The Stories Of The Six Mike Mascots And The Louisiana Tigers Who Came Before Them
By Brad Goins
The LSU Tigers had been around half a century before fans got really serious about getting the team a proper mascot.
In 1934, a group made up of LSU athletic director T. P. Heard, trainer Chellis Mike Chamber, a swimming coach and a law student decided to bring a real, live, full-size tiger to their Alma Mater in hopes that the majestic animal would be able to serve as the school’s mascot.
By collecting a quarter from each student, they amassed a kitty (no pun intended) of $700.
That was enough to buy a year-old tiger from the Little Rock, Ark., zoo.
At Little Rock, the big cat had been called Sheik. But when he arrived in Baton Rouge, he was renamed Mike, in recognition of the trainer who’d raised money for him. But those who were close to Mike early on remembered the tiger’s first name, and when they wanted to make him roar, they called him “Sheik.”
Apparently, LSU students took those quarter donations seriously, for they skipped class en masse the day Sheik-Mike arrived by train and was transported to campus.
Three days after he got to Baton Rouge, Mike began serving as the Tigers’ mascot. He held the post until his death 21 years later.
Within days of the first Mike’s death, the Louisiana Legislation passed a resolution supporting the purchase of a second Bengal tiger and mandating that he be called Mike II.
Law or no law, it was once again the donations of LSU students that covered much of the cost of the new big cat.
The second Mike would live only eight months, dying of pneumonia in May, 1958. In a decidedly mysterious touch, the dead mascot was found to have several broken bones in one leg. The school attributed Mike II’s misfortune and early death to his difficulty adjusting to his environment.
For some reason, students spread a rumor that Mike II had, in fact, died shortly after his arrival and was secretly replaced by a second tiger who was given his predecessor’s name. There’s no concrete evidence for the persistent rumor and it’s hard to think of a good psychological explanation for it. Perhaps the rumor reflected student disappointment that the second mascot, for which students had such high hopes, turned out to be sickly and maladjusted and — as fans may have seen it — left them in the lurch almost as soon as he arrived.
If students were greatly disappointed by the fate of Mike II, it wasn’t evident in the hearty welcome they extended to Mike III. The new Bengal was cheered enthusiastically as he was towed from game to game in a large convertible that bore the name MIKE III in enormous letters on the side.
Mike III was on hand for the opening game of 1958, and he was there when running back (and all-around player) Billy Cannon led LSU to a national championship.
In the following season, Mike III also saw Cannon make his single most famous play, in a Halloween run against Mississippi State. Cannon broke seven tackles on the way to making an 89-yard run. He ran the last 60 yards without being touched.
As the end of the game approached, Ole Miss mounted a drive that led to the LSU one-yard line. The Tigers held Ole Miss, with Cannon throwing the final tackle that prevented Ole Miss from scoring.
Legend has it that once the game was over, Cannon was so exhausted that he layed down in the LSU tunnel until he could catch his breath. He won the Heisman Trophy that year. It was presented to him by an up-and-coming politician named Richard Nixon.
Like Sheik-Mike, Mike III could roar on command. The words that cued the thunderous sound were “Get ‘em, Mike!”
Although only the first and third Mikes could roar on command, LSU’s tiger mascots routinely roared as they made their traditional lap around the LSU stadium before the beginning of each home game. Each roar was thought to be a prediction of an LSU score in the upcoming game.
At some time during the reign of Mike II or Mike III, LSU players began to be served Bengal Punch during the games to given them stamina and re-hydrate them. The debut of Bengal Punch preceded that of Florida’s famed Gatorade by seven years.
After almost 20 years of service, Mike III also died of pneumonia, ending his tenure in August, 1976.
The finances of getting Mike IV to LSU were simplified appreciably when Florida’s Busch Gardens donated the new mascot to LSU.
