Former Ottos reflect on their times as school mascot

Article and Infographic by Anna Gibertini

It was a beautiful day: warm, sunny and bright. Julie Huynh, then an undergrad at Newhouse, sunned herself on a bench, enjoying a rare moment of calm in an otherwise hectic student’s life.

As she sat enjoying the fresh air, a friend walked over to her.

“I’m going to Otto tryouts. I think you should be an Otto — come with me!” the friend said.

Huynh agreed to tag along. She’s glad she did. She made the team, and Otto continues to play a role in her life even after graduation.

“It’s super cool to be an Otto — at least in my book!” said Huynh, who graduated in 2007 and has since married (she was Julie Wallas while an undergraduate).

Huynh was an Otto for two years. But nothing was like the first time she put on the fuzzy orange suit, she said. The suit was heavy and hot. Despite this demanding discomfort, it was electrifying to be in.

Before she graduated, Huynh oversaw a try-out for the next crop of Ottos.  That’s when Dena Segbers, the head cheer coach, approached her about post-graduation plans.  When Huynh said she planned to stay in Syracuse and work at the University, Segbers offered her the head mascot coach position.

“I took the job for no money, having no idea how much time I was going to spend, or how rewarding it was all going to be,” Huynh said. “It’s given back tenfold over the last decade of me being involved with this program.”

It is easy to see why Huynh made a perfect Otto.  Her demeanor is unfailingly positive.  An obvious affection and devotion tinge her words when describing Otto’s personality and charm.  She talks with pep, obviously speaking from the heart rather than a pre-existing mental script.  With her wide smile and clear eyes, she is the archetype die-hard fan.

Huynh has been the head mascot coach for about 10 years.  In addition, she now serves as the director of academic advising and student engagement at the School of Information Sciences.

A large part of Huynh’s job as coach is to arrange and negotiate Otto’s hectic schedule. Otto’s season is perpetual and his appearances off campus are manifold. He has 375 off-campus appearances planned this year alone — at least 50 percent of his total appearances, Huynh said. He can be in more than one place a day every day.

She also has the responsibilities of every other coach in the athletic program to “create a fantastic team dynamic every year” and “empower students to become better people because of their experience” as Otto.

The students who make up the team have two important tasks.  First, they have to maintain peak physical shape.  They work out as a team between three or four times a week at the Manley Athletic Facilities, Huynh said.  Like any other athlete, they spend an incredible amount of time in the weight room and run weekly timed miles.  The team is generally made up of five people but there can be as many as seven or eight.

“I don’t think people realize that (being on the field during a game) is an incredible endurance workout,” Huynh said.  “They’re carrying this really heavy suit with them, they never stop moving and they’re interacting with all sorts of people. It is a tough workout.”

The students also have to work on the more theatrical and imaginative aspects of being Otto.  How Otto behaves on and off the court or field is something Huynh and the team put together to get just the right balance of goofy and energetic.  A general rule of thumb for them is to imagine Otto’s personality as that of a “very curious, a little bit mischievous, 6-year-old boy.”  He has a lot fun “pushing (his fans’) buttons.” He does this by sneaking up on distracted fans, forcing serious fans to clap or stealing hats off his fans’ heads, to name a few classic Otto moves. But Otto also wants to “be everyone’s friend.”  He loves to pose for pictures with old and young alike and he loves getting crowds pumped up through jumping, doing pushups or dancing.

Huynh isn’t the only Newhouse alum-turned-employee on campus who has been inside the orange suit.  Eric Grode, director of the Goldring Arts Journalism program at the Newhouse School, was a short-lived Otto in the early 1990s.  While he eventually had to quit the team due to school demands, he came out as Otto during a Parents Weekend. It was then that he learned about some of the fans’ favorite physical displays of affection toward Otto — namely “bouncing” him like a basketball.  This requires the person inside the Otto costume to squat down and lightly bounce on the balls of their feet while a fan bops their hand on top of Otto’s hat.  Some displays of affection are not very kind.  Sometimes people try to punch Otto in his gigantic nose, which, according to Grode, is right around the concealed person’s stomach.  Grode laughed, reminiscing about trying to “ward off” combative fans while maintaining Otto’s open and friendly persona.

“I like the fact that he’s so anodyne, and that he has nothing to do with striking fear into the hearts of the other team.  He’s cute and orange.  He’s awesome,” Grode said.  “I’m a big fan of Otto, obviously — I was Otto!”

Hannah Warren, the public information officer for the Division of Campus Safety and Emergency Services and another Newhouse alum, was Otto her senior year before graduating in 2012.

The team dynamic was an aspect she really enjoyed.  After practices, the team would gather at the apartment of the Otto with the “nicest digs.” They cooked dinner, plopped down in the living room and watched popular shows together, like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

One of Warren’s favorite memories as Otto was going to the Elite Eight held in Boston in 2012. Warren as Otto decided it would be fun to tease a grumpy-looking security guard watching the game. Otto inched closer and closer to the guard and in one quick motion snatched the guard’s hat. Warren fondly remembers Otto and the guard playing a friendly game of cat and mouse, much to the amusement of people in the stands. That year was also Otto’s birthday and a fellow teammate made a special birthday sign for Otto to hold on the court.

“(Being Otto) was such a great experience.  One of my only regrets about undergrad was that I didn’t audition earlier,” Warren said.  “I wasn’t really into sports before. I had gone to some basketball games, some football games. But (being on the Otto team) you see the background of the athletic events and you know all the work that it takes to put them together and all the work the athletes put into it because you’ve been doing it yourself.  When you’re a little more involved and connected to that, it’s easier to get really excited about orange everything.”

Shana Segbers, a former Otto who now lives in Chicago, was on the team with Warren.  Not only did she enjoy cheering at games, but she attended a variety of off-campus events as Otto. Several of the events were requests for Otto’s appearance by alums.

“Weddings are weird because nobody knows if you’re a boy or a girl. I’ve danced with the bride and the groom, we all had our first dances. I’ve been requested by somebody’s mom for her son’s 30th birthday – such die-hard fans that I went to their house for his 30th birthday. I’ve also done 5-year-olds’ birthday parties, which are a lot of fun, too. They really run the gamut.”

When asked about how current students can find out more about becoming a member of Otto’s team, Huynh said her team and the Otto alumni network keeps an eye out for potential Ottos everywhere.

“We want them to be a great representative of the university and a great collaborative teammate,” Huynh said. “I take recommendations and references from anyone and we’ll go from there.”