Curious Louisville

Woody Woodpecker. Donald Duck. Iago from “Aladdin.” Louie, the University of Louisville cardinal. All these birds have something in common: at various points in their histories, they have been depicted with a full toothy grin.

Wikimedia Commons

Which leads to our latest Curious Louisville question from Rachel Peterson: “Why does the U of L cardinal mascot have teeth?”

“Birds don’t have teeth,” Rachel said. “I get that it’s trying to look fierce, but it’s just biologically inaccurate.”

WFPL’s Liz Schlemmer looked into the answer, and she started with the U of L athletic department’s web page dedicated to the mascot.

“And it said, ‘Louie was originally designed and built by former U of L student Ralph Carey, class of 1980 U of L graduate,’” Liz said. “And I thought, ‘Great, right off the bat I have a name to pursue.’”

“And then I found that he was the designer of the Big Red mascot at WKU,” she said.

Big Red is a pretty unique mascot. While people in Louisville may wonder why our mascot has teeth, there’s been a lot of discussion about what Big Red even…is.

“My best description is a big, red blob.” Liz said.

Western Kentucky University

Ralph Carey and Big Red

She found a ton of information tying Ralph Carey to Big Red, and to other mascots as well. He had worked in the costume department at Kings Island in Ohio, where he learned about mascot design, but there was nothing to be found — no articles, no interviews, no photos — tying him to the U of L cardinal.

“But maybe it’s totally possible that if he designed this other mascot for WKU that he designed U of L’s mascot,” Liz said.

So she started looking for Ralph Carey, figuring he was the only person who could explain why he gave the mascot teeth.

At University of Louisville Archives, she learned about the mascot’s evolution. Carrie Daniels, the director of the archives, said the first version of the mascot was developed in the 1950s.

“He started out as kind of a cloth costume that was just put together, because a group of cheerleaders thought, ‘We need a mascot,’” Carrie said.

University of Louisville Archives

Love birds.

In the 1960s, a ‘Lady Bird’ costume, with a papier-mâché head and pipe cleaner eyelashes, hit the courts as well. (An interesting bit of U of L lore: The students who portrayed the Cardinal Bird and Lady Bird in the 1960s dated in real life, and according to an archived newspaper article, they planned to marry after graduation and join the Peace Corps together).

Sometime in the late 1970s, Carrie said, a full mascot costume was designed and “the bird grew teeth.”

University of Louisville Archives

Celebrating with a big, toothy grin.

The U of L archives shared all this history (and most of the photos you see in this story) with Liz Schlemmer. But there was something they didn’t have: any information at all about designer Ralph Carey.

“So that was still kind of this burning question that I had going forward,” Liz said.

She found a current phone number for Ralph, who now lives in Illinois, and called him.

“And he was very surprised to get my call,” Liz said. “Because he did not design U of L’s cardinal bird.”

“Boy talk about things getting twisted around,” Ralph said. “I will not take credit where credit’s not due.”

For what it’s worth, Ralph said he would have given Louie the cardinal teeth, too, to make him look more intimidating. But he didn’t have any leads on who the original designer might be.

So if you or someone you know designed the University of Louisville cardinal mascot, let us know. Any leads are welcome in the form below, which is also where you can ask your own Curious Louisville question.

Listen to this story:

(Can’t listen? Here’s a transcript.)