Thrusday, January 07, 1999

Fur flies as Bearcatgate breaks out




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        By tradition, The Bearcat is anonymous. His identity is revealed on a need-to-know basis. He is a mascot of mystery, and now, of mystique.

        The fourth-year marketing major who wears the Bearcat costume became a celebrity of sorts Wednesday at Shoemaker Center. The University of Cincinnati basketball team extended its perfect season to 14 games with an 87-64 victory over DePaul, behind brilliant shot-making by Melvin Levett and historic shot-blocking by Kenyon Martin. Yet the guy in the cartoon garb nearly stole the show.

        He did it by accident, he said, and was subsequently filled with regret.

        “It was really a huge misunderstanding,” The Bearcat said in a rare interview without his headpiece. “I came out from that timeout, and I tripped over the cameraman's cable. When I looked up, I saw a pair of black pants. I thought it was a cameraman. Apparently, it wasn't the cameraman.”

        It was, in fact, referee Paul Kaster, and only a few moments after UC coach Bob Huggins had been called for a technical foul. Given this coincidence, and the variety of The Bearcat's gestures — which included the international signal for a blocking foul — the mascot's actions appeared intended to provoke the official. If his obstructed view prevented him from distinguishing a whistle from a camera, he was the only one in the arena to make that mistake.

        Enter UC officialdom. Exit mascot. Instant martyr.

C-USA is watching
        Berating officials has traditionally been considered Bob Huggins' responsibility at UC, and the inalienable right of the paying customers. Mascots are cautioned against conduct detrimental to decorum, particularly if it has the potential of provoking a technical foul.

        Tom Hathaway, UC's sports information director, spotted the inflammatory appearance of The Bearcat's behavior and swiftly moved to the scene. Hathaway advised The Bearcat to back off and, when his advice was not immediately heeded, escorted the mascot from the arena. Arena security, ever vigilant, promptly declared that door off-limits to reporters.

        “There's a conference guideline about mascots not having interplay with the game officials,” Hathaway said later. “We talked to him about the conference rules.”

        As the rules were being reviewed, the spectators closest to the incident took up a chant on behalf of The Bearcat. The mascot could hear them as he awaited sentencing. Cheeleader coach Tabby Fagan cleared the mascot to return to the floor for the second half. She later appeared to break up The Bearcat's interview with The Enquirer.

        “The Bearcat is an anonymous figure,” Fagan explained. “He doesn't talk.”

Back to ovation
        When his cooling-off period had ended, The Bearcat returned to the floor to a tumultuous ovation shortly before the start of the second half. His cheerleading colleagues promptly tackled him near center court, perhaps as a precaution.

        “I apologized to the referees,” The Bearcat said. “And I plan to apologize to the man who took me off the court. I just don't want this misunderstanding to get me in trouble. Things have a tendency to get out of hand.”

        Mascots are sometimes emboldened and sometimes encouraged, to push the envelope of etiquette. The Rhode Island Ram was ejected from a game last year after knocking the mask off the St. Joseph's Hawk. Before last month's Stanford-Cal football game, police were enlisted to perform pregame breathalyzer tests on the school mascots. The tipoff of the 1996 Women's NCAA Championship game was delayed because the Tennessee Volunteer jumped on a stuffed animal that exploded on impact.

        It's a high-profile job, but it does have its drawbacks. The costumes can be heavy, and they are always hot.

        “I love the fact that at one time or another, all 13,000 fans are watching me for at least one second,” The Bearcat said. “Tonight, it was a long second.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com

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