Who is Sammy Slug? A look behind the yellow veil

A hug from the Slug: Sammy gives runner Sean Ferraro a congratulatory squeeze at the 2006 Slug Run.

He bounces around, gives out free hugs, waves to the kids, and makes people laugh. Sammy the Slug, with his giant yellow body, attentively upright banana slug feelers, and enormous smile, seems like a jolly fellow. But inside, he's just like you and me.

Human, that is.

The role of UCSC's beloved mascot, the Banana Slug--aka Sammy--has been filled over the years by various students, faculty, and staff, said Dan Wood, who was executive director of Student Activities from 1984 to 2006.

"And it's even rumored that high-ranking administrative officials have played Sammy Slug," said Wood with a knowing chuckle.

The Slug, a caricature of the quiet, slimy yellow creature indigenous to the dark, moist redwood forests crowning the campus, is popular around the country: It was recently named one of the 10 best team nicknames in college basketball by ESPN Sports Travel (see earlier Currents story).

Sammy is now played by a UCSC sophomore who had been her high school's team mascot for four years, according to Linda Spradley, athletic director, who handles the Sammy mascot suit check-out and cleaning.

She found the student by having a signup for Sammy at the 2006 Fall Festival. Thirty-two people were interested in the volunteer, unpaid position. Only three had any experience.

"I gravitated to people who'd done it before," said Spradley.

But the athletic office gets 15 to 20 requests for Sammy a year, and the student, being busy with academics, is "lucky if she can do two or three," Spradley said.

That leads to what is perhaps UCSC's best-kept secret: Nearly anyone can play Sammy Slug.

"People who check him out can have anyone they want in the Sammy suit," said Spradley.

However, the Sammy actor must be over the age of 16, provide detailed contact and supervisor information, and sign a sheet agreeing to requirements for appropriate behavior. Sammy cannot be seen drinking a beer or smoking a cigarette, for example.

The suit rental is free.

Replacing a Sammy suit would cost $7,000 to $10,000, according to Spradley. And since it's custom made, even a lost boot or glove would require purchasing an entire new suit.

Whether played by the student or someone else, Sammy regularly shows up at events put on by campus organizations, such as the UCSC Women's Club Santa Cruz Chocolate Festival and UCSC Student Volunteer Center holiday food drive. But he also makes appearances at a few community events, including Omega Nu's annual Ducky Derby fundraiser in Santa Cruz.

"The fact that we have 15 or 18 requests a year, what does that say?" said Spradley. "People like him there."

And demand is growing. Already this year, Spradley has gotten 12 requests for Sammy's lemon-yellow, megawatt-smile presence.

She wants to drum up school spirit by having Sammy at more sporting events, but resources are tight. And there used to be another Sammy suit--a meaner, leaner, more-aggressive version of the generally mellow, happy Slug--but it was checked out and never returned several years ago.

"We'd like to do a lot more things with Sammy, but we're not there yet with staff," said Spradley.

Another Sammy suit is imperative to more Sammy sightings, said Spradley, in addition to more staff to handle bookings.

But even with the staff and suit limitations, "look at the tremendous publicity we get nationally," said Spradley. "ESPN has featured us, Animal Planet has featured us. We get national coverage because of our Slug."

As the story goes, the Banana Slug was the unofficial mascot for UC Santa Cruz's co-ed teams since the university's early years. The students' adoption of such a lowly creature for a team mascot was their counterculture reaction to the fierce athletic competition fostered at most American universities.

In 1980, when some campus teams wanted more organized yet still low-key participation in extramural competition, UCSC joined Division III of the NCAA in five sports. Since the application required an official team name, UCSC's then-chancellor polled the student players, and out of this small group emerged a consensus for a new moniker--the Sea Lions. It was a choice that the chancellor considered more dignified and suitable to serious play than the Banana Slugs.

But students would have none of it, and they continued to root for the Slugs even after a sea lion was painted in the middle of the basketball floor.

After five years of dealing with the two-mascot problem, an overwhelming pro-Slug straw vote by students in 1986 convinced the chancellor to make the humble but adored Banana Slug UCSC's official mascot.

During those turbulent times, "I got calls from five different states saying, 'What the heck is going on?'" recalled Wood.

In May 1986, People magazine dedicated a full-page spread to the Santa Cruz Banana Slug movement.

In 1992, the Santa Cruz Banana Slug was named the nation's top mascot by the National Directory of College Athletics. That same year, Sports Illustrated magazine also named the Banana Slug the nation's best college nickname.

The quirky history is part of what makes Sammy so beloved. But there's something else there, too, something inherent to the mucusy, outrageously colored, peaceful little animal in the redwoods.

"He's a very endearing character," said Spradley. "When you look at the Sammy mascot, he's hilarious. Even the name Banana Slug makes you laugh your head off."