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The Tree (left) at the 2008 Big Game
The Tree (left) at the 2008 Big Game
The Stanford Tree is the Stanford Band's mascot and the unofficial mascot of Stanford University. Stanford's team name is "Cardinal", referring to the vivid red color (not the common song bird as at several other schools), and the university has never been able to come up with an official mascot. The Tree, in various versions, has been called one of America's most bizarre and controversial college mascots. The tree regularly appears at the top of Internet "worst mascot" lists but has also appeared on at least one list of top mascots.
The Tree is a member of the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (LSJUMB) and appears at football games, basketball games, and other events where the band performs. The "Tree" is representative of El Palo Alto, the tree that appears on both the official seal of the University and the municipal seal of Palo Alto, Stanford's nearby city.
From 1930 until 1972, Stanford's sports teams had been known as the Indians, and, during the period from 1951 to 1972, Prince Lightfoot (portrayed by Timm Williams, a member of the Yurok tribe) was the official mascot. But in 1972, Native American students and staff members successfully lobbied University President Richard Lyman to abolish the "Indian" name along with what they had come to perceive as an offensive and demeaning mascot. Stanford's teams reverted unofficially to the name "Cardinal", the color that had represented the school before 1930.
From 1972 until 1981, Stanford’s official nickname was the Cardinal, but, during this time, there was debate among students and administrators concerning what the mascot and team name should be. A 1972 student referendum on the issue was in favor of restoring the Indian, while a second 1975 referendum was against. The 1975 vote included new suggestions, many alluding to the industry of the school's founder, railroad tycoon Leland Stanford: the Robber Barons, the Sequoias, the Trees, the Cardinals, the Railroaders, the Spikes, and the Huns. The Robber Barons won, but the university's administration refused to implement the vote. In 1978, 225 varsity athletes started a petition for the mascot to be the griffin, but this campaign also failed. Finally, in 1981, President Donald Kennedy declared that all Stanford athletic teams would be represented exclusively by the color cardinal.
However, in 1975, the band had performed a series of halftime shows that facetiously suggested several other new mascot candidates it considered particularly appropriate for Stanford, including the Steaming Manhole, the French Fry, and the Tree. The Tree ended up receiving so much positive attention that the band decided to make it a permanent fixture, and thus began the process through which the Tree has gradually colonized the collective unconscious of Stanford's student body.
The original Tree costume was conceived and constructed by Christine Hutson. When she left Stanford, she passed along the costume and the role of the Tree to a conga drum player in the band, Robert Siegel.
In the spring of 1987, Paul Kelly wrote a column in the Stanford Daily lamenting the lame stature of the school's mascot since it was, at that time, just kind of a big green dress. Responding to the dare, the drum major and others responded by having "Tree Tryouts" at the Shak at 2am on a Sat morning. Kelly was the only one who showed up. They put a song on the tape while the keg flowed freely. Kelly made a fool of himself dancing. At 5am, approximately 25 band members were outside his dorm with "All I Ever.." They gave Kelly one week to prepare a costume before a men's home basketball game. Kelly spent the following summer designing and building the first true Stanford Tree complete with surf shorts and white tails (as a tribute to the late, great Drum Major Jimmy Jet).
At the 1987 Big Game, Kelly was attacked by several Cal Students that had run onto the field during the half time show. Barely escaping, Kelly led them to the drum section where all three Berkeley students were tackled and then pummeled. No sticks were dropped in the process. The Cal students were arrested and carted off to cheers from the student section. Stanford won.
"The staffers, many still in their grounds-crew uniforms, sit in neat rows, attentive if slightly bemused. Then the trombones kick in, and the audience is blasted back in it's chairs like jet pilots. Before the first song is over, a few heads are starting to bob and feet are moving to the rhythm, but all eyes are on The Band's bizarre mascot. The Tree, a nine-foot pillar of bark and foliage - with legs and a maniacal smile - looks like a character from some low rent Disneyland. He ricochets around the stage and into the audience with alarming abandon, rarely quite vertical but never entirely horizontal."
- excerpt from 'Band on the Run' Rolling Stone, Issue 509, Sept 24, 1987
Due to the heightened visibility of the Stanford Tree, physical altercations with Cal students became common place and part of the assignment. At the annual Battle of the Bands at UC Davis, Kelly left the Tree costume on the bus after a long day in the sun and Cal students broke into the bus and stole the costume. The following week, the Band received a ransom note offering the Tree in exchange for Oski the Bear (which had been stolen from the UCB Student Union the year before). The Band did not think this trade was worth it since the Tree costume was everything Oski was not - New, Fresh, and almost always sober. The tradition of building a new costume was born and every year since then, the Band and their many admirers now expect the Tree to be reinvented every fall.
With more exposure, the decision about who would become Tree became more rigorous and, the Band had to adopt a more formal selection process for its Trees. Today's Tree candidate must go through "grueling and humiliating physical and mental challenges" to show that he or she has sufficient chutzpah to be the Tree. During "Tree Week," candidates have been known to perform outrageous, unwise, and often dangerous stunts in order to impress the Tree selection committee; so much so that the university has felt the need to prohibit certain types of audition activities over the years.
The Tree's costume, which is created anew each year by the incumbent Tree, is a prominent target for pranksters from rival schools, in particular from Stanford's Bay Area nemesis, the University of California, Berkeley (Cal). This tendency for the Tree to come to harm at the hands of Cal fans was showcased in the run-up to the 1998 Big Game. An anonymous coterie of fraternity brothers from Cal known as the Phoenix Five stole the costume and held it "hostage" for two weeks until it was turned in to the UC Berkeley chancellor's office and returned to Stanford by the UC Police. In 1996 two Cal students emerged shirtless from the stands at Memorial Stadium at the Big Game during halftime and tackled the tree, breaking branches and eliciting cheers from the Cal alumni prior to being handcuffed and led away. The most recent theft of the Tree was during the 2012 basketball game against Cal, when a member of the Cal Band entered LSJUMB's bus and removed the mascot. Following police response, the Tree was returned the same night and no charges were pressed.
Violence and absurd levels of prankery have been a two-way street between Cal and Stanford, though. A few years earlier, during an ESPN-televised timeout during a February 1995 basketball game at Maples Pavilion, the Stanford Tree and Cal's mascot Oski got into a fistfight in front of the Stanford student section. The Oski costume's headpiece was forcefully removed by the Tree during the scuffle, an act of special significance because Cal has taken great pains to keep its Oski costume wearers' identities secret since the 1940s.
A spate of recent troubles has brought the Tree even more notoriety in college sports circles. In February 2006, then-Tree Erin Lashnits was suspended until the end of her term as the Tree after her blood-alcohol level was found to be 0.157 (almost twice the legal driving limit in California) during a men's basketball game between Stanford and Cal. UC Berkeley police observed her drinking from a flask during the game and cited her for public drunkenness after she failed a breathalyzer test.
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