The first three Mikes had come to Baton Rouge as infants or near-infants. When Mike IV hit town, he was a two- year-old adult, and weighed a full 450 pounds. Because of the cat’s great size, LSU nearly tripled the size of its tiger habitat. When Mike IV settled in, his new 11,000-foot home included a pool.
Two or more LSU students, who were either very daring or very dumb, freed Mike IV one night when they used bolt cutters to get through a series of locks. Mike IV was free to wander the campus and wreak havoc.
As it happened, he did wander a bit, but didn’t choose to wreak anything. The escaped cat was eventually located none the worse for wear in the track stadium. He was returned to his home without any injuries to himself or others.
Mike was the first LSU tiger mascot to retire rather than die in the course of doing his job. After 14 years of service, he retired to the Baton Rouge Zoo, where he died five years later in 1995.
Mike V was another donated cat, sent by the Animal House Zoological Park in Alabama.
During Mike’s 18 years as mascot, the I Like Mike campaign spurred a large-scale movement to give Mike a modernized habitat that was both healthier and more spacious than his appointed digs. LSU vet students would work in the habitat to monitor the mascot and see that its needs were met.
The long campaign finally resulted in the completion of the best tiger habitat human beings could build in 2005. Mike V lived there nearly two years before he died in service in May, 2007.
Mike VI was a rescue animal donated by a non-profit facility in Indiana. He, too, came to town as an adult aged two. At 500 pounds, he may be the biggest of the Mikes. To keep up that weight, he eats 25 pounds of meat each day.
It was recently discovered that Mike VI is suffering from the cancer spindle cell sarcoma. (Sarcoma is a cancer that can affect many parts of the body, including cartilage, muscle and connective tissue. “Spindle cell” simply indicates that Mike’s infected cells are narrow at the ends. The shape of cancerous cells can help doctors determine the best course of treatment for the cancer.)
Mike has received a treatment of concentrated radiation at the Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center. Although he does have a radiation burn, LSU staff insist he has shown no signs of pain. While the Cancer Center is always glad to receive donations, it has levied no charges for Mike’s treatment.
Reports are that, at present, Mike VI is resting comfortably. He won’t be working on any of his mascot duties while he is receiving cancer treatment.
*(Editor’s note: This article was first published in the Sept. 1, 2016 edition of Lagniappe Magazine. A CT scan early the next month revealed Mike VI’s cancer had spread. Mike VI was humanely euthanized on Oct. 11, 2016.)
How Mike Works
I’ve written this story as if Mike has a particular job to do. He does, in fact, do several specific tasks for the LSU teams. Although it is impossible for human beings to know what goes on in the brains of tigers, my guess is that Mike has some sort of understanding that he performs these tasks and that he takes pride in doing them as well as he can.
The vast majority of LSU fans are likely to hold the opinion that Mike’s primary job is to intimidate opponents. Before home games, Mike was placed in a cage near the visiting team’s locker room. The purpose was to ensure that opponents will have to see the animal as they run into LSU’s field — a field that is called Death Valley and is considered by many to be the most intimidating in college football.
Mike is also taken to away games and to other events and locales where he can serve as a representative of LSU.
Before The Mascot … The Name
Shortly after LSU first fielded a football team in the 1890s, it went undefeated (in the six-game season) and was named champion of the southern football division that would eventually become the SEC.
With a team that had the makings for success and popularity, students clamored for an appropriate name. Around the beginning of the 20th century, backers settled on the LSU Tigers.
Documentation of the process that led to that name choice has been lost. But it is possible to make some pretty good guesses as to why the name was picked. Most LSU history professors and students would have known the special significance that the word “tigers” had for Louisiana.
One persistent story is that at the turn of the 20th century, LSU’s first head football coach, Charles E. Coates, was asked to find a name for the team. The story goes that Coates settled on a name derived from that of the Louisiana Tigers division that fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, when he was told the Tigers were “the toughest set of men who ever lived.”
