By David Drucker
Call it nostalgia. Call it curiosity. Call it school spirit, revved up by the recent success of the football team.
Call it whatever you like, but there is a small yet undeniable interest in an unusual relic from the university’s past: the Sunblazer, FIU’s first mascot.
“There’s only one Sunblazer. He’s sort of incomprehensible. He’s got that half grimace, half grin,” said Chris Towers, a one-time FIU journalism major who now writes about fantasy sports for CBS. “He looks like the result of some sort of strange experiment and I love that about him.”
The renewed interest in the university’s former mascot coincides with the success of FIU football last season. While the team was marching into Riccardo Silva Stadium in October to face the University of Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners with a 5-2 record at their back, the Sunblazer was making a cameo in the homecoming parade outside.
Working under the theme “Unleash your legacy,” the fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon and the sorority Alpha Xi Delta paired up to create a Sunblazer theme for their entry in the parade. The float featured students in custom t-shirts and banners emblazoned with the Sunblazer name. Members of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, a social fraternity for the musically minded, played in formation alongside the float.
“After the parade, I received emails from a couple FIU alumni who were asking me if we were selling the shirts,” said Valentina Lara, Alpha Xi Delta communications vice president. “They thought it was pretty cool that we brought it back.”
Carlos Cueto ’14 thinks that reviving the Sunblazer could help FIU athletics stand out.
“Bringing out some Sunblazer gear could capitalize on the hype [football head coach] Butch Davis has built and separate us from other schools,” said Cueto.“This can bring back old alumni and teach current students about the school’s history. Besides, every team has a throwback day. Let’s embrace our history and look forward to the future.”
The Sunblazer was conceptualized in 1973 when the young university assembled the University Nickname Committee (yes, really). The five sports at the time—baseball, golf, tennis, wrestling and soccer, all for men—needed both a team moniker and a mascot to represent them. A group of students and faculty came up with several names. The Ambassadors and the Diplomats were considered because of the international nature of the university’s students. The Trailblazers was also among the leading suggestions because of the location of the campus right off of Tamiami Trail (also known as Eighth Street). The Suns was another suggestion.
“We were kind of at a quandary because everyone had something against each name,” said Judy Blucker, a founding faculty member and the person who pushed for establishing women’s varsity sports at FIU (eventually coaching women’s volleyball and softball herself). Blucker was a member of the naming committee. “Trailblazers was close, but the head coach of the baseball team said it was too long to fit on a jersey.”
Blucker’s own suggestion—combining “Suns” and “Blazers” to make “Sunblazers”—was added to the list of contenders on a universitywide ballot, and the winner was announced on April 27, 1973.
“I don’t remember anyone being against it,” said Blucker. “If anything, it was a nice compromise. It was different and new, and we were new as a university.”
Art student James Houk eventually won $100 for his full-color drawing of the Sunblazer. Whether the aesthetics have held up over time is debatable.
“A foot. It looks like a foot. It looks like it’s out of Monsters Inc.,” said Tim Ramjattan, a senior finance major.
FIU retired the Sunblazers name and mascot in favor of the Golden Panthers in 1987, which later became the current incarnation of just Panthers. Seven Division I teams also have a panther as their mascot, among them the University of Pittsburgh, Eastern Illinois University and Georgia State University.
“As great as Roary and the Panthers are, I feel like the Sunblazer is a unique part of FIU history that not enough students know about,” said Jake Spiwak, a senior broadcast media major. “FIU should embrace that they had one of the coolest mascots in the country and bring it back to some extent, either with throwback uniforms or even just vintage apparel at the bookstore.”
Whether or not the smiling, fuzzy costume returns in some form, FIU fans know that the goofy, charismatic half-sun-half-person is uniquely theirs.
“I would be so excited about a throwback giveaway. I would travel the country to get to that,” said Towers. “The Sunblazer is huge for me.” ♦
What do you think about FIU’s old mascot? Ready to have him back? Let us know in the comments section.