Herbie gets Byrned

 The Original Herbie Design, by Lubbock, Texas Artist Dirk West.

Editor’s note: I have no new designs to accompany this post. I just wanted to pay tribute to a defunct design that was a favorite growing up.

It’s funny how differently we perceived time as children. When I was seven or eight, “forever” was seven or eight years. Today I’m approaching my 20th high school reunion, and it doesn’t seem all that long ago. Actually, it has been 21 years since Nebraska last won a national championship. The head coach, Scott Frost, was the quarterback then (more on that later this week). Though it has been two decades, I remember those national championship years vividly.

Vividly is how my parents remembered the 1970 and 1971 national championships. For perspective, there were 23 years between Nebraska’s second and third national championships. To me, that was more than forever. I heard stories of Bob Devaney, Johnny Rodgers and Jerry Tagge and have a slight recollection of the 1983 Scoring Explosion but my Nebraska football was represented by Tom Osborne, radio announcer Kent Pavelka and mascot Herbie Husker. They had served in their respective posts for most, if not all of my lifetime.

Of the group, Herbie might have been the most influential. Herbie was a blond-haired, blue-eyed, farm boy with a barrel chest, cleft chin, overalls and signature red cowboy hat. One would swear that the character was based on Dean Steinkuhler, but the legendary lineman graduated in 1983, a decade after Herbie was conceived.

Herbie spawned from the mind of Lubbock, Texas artist Dirk West. West created the character for the cover of the 1974 Cotton Bowl program. Using the program as inspiration, Nebraska sports information director Don Bryant commissioned West to design what would be Nebraska’s mascot.

In Nebraska, Herbie was a hit. He was featured on most of my wardrobe, schedule posters, beer steins . . . you name it. No one was a true Nebraska fan unless they took a piece of plywood and cut it in the shape of Herbie (kind of) then poorly painted his likeness (kind of) on the lumber. Let me tell you, there were some god awful Herbies dotting lawns from Hemingford to Lincoln.

I once even sculpted Herbie out of snow. We were approaching the 1994 national championship game and Mother Nature had dumped about a foot of sculpting material on our lawn. I even added food coloring to make it more realistic. My efforts got me on the cover of the Hemingford Ledger.

A few Christmases before, my grandmother gave me a Herbie metal trashcan. I remember sitting on my bed one morning, noticing that there appeared to be scratches on the football that Herbie was holding. I ran my fingers over it and realized that the white marks were printed on the trash can. I soon noticed that those same marks were on other reproductions of West’s design. If you look closely at the original illustration, you will notice those markings. I thought maybe they were a cryptic message from West, but after further inspection I believe he was trying to depict highlights in the football. Something else unusual is that the original Herbie is colored in what appears to be colored pencil. Most cartoonists and illustrators use markers or ink.

As most cartoon characters do, Herbie evolved over the years. When my brother was two or three, he received a Herbie mini-basketball for Christmas. Me, being all of four or five, realized for the first time that Nebraska had a basketball program (kind of). That was also the first time that I saw basketball Herbie. It was the same basic design, except the overalls were replaced by shorts and instead of a football tucked under his arm, he was spinning a basketball on his finger.

 A simplified take on West's original Herbie, started showing up in the early 1990s.

In the early 1990s, there were subtle changes to Herbie. It’s hard to describe. West’s basic character was still present, but Herbie became more Cartoon Network as opposed to Mad Magazine. The sideline mascot evolved too. Nebraska has had some scary creatures prowling the sidelines throughout history, from Corncob Head to Harry Husker. Early Herbies weren’t exactly the work of Jim Hensen. They barely resembled West’s drawing, but mascots aren’t as much about looks as they are about action.

I remember attending a game at Memorial Stadium in junior high. Nebraska was crushing Colorado State and the most entertaining thing in the stadium was Herbie and a security guard. The student section had dubbed the security guard Mario, because he wore a hat and had a mustache. During a lull in the action, the crowd would cheer as Mario bounded up north stadium. On this particular day, Herbie got in on the act. I don’t remember how Herbie was dressed that day. At football games, he sometimes wore his standard overalls. Other times he wore a football jersey and pants.

A few years later, athletic director Bill Byrne decided it was time to shuck Herbie along with the “Corn” in Cornhuskers. In a 1995 article in the Chicago Tribune, Byrne claimed it was a financial decision (after all, he was nicknamed “Dollar Bill”). "We've found that Cornhuskers and Herbie just don't sell outside of Nebraska," Byrne said. "We're looking at a secondary mascot that might be more popular because the 24-and-under age group--the group that buys these products--just doesn't go for Herbie."

There was probably some truth to that statement, but the people of Nebraska were not pleased with the decision. In truth, it probably had as much to do with Byrne’s ego. He didn’t want to be associated with a cow college. From the fans’ perspective, we didn’t appreciate an outsider telling us we needed to get with the times.

For instance, Nebraskans have always referred to our teams as the Huskers,  just for the sake of brevity. Some get really lazy and simply say ‘Skers. That is unless you precede the nickname with Nebraska. In such cases, you must say, “Nebraska Cornhuskers.” Can you imagine Keith Jackson saying, “Here comes the Nebraska Huskers”? Gross! As for Herbie, it was kind of like the Packers telling Brett Favre they were going in a younger direction. In this case, Lil’ Red the inflatable Campbell’s Soup kid, was Aaron Rodgers.

So Herbie disappeared for a while. He was brought back in 2003, though not West’s version. The latest Herbie supposedly better encapsulates the modern farmer. He still has a cleft chin and a red cowboy hat, but he’s politically correct, with dark hair and brown eyes because apparently not all farmers are Scandinavian. Herbie has trimmed down and now sports a red extra-medium polo shirt to show off his physique. Most of all, Herbie is boring. 

Though I'm not a fan of the new Herbie, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to get my son's picture with him prior to the 2013 Spring Game.

Mascots are literally characters, yet Herbie has been stripped of all of his character. New athletic director Bill Moos is attempting to restore the order of the Nebraska football program. He brought Scott Frost back. Maybe his next call should be to old Herbie.


Post a Comment