The Louisiana Tigers, said to number 500 in their initial formation in 1861, differed from other Confederate military groups in almost every way imaginable. They were recruited straight from the jails and docks of New Orleans. Many were ex-cons and former mercenaries. The objective was to create a group of men who were fearless and loved to fight.
They also looked different from other Confederates. They wore provocative red shirts that could easily be seen in battle. They wore bright red caps that sometimes resembled a fez. Instead of wearing standard military trousers, they wore big, billowing pantaloons; these were also often bright red in color.
Soldiers who dressed in this way were called “Zouaves” at the time. They were trying to imitate the look of Turkish soldiers, who had a reputation for being some of the world’s most ferocious fighters.
Two Days With The Tigers
In his war diary, one of the Tigers’ commanders, Lt. Col. Charles de Choiseul, documented the astonishing amount of mayhem the Louisiana Tigers could generate in a mere two days.
In what sounds almost like a comedy, de Choiseul complained that on his very first day in charge, The Tigers shot his orderly — twice (the guns misfired); robbed and beat up a washerwoman; and started a fist-fight with de Choiseul when they tried to free some Tigers who’d been put in the brig.
Things didn’t improve the second day. de Choiseul twice knocked down a Tiger who refused to follow de Choiseul’s orders. When an angry mob of Tigers gathered around de Choiseul, he threatened to shoot the first one who took aggressive action. UL-Monroe historian Terry L. Jones states that a Tiger responded by saying, “God damn you, shoot me.” de Choiseul obliged, shooting out three teeth and part of the man’s tongue.
This action seemed to convince the Tigers de Choiseul was one of their kind, and they enthusiastically accepted him as their commander. When de Choiseul left for a new command, a drunken Tiger broke into tears when he said goodbye.
At Antietam, the Tigers took on the 12th Massachusetts in what became known as “The Cornfield” — an Antietam killing ground that was the site of what the regimental historian of the 12th Massachusetts called “the most deadly fire of the war.”
In spite of being caught in a hellish triangulation of Union fire, the Tigers managed to reduce the 12th Massachusetts to a force of just slightly more than 100. The end result was that the 12th Massachusetts suffered the greatest loss of any Union unit at Antietam — 67 percent of personnel.
‘I Was Afraid Of Them’
One soldier — a Confederate — wrote in his diary, “I was actually afraid of [the Louisiana Tigers], afraid I would meet them somewhere and that they would do to me like they did Tom Lane of my company: knock me down and stamp me half to death.”
The field in Gettysburg where Confederate troops made the disastrous Pickett’s Charge became known as the “Valley of Death.” For Pickett’s Charge, the Louisiana Tigers had been absorbed into the massive force of the Army of Northern Virginia, led by Gen. Pickett. This was the doomed army that would march across a farmer’s field with no cover to protect it from the thousands of Union troops assembled above the level of the field on Cemetery Ridge.
Of the massive Confederate force that began the charge at various times during the day, only a small group — believed to be made up of Louisiana Tigers — reached the three-feet-high wall that sheltered the Union forces and climbed over it.
Once on the other side, the elation of the Tigers quickly turned to despair or panic. In both directions, there were Union troops as far as the eye could see. The Tiger troops scrambled back over the wall and fired at Yankees from the small wall’s limited shelter.
Later in the battle, a group of Louisiana Tigers numbering about 100 went over the wall a second time. This group was dispatched swiftly.
Schultz says that historians have often called this second scaling of the short wall at Gettysburg “the Confederacy’s high-water mark.” It was the closest the Confederacy got to a decisive intrusion into Union Territory.
The Louisiana Tigers managed to stay intact until the end of the war. UL-Monroe scholar Jones says that 400 Tigers were present when Lee arranged terms of surrender at Appomattox.
While we cannot be absolutely certain that the Louisiana Tigers were the inspiration for the present team name and choice of mascot, we can be sure that the choice fits. Wherever LSU may stand in the ranking at any given time, no opponent ever doubts that the team is willing to put up a ferocious fight.