Many Yalies may not notice the difference, but a new, smaller Handsome Dan will be growling at the Cantabs at The Game this year.
A new bulldog named Sherman quietly assumed the mascot position in late winter 2006, two football seasons after his predecessor, Mugsy, was named Handsome Dan XVI at the Spring Fling festivities in April 2005. Handsome Dans traditionally reign for a lifetime, but Mugsy, who is still living with owner Bob Sansone in Hamden, abdicated long before his time expired.
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The few students interviewed who were aware of the switch said they were surprised that the two dogs traded places so abruptly. The University has not made an official statement explaining why Sherman replaced Mugsy.
“I don’t recall anyone saying we’ve got a new Handsome Dan,” said Costa Lapaseotes ’08, a Yale Precision Marching Band member who judged the 2005 bulldog competition with two other students.
In the past, Handsome Dans have held the title for as long as they could still prowl the sidelines of the Yale Bowl. A handful of past mascots — stuffed and sealed behind glass cases — continue to guard Yale’s athletic glory in the University’s Visitor Center and Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
The mascot contest, which let Yalies select a local bulldog to be the next Handsome Dan, was the first of its kind. Prior to 2005, dogs were either donated to Yale by alumni or University affiliates and were cared for by Chris Getman ’64, a local businessman who has been Yale’s mascot caretaker for the past 21 years.
Lapaseotes said the Athletics Department decided to hold the contest in the spring of 2005, after Getman decided to retire from his position for “personal reasons” which he did not disclose.
The five-judge panel included Getman, Assistant Athletic Director and Sports Publicity Director Steve Conn, Lapaseotes and two other students. Lapaseotes said the judges went into the competition with an idea of what kind of dog they were looking for based on images of bulldogs on Yale postcards and other paraphernalia.
The contest came down to two dogs, but the decision was clear, Lapaseotes said. When given a choice between a crimson flag and a stuffed toy tiger, Mugsy went after Yale’s biggest rival and emerged victorious.
“Mugsy knew that Harvard sucks but Princeton doesn’t matter,” Lapaseotes said.
After the judges announced Mugsy as the winner, the dog signed a contract with his paw, which had been dipped in ink. The contract stipulated that Mugsy must “serve as the Yale University Athletics mascot … be patient with young and old alike and … bring good fortune to the playing fields of Yale.”
But the contract did not specify a minimum amount of mandatory time in the office, Conn said.
After just two years as the wrinkly face of Yale athletics, Mugsy’s tenure came to a sudden end. Sometime late in the fall 2006 or early in the spring 2007 semester, Sansone said he was abruptly informed Mugsy had been displaced. Accounts vary about exactly when the switch took place, since Sansone said he was informed of the decision in March or April, several months after Getman said it was made.
Shortly after Sansone received a phone call informing him that Getman would be presenting a different mascot at the 2007 commencement ceremonies, Sansone remembered, he was sent a letter from the athletics department saying that Getman wished to return permanently as caretaker. The letter suggested that Yale was going in a “new direction,” Sansone said.
When Yale terminated Mugsy’s contract, Sansone said, he was upset that the University had brought the dog on board briefly only to abruptly cut off all ties.
“I felt like the dog had been used,” he said.
But Getman said he had always believed that Mugsy was only signed up for a two-year term, even though a specific time limit was not mentioned in the contract. While the University has not released an official statement explaining its reasons for the switch from Mugsy to Sherman, officials involved said the primary reason for the swap was Getman’s return to his post.
Getman said he thinks the Athletics Department decided to switch mascots in part because coordination was difficult with an owner who had no affiliation with the University. But Sansone said he thinks the University may have been uncomfortable with using a dog with no connection to Yale.
Sansone said he found the job of caretaker difficult because he received no guidance from a veteran caretaker and did not know where to look for help. He said he had initially hoped that Getman would act as a mentor, but he said that once he realized Getman did not intend to play that role, he was left with unanswered questions about how to fulfill his position.
“There was no job outline,” he said. “There was this great contest, and then nobody had a thought after that, so we were playing it by ear and making up our own rules.”
Since Getman had held the position of mascot caretaker for over two decades before his brief retirement, he had become familiar with the expectations of the job. It was difficult to define the responsibility, he said, to someone not directly involved in the Yale community.
“I think it makes a big difference to have some connection to Yale,” Getman said.
Over the last year, student athletes gradually realized that the bulldog on the sidelines was not Mugsy. Several students interviewed said they were disappointed to see him go.
Kevin Discepolo ’09, a member of the men’s lacrosse team, said he was shocked to see a different dog at the first home football game this season against Cornell in September. He said he screamed “imposter” as soon as he saw the new dog on the field.
Becky Hua ’09, one of the captains of the Yale cheerleading team, said the entire squad was startled to see that Handsome Dan had “shrinked” at the Georgetown game. Hua said she had grown accustomed to Mugsy’s 70-pound frame since her freshman year.
“Everyone likes Mugsy better as Handsome Dan,” she said, comparing the former Handsome to the 50-pound Sherman. “He was more talented, big and caught footballs.”
But Lapaseotes said he does not think switching dogs was a big deal. He said he understands why the University wanted control over the dog and respects its arrangement with Getman, given the caretaker’s history with Yale.
Lapaseotes said he is not attached to any particular dog as long as Yale makes sure that a big bulldog is standing guard on the sidelines.
But Hua said Mugsy’s absence is not trivial. The fans who do care can tell the difference, she said.
“Yale is one of the few universities that has a live mascot,” she said. “It started the tradition, and for that reason itself, we should take pride in this long-kept tradition.”
The University was the first academic institution to adopt a live mascot when Handsome Dan I was anointed in 1889.