After years of searching, Pepperdine University may have finally found the answer to a question that has baffled students and scholars alike and has separated it from the ranks of the nation's best-known colleges.
The university had the teams, the players, the cheerleaders, the ocean-view campus and its share of spirited students, but something clearly was missing at its sport events. It lacked a school symbol, a mascot that people could identify as readily as USC's Trojan, UCLA's Bruin or Notre Dame's leprechaun.
Conjuring up an official team trademark, however, has always proved an elusive problem for the university. For Pepperdine is home to the Waves.
"You can imagine how difficult it is to come up with a mascot when your nickname is the Waves," said Scott Honour, president of the Student Alumni Assn. "It's a challenging concept."
With Pepperdine celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, alumni and student government officials at the Malibu campus decided it was finally time to settle the mascot issue. So they held a design competition and paid a well-known costume maker $3,400 to turn the wave concept into a reality.
What they came up with is Willie the Wave, a large multicolored, banana-shaped, fur-covered creation that demonstrates just how difficult it is to transform a body of water into a body.
Willie already has made waves at Pepperdine. A student newspaper columnist likened him to a "left-over piece of dashboard fur" and a "mutant Easter Bunny."
Between Gumby and Smurf
Even his backers admit they have problems describing him, likening Willie to something between Gumby and a Smurf.
"I don't even think I could describe him," said Doug Plank, director of alumni relations. "I'm not sure how close they came to actually depicting a wave, but they tried."
Whether Willie is a washout or fan favorite will depend largely on the efforts of an 18-year-old freshman who won a tryout last week for the honor of wearing the orange, blue and white costume to Pepperdine games and doing his best to impersonate a wave. Willie can talk, but university officials are encouraging him to use pantomime.
School officials are keeping his name a secret, presumably so other students will not recognize him out of uniform, but possibly to protect him from being tossed into Pepperdine's pool--the fate that greeted a former student who did a wave imitation decked out in a wet suit, snorkel, fins and a mask.
Previous attempts to depict a wave have resulted in students bringing decorated water containers to games and shaking them at critical moments.
"How do you give a wave personality?" said the student who will make his debut as Willie the Wave when Pepperdine's basketball squad meets the Bulgarian national team in Malibu on Nov. 17.
"You have to be a ham and play a lot of practical jokes," he said. "You have to move around a lot. Once you're in the costume, you can do anything you want."
The controversy over Pepperdine's first official mascot does not bother the alumni and students who put up the money to design Willie the Wave. They say it's fine with them if people want to call him the world's biggest fur ball.
"We don't think controversy is a bad thing," said Chris DiBattista, head of the Student Government Assn. spirit committee. "We hope that he gains lots of attention. After all, he's important. He's the school emblem."
Tricia Brodbine, assistant director of alumni relations, said their only concern about Willie the Wave is how opponents' fans will react when Pepperdine goes on the road.
Trouble on Road
"Our only worry is what people on the road are going to do when they see him," she said. "But if we have a good (basketball) season, I don't think he can fail."
Brodbine said they have already received inquiries from people wondering whether Willie's likeness will be emblazoned on T-shirts, caps, coffee mugs and other school products. Future endorsements likely will depend upon his reception by students.
The new Pepperdine team mascot also raises the question of why people think waves look like Gumby. Shana Walton, a spokeswoman for Tulane University in New Orleans--home of the Green Wave--described their mascot this week as "a large green thing, kind of like Gumby."
However, Willie the Wave may not always look like Pokey's partner. Alumni officials said his head may be reshaped, "so he won't look so much like a banana," and this week, Willie was scheduled to undergo some last-minute alternations.
The costume, which features a hoop-skirt bottom, inhibits movement so legs will be added to allow Willie to do his wave-like things at games.
"Although technically," Honour said, "waves don't have legs."