Cardy’s Competition: The Fight to be Otterbein’s Mascot

Posted Apr 01, 2024

By Dr. Harold “Rusty” Wilson

During the early days of college athletics, if a school did not officially choose a nickname, they were coined by sportswriters covering their sporting events, and seldom were they called the same moniker twice. If the school had a religious affiliation, the connection was usually used preceded by a fierce adjective – the Ohio Wesleyan Battling Bishops, the Wilmington Quakers, the Capital Fighting Lutherans, etc. Even the larger universities went through the same procedure if they didn’t have a chosen nickname. Notre Dame, now known as the Fighting Irish, were originally called the Ramblers by the press because they seldom played a home game due to poor facilities.

If none of the above pertained to a school, their colors were referenced as a nickname. Otterbein chose Tan and Cardinal as its official school colors on May 27, 1891, so sportswriters would call Otterbein the Tans, or sometimes the Cardinals. The term Cardinal or Cardinals became more prevalent with sportswriters after 1933 when the State of Ohio official chose the Cardinal as the state bird. By 1948, it was accepted that the Cardinal was the de facto Otterbein mascot.

However, there was a growing sentiment for the school to accept the Otter, due to its association to the university’s namesake (Rev. Phillip Otterbein) and the uniqueness of the symbol — as of 2024 there are still no NCAA Division III universities using the Otter as a mascot, while there are eight DIII schools using Cardinals. Alumnus A. M. Courtright, editor of the Westerville Public Opinion newspaper wrote in 1948 that a Cardinal was a “little red bird,” as opposed to the Otter, which was, “a bold and fearless fighter of the animal world.”

In 1963, Head Football Coach Robert “Moe” Agler capitalized put Cardinal heads on Otterbein’s helmets. Agler, good friends with the St. Louis Cardinals Head Coach Wally Lemm, obtained the decals from the NFL team. That same year, Assistant Coach Larry Lintner arranged for artist Bill Fredericks to create a “Fighting Cardinal,” which was used until 1992 when it was replaced with a more friendly and less aggressive-looking bird.

The Cardinal-Otter mascot controversy reared its head again in 1983 when Otterbein’s public affairs office received permission to use the Otter in marketing materials. An opinion poll conducted that same year by the student newspaper, the Tan and Cardinal, saw the Cardinals winning by one vote. In 1995 the debate was again stoked when the Athletic Department put the word “Otters” on the school’s football helmets. The 1997 guidebook for incoming freshman featured an Otter on the cover. By 1999 the alumni association sold cookbooks with both a Cardinal and an Otter on the cover and Otterbein flags with either a Cardinal or Otter.

The debate gradually increased until the campus radio station, WOBN, brought it to an unofficial tongue-in-cheek vote to see how students, faculty, staff, and alumni felt about which mascot should represent Otterbein. The vote took place on Election Day, Nov. 7, 2000. The results were: 326 votes for Cardinals and 286 for Otters. Eight people wanted to use both mascots while seven didn’t want either.

In 2007 the Cardinal was finally christened “Cardy.” Today, Cardy is a popular figure at Otterbein events (and sometimes on social media), and his face is everywhere you look – on posters, t-shirts, even the middle of the basketball court!

Next time you see Cardy, be sure to take a picture with him — and remember what it took for him to become our mascot!