By Ryan Yousefi
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In a matchup the sportswriters are calling the Super Bowl of College Football, the University of Miami Hurricanes, ranked number one in the nation, will battle number-two Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day. Fans will cram the New Orleans Superdome for the showdown of undefeated teams. Approximately a bazillion couch potatoes will tune in on the tube. To the victors: a national championship and the attendant spoils.
And from the sidelines, the TV cameras will no doubt beam a familiar image to America: a green-and-orange flurry, lunging to and fro, hosing the crowd with Silly String, exhorting the UM faithful, perhaps even bopping the Alabama mascot -- an elephant named Al -- with a fake hammer. For 'Canes mascot Sebastian the Ibis, this contest is merely the latest in a series of high-profile bowl gigs.
But inside, Sebastian will be crying. Underneath the faded feathers of his costume, the hyperkinetic ibis is facing a foe far tougher than any gridiron rowdy -- the dreaded nicotine jones.
Sebastian has quit smoking. After 35 years of puffing on his trusty corncob pipe, the bird has gone cold turkey.
"The thing is, smoking's bad for your health. It's just not acceptable any more," fumes John Routh, the man who has occupied the bird suit since 1984. "You do inhale with a pipe and, of course, it smells even nastier than a cigarette, because the smell lingers for weeks."
Three years ago Routh kicked off his campaign to snuff the pipe out of UM merchandise by lobbying Chuck Canfield, UM's director of licensing.
Routh, who works full time as the ibis and as the Miami Maniac at UM baseball games, says he personally hasn't succumbed to the lure of tobacco since high school. Neither of his costumes has ever included smoking paraphernalia. But it's Sebastian's merchandising image -- prominently equipped with that trademark corncob pipe -- that troubles him. "Like everything else, kids are persuaded by cartoon characters," the professional mascot argues. "This is not the example we want to be setting."
Routh says he's not quite sure how the ibis -- a species ornithologists insist rarely indulges in anything beyond an occasional puff on a low-tar cigarette -- picked up such a nasty habit. The prevailing theory is image overcompensation.
"In the wild, I'll admit, the ibis is not the most vicious of creatures," Routh says. "But the costume seems to scare more kids, because he looks fierce. It's not just the pipe, he's also got that bandage below his eye, so you know he's been in a fight."
"It symbolizes toughness," proclaims Carol Recicar, an administrative assistant in the UM athletic department. "It's a Popeye kind of thing."
For those who have nothing better to do than obsess over college mascots, however, the choice of a spindly legged, minnow-gulping marsh dweller to symbolize America's most ferocious, bone-crunching football squad may seem like a curious call, regardless of the tough-guy trappings.
Chalk it up to folklore, which maintains that the ibis is the last animal to take shelter before a hurricane and the first to reappear after a storm. An inhabitant of the Everglades, the waterfowl became UM's first unofficial mascot in 1926, when the school yearbook took the name Ibis. In 1957 the residents of San Sebastian Hall entered an ibis float in the homecoming pageant, spurring an industrious undergrad to don ibis garb at football games the following year.
Back then the papier mache bird was a desperate attempt to rouse fan spirit from the torpor of one miserable season after another. But over the years, as UM has assembled a football dynasty of unparalleled might, Sebastian has become one wing of a multimillion-dollar merchandising empire. The school now ranks second only to Notre Dame in booty generated by the selling of paraphernalia -- everything from official UM coffee mugs to official UM coffee. Last fiscal year the school raked in two million dollars in licensing fees. This year profits have doubled, according to licensing chieftain Chuck Canfield.
Sebastian's smoking achieved extra totemic significance during Howard Schnellenberger's four-year reign as head coach, from 1979 to 1982; Schnellenberger himself was almost never without a pipe.
All of which has made stripping Sebastian of his corncob a rather tenuous prospect. "As the current trademark stands, the pipe's in there. What we've been doing is asking merchandisers to take it out," says Canfield, adding conscientiously, "the bird really isn't smoking. It's just part of that Popeye nonsense. Remember how he used to smoke spinach and blow steam out of his pipe? It's steam, really. Not smoke."
The phasing-out has been a slow process, Canfield admits, and it will have to be voluntary until 1996, when the ibis trademark is renewed -- sans pipe.
Mascot Routh says he will continue to scorn the pipe. He even intended to take part in this year's Great American Smokeout last month, he says, but he was too busy. He is now hatching plans to hold a press conference in which he publicly smashes a pipe.
In the meantime, viewers who tune into the Sugar Bowl will have to imagine the inner torment of that brave and mighty bird as he stalks the sidelines, rooting on his 'Canes, mugging for the camera, and battling the lonely urge to bum a butt.
"It symbolizes toughness. It's a Popeye kind of thing."