed, yes, destroyed. Disney was very serious about this. The next part sent me into hysterics…Either the Walt Disney Company would send a representative to witness the destruction, or have the UO destroy it on their own and then provide a “certificate of destruction” to the Walt Disney Company.
The contract with Disney was revised several times, and in 1989 the royalties finally made their way into the contract. A revision in 1991 limited the sale of UO merchandise featuring Donald to only Eugene, the location of the main UO campus, and Portland, where some smaller UO campuses are.
Despite these restrictions, Disney didn’t seem to totally hate Donald being a part of the UO. In 1995 the Ducks were on their way to the Rose Bowl, and Disney invited the team, including the Duck, to Disneyland, where the Duck became the first (and as far as I know only) mascot allowed inside Disneyland.
A new logo was created for the UO, by Nike, a company that has origins at the UO, in 1999, which began to replace the Donald through the O design. The new logo placed the shape of the University’s track, Hayward Field, inside the shape of the football stadium, Autzen Stadium, creating an O. Some, including myself, didn’t care for the image as it seemed more focused on sports than the University itself. The addition of this logo allowed UO merchandise featuring it to be sold outside the locations specified in the Disney contract. The new logo went on to replace the Donald O logo on TV at games, the cheerleader uniforms, and more.
In the 21st century, a new mascot was hatched, literally. The Mandrake, also designed by Nike, arrived in 2002, and was an attempt to appeal to a younger generation.
During the game, the Mandrake burst from a massive egg, and faced off with the Oregon Duck, who the reporters referred to as “Donald.” It didn’t take long for the Mandrake to get nicknames like “Robo Duck” and “Duck Vader.” The new “companion” mascot, was never suppose to replace Donald, but provide more marketing flexibility for the UO, as they had total ownership over the Mandrake. However, he was an abysmal failure and lasted one year. The lack of love for Robo Duck solidified Donald representing the “Fighting Ducks” and he hasn’t faced a challenger since.
I arrived at the University of Oregon in the fall of 2006 and was about to experience perhaps the most tumultuous time for the already fragile relationship between the UO and Disney. By now, calling the mascot “Donald” had more or less fallen out of favor, and people simply called him “The Duck” or “Puddles.” However there is much debate over his name actually being “Puddles” so for simplicity’s sake, I’m calling him the Duck.
The Duck developed a tradition during games, doing pushups each time the UO scored, the number of pushups being whatever the total score was. During a game against Houston in 2007, Shasta, the cougar mascot for Houston, decided to make fun of the Duck’s pushups. The Duck didn’t like that, and a fight erupted between the Duck and Shasta.
The fight, which wasn’t staged, featured the Duck pushing, kicking, punching, and even body-slamming Shasta. Not deemed a respectable or appropriate representation of “Donald,” the end result was in a one game suspension for the student portraying the Duck. But let’s be honest, we are the “Fighting Ducks” and Donald is known for his temper, however he’s known to punch air rather than a person.
In 2009 the Ducks were headed to the Rose Bowl again, and fans calling themselves Supwitchugirl, made a music video for their song “I Smell Roses” aka “I Love My Ducks” which included an appearance of the Duck. This was a breech of the contract with Disney.
Remember that “character usage agreement” in the contract? Any appearance of the Duck outside of those specified in the contract had to be approved by Disney in writing, and this video, on the heels of the mascot fight, was the final straw. In 2010, my graduating year, there was a formal announcement made that the costumed mascot was not Donald Duck, and thus allowed the Duck, now known simply as the Oregon Duck, to make more appearances, and only had to report to the University, and not Disney.
Donald still appears on merchandise, but it’s less than ever, mainly because the UO loses money. As of 2010, for every sale of an item with Donald on it, the UO receives 12 percent of the sales, half of which goes to Disney. Now that the costumed mascot is no longer under Disney’s thumb, the University created an image that is an illustrated depiction of the mascot Duck to be put on various merchandise.
The University of Oregon remained the only sports team with a Disney connection until 1993 when Anaheim’s NHL team the Mighty Ducks arrived, complete with hockey mask wearing duck mascot dubbed Wild Wing, who later went on to be in the Might Ducks animated series. Disney sold the team (and I assume the rights of the mascot) in 2005, when they simply became the Anaheim Ducks. But regardless of the Mighty Ducks, the University of Oregon remains the only school to have a direct Walt Disney connection to create a Disney mascot. So, if you’re catch a Ducks football game this fall, there is a reason the mascot looks mighty familiar.