It’s February 4, 2017 and Syracuse University men’s basketball team is gearing up to host No. 24 Virginia. The crowd is making noise in the Carrier Dome and all you see is a sea of orange. The players are warming up on the court, but behind the scenes, something completely different is happening. The cheerleaders are rehearsing and stretching and somewhere in the Dome is junior Olivia Livskowitz, putting on her hidden identity to be Otto the Orange for a couple of hours.
“Any time it’s close or we go into overtime, or win, it’s always fun,” Livskowitz said. “People love to see Otto no matter how we’re doing in the game. The time we played against Virginia, it was super close, (Syracuse won, 66-62), but it was fun working with the crowd for that one. Overall, any game was a great game to be Otto.”
Shannon Feeney Andre was Otto from 2006-2009. One of her most memorable games was during her senior year. She traveled with Syracuse for a late November 2008 trip to South Bend, Ind., where the ‘Cuse football team was a big underdog against Notre Dame. After Syracuse won, 24-23, Andre was celebrating in the end zone.
“It had snowed, and all of the Notre Dame fans had packed these snowballs and they pelted me with them,” she recalled. “I couldn’t feel anything because I was in this suit. I’m just somersaulting, and cheering and I’m just getting pelted with snowballs. It was just so fun.”
While most schools have animal mascots, Syracuse University does things a little differently.
Their mascot is a fruit- a big, round, bright, friendly and cheerful orange named Otto. Otto is the only fruit mascot in collegiate athletics.
Syracuse’s mascot wasn’t always an orange though. Before him, there was an actual goat named Vita who was the mascot throughout the 1920’s and also the Saltine Warrior which was the mascot from 1931-1978.
The first orange mascot made its’ debut in 1980 but didn’t get the name ‘Otto’ until 1995. That was also the year that Otto was officially recognized as the school’s official mascot. Now, any Syracuse fan can spot Otto from just about anywhere.
Not just anyone can be Otto though. You must be a full-time student at Syracuse who has orange running through their veins. The student must be between 5’6-5’9 with a GPA of at least 2.75. The student can’t talk and they can only tell five people that they’re Otto. Other than that small circle, they must keep their identity a secret at all times.
“Only my family and my roommates knew,” Livskowitz said. “Family doesn’t really count I guess because they had no contact with anyone at Syracuse.”
“It is about the personality first,” Syracuse University’s mascot coach Julie Walas-Huynh said. “Can this person exhibit enthusiasm and spirit that portrays what this university is all about? And, can they humbly put Otto before themselves? Beyond that, can they be athletically fit and endure what is a really tough workout every time they put that suit on?”
Walas-Huynh has been the mascot coach at Syracuse since 2007. Her full time job is director of academic advising and student engagement in SU’s School of Information Studies. While she was a student at Syracuse, she was Otto.
Walas-Huynh is almost always looking for new Ottos. She likes to have about seven Otto’s on board at any time since the mascot makes around 370 appearances every year. There are tryouts and candidates go through personal interviews. The process can stretch over several months or take just a few weeks if there is a pressing need for another Otto. Livskowitz found out about Otto at “Home to the Dome” during welcome week of her freshman year.
“Otto was holding a sign about looking for people,” Livskowitz said. “I couldn’t at the time because I was on the rowing team, but I eventually reached out about it later in college.”
Andre saw the mascot on television shortly after being accepted to Syracuse. “I said, jokingly, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I was that giant Orange,’ and my family thought it was hysterical,” Andre recalls. “No one ever thought I would do it.”
Aside from sporting events, Otto can come to birthday parties, bat mitzvahs, family reunions, retirement parties, community events, alumni and student events, weddings, elementary schools, and even wakes.
Zannah Bailey was one of the Otto’s from 2010-2014 and appeared as Otto at a wake.
“The people who had asked for it were so thankful,” Bailey stated. “They didn’t want a real energetic Otto- they wanted a member of the community who feels their loss as well.”
For Livskowitz, community events outside of the university held some of her most memorable experiences as Otto. “You really get to see how much Syracuse and the spirit Otto embodies means to Central New Yorkers of all ages. Sports games are awesome but it was really special to take that spirit off campus and make an impact there.”
“I love going to New York City for all sorts of events,” Livskowitz added. “There are so many alum there who get so stoked when they see Otto and you can tell how much Syracuse means to them by their reaction.”
One thing that all Otto’s agree on is that being Otto involves lying and being able to keep your secret identity is hard work.
“At first you’re like ‘OK, five people is a good amount.’ Then you realize that this is a commitment that takes up 10-15 hours of your life per week,” said Andy Pregler who was Otto from 2011-2015. “So keeping that a secret, it’s insane.”
“I’m so bad at lying so I really had to try to keep a straight face when telling white lies about where I was, which was literally multiple times a day,” Livskowitz stated. “Luckily, I run a ton and so it really wasn’t too out of the ordinary if I showed up somewhere looking all sweaty and disheveled.”
“You walk back across the Quad completely sweaty. You stink to high heaven. It’s really apparent that you either just had the craziest workout of your life, or you were just inside of a mascot suit.” Pregler added.
“They’re really careful,” Walas-Huynh said. “They become very skilled at the art of deception.”
At the 2011 Syracuse University Commencement, Teresa M. Soldner was the student speaker. Soldner was the first female to wear Otto. She talked about the five life lessons Otto taught:
- Most things in life probably aren’t worth taking too seriously.
- Dedication: success or failure, win or lose.
- Learning new ways to express yourself is really hard.
- Know the incredible power of breaking social boundaries and how it can touch someone’s life.
- After our time here, the word ORANGE will never be the same to us.
She continued to say, “Otto wants you to know that a bad apple can ruin the barrel, but there’s no such thing as a bad orange. Never let your life be too busy for laughter. Laugh to relax and be comfortable with yourself, because oranges have thick skin and a soft heart. Laugh when things get awkward. Laugh when your team isn’t number one. Laugh to keep your sanity and to let go. And laugh when things are difficult, because there’s always joy to be found somewhere in life.”