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A Conversation with Ralph Carey, the Man Behind WKU's Legendary Mascot

The creator of Western Kentucky University's Big Red, one of the most talked about mascots in college sports, talks about the personality, history, and creation of the well-known, fuzzy fanatic.

Ralph Carey speaking at a statue unveiling of Big Red on campus. WKU's mascot was created by Carey decades earlier.
Ralph Carey speaking at a statue unveiling of Big Red on campus. WKU's mascot was created by Carey decades earlier.
Joshua Lindsey/ Bowling Green Daily News

You’re credited with the creation of one of the most eccentric mascots in all of sports: Western Kentucky’s own Big Red. How would you describe Big Red, in your own words?

Big Red is a personality, a character in the true sense. Unquestionably the ultimate WKU fan, Big Red is also a bit unpredictable and that may add to the creature's mystique. Big Red is your lovable, quirky neighbor who is fun to be around... but you’re still not sure if he is who he appears to be. The character was designed to leave you wondering.

How did you get involved in Western Kentucky’s search for a mascot?

I was a student and two fraternity brothers, both WKU cheerleaders, mentioned the university was looking for ideas for a new mascot. It sounded like an interesting challenge, so I offered to get involved.

Did your experience with Hanna-Barbera and Kings Island Amusement Park in Cincinnati give you any advantages when creating Western Kentucky’s legendary mascot?

The Kings Island experience made it possible. I performed in costume during the summer at the theme park. I knew how to entertain. Big Red was 100% built around the ability to engage an audience. The character is designed to communicate a variety of emotions, to move freely and to see without obstruction. I wanted it to be a high performance vehicle vs. other university character costumes. It is a mascot's mascot, designed with every advantage a performer could ask for.

What were some of your initial concerns or goals during the mascot creation process? Did you have a general idea as to what this mascot would look like or need to symbolize?

As to the design, the creature needed the performance characteristics mentioned (visibility, the ability to move) as well as a gimmick. I consider the character's mouth a gimmick. It allows for the translation of a wide variety of emotions, as well as the ability to 'swallow' anything smaller than a three-year-old child. It could only be red and it certainly was big. The goal was always to make it unique to WKU.

My initial concern was that Big Red as a concept might be too far out there. I was on an island and if the character was a bomb, all fingers would point in my direction.

Big Red’s theatrical persona seems to have always existed; he was presented as a Christmas present from Santa Claus at a basketball game in 1979, emerging from a white box with a bow. What was the crowd’s reaction to Big Red? Were you at all surprised by it?

Standing in the dark inside Santa's present minutes before the initial unveiling was surreal. Because of my prior performance experience, I knew that out of the box, the character's persona needed to be large, dramatic and entertaining.

The crowd's initial reaction was favorable. That energy fueled the first performance. I was too panicked about the potential of Big Red being a flop to slow down long enough to be reflective. I had thought the debut went well but like any performer, I went to bed that night worried about the coming media reviews and comments from the WKU administration.  When responses were universally positive, there was tremendous relief.

Did you ever think that the "red blob" you created over three decades ago would be such a growing, prominent symbol of the university today? What has it been like to see Big Red in places such as SportsCenter commercials, the Ellen DeGeneres Show, and the annual Capital One Mascot Challenge?

It was a dream of mine that Big Red might someday receive broader recognition, but my vision did not include frequent appearances in ESPN commercials, or on daytime TV talk shows. I recognize Big Red is still around due in part to Western Kentucky University who fully embraced the character and has skillfully managed it for more than 30 years. For this I am personally grateful.  It's nice to leave a mark.