The Arizona State Sun Devils mascot is one of the most distinct in college football history. It’s also one of the more controversial, with multiple maladies during a history that makes for a fascinating story as our tour of college football mascots stops off temporarily in Tempe.
Who Is the Arizona State Sun Devils Mascot?
Sparky the Sun Devil is Arizona State’s mascot. Originally introduced in 1946, he was initially intended to just be a logo to be used by the university sports teams but appeared as a costumed mascot in the early 1950s. The Sun Devils mascot was designed by Bert Anthony, a former Walt Disney employee, in the late 1940s and has undergone several changes in costume during that time.
Most recently, a whole new design was proposed in 2013, once again in conjunction with Disney, but that rebrand met outrage for an appearance that was too far removed from the original concept.
Some fans protested the child-like nature of the design, which combined a modernization attempt with the purpose of using the Sun Devils mascot in comic books, children’s books, and animated features.
“This Sparky isn’t the Sparky I knew back when I was younger,” Kyle Kowalski — an ASU alum — protested to The State Press. “Sparky isn’t supposed to seem friendly. He is supposed to be fierce.”
The protest saw the wholesale changes scrapped, with minor adjustments to the Sun Devils mascot instead. His grinning, mustachioed mouth, narrowed maroon eyebrows, and larger-than-life eyes, set in a sun-yellow colored face, are as distinctive as the trident Sparky carries everywhere with him — from college football games to other sports and multiple community events.
Why Is the Arizona State Mascot a Devil?
With his devilish appearance and trident, there’s a popular misconception that the Sun Devils’ mascot has links to satanism and other ungodly dalliances, which has led to many controversies that we’ll explain shortly.
However, there’s a more natural than supernatural explanation behind Sparky the Sun Devil. The nickname, and therefore, the Sun Devils’ mascot, comes from a weather phenomenon known as a whirlwind. In some places, it is referred to as a “dust devil” or a “dancing devil.”
According to the Arizona State University News, it was the exposure to one of these natural phenomena that became the inspiration for the program’s nickname change in the mid-1940s. Allegedly, then-Arizona State track coach Donn Kinzle was out running when the hot morning air whipped up the dry river bed and formed a dust devil right in front of his eyes.
The idea to name the program mascot came from there.
What Was Arizona State Before the Sun Devils?
Arizona State hasn’t always been the Sun Devils. In fact, it hasn’t always been Arizona State after being established as the Territorial Normal School at Tempe in 1885. It was known by multiple names, including Tempe State Teachers College and Arizona State College, before adopting University status in 1958.
Prior to being the Sun Devils, the program was nicknamed the Owls and the Bulldogs. However, Bulldogs was already a popular nickname for sports programs across the nation, and the university wanted to find “something that’s very unique and tied to Arizona’s climate and culture.”
The Many Controversies of the Sun Devils Mascot
Since his arrival in the 1940s, Arizona State’s mascot has had more than his fair share of maladies, misadventures, and has been a victim of misconceptions. Rarely has a college football mascot been so misunderstood or been the victim of universal outrage.
In 2021, Quality Logo Products conducted a survey aiming to categorize CFB mascots. Amongst the usual categories, such as best and worst, the Sun Devils mascot was named the seventh-most creepiest mascot. Troublingly, he was also voted the eighth-most offensive mascot in America.
Here, the misconception of Sparky as an actual devil — the biblical personification of evil — has sparked outrage. A change.org petition started by Joseph Forte Jr. with over 3,000 signatures calls for the university to cast the devil from their brand. Amongst several notably excitable passages, the following captures the sentiment expressed by Forte in his battle of good versus evil.
“What once might have been viewed as acceptable — is now just plain demonic. Anyone with an ounce of Christian belief will have a hard time pledging allegiance to…being loyal to…or spending money with the devil. With every T-shirt, souvenir, and game ticket they sell, they solidify their consent that idolizing the devil is just ﬁne with them.”
This isn’t the first time that the Arizona State mascot has been received negatively on the basis of religious sentiment. When Pope John Paul II held evening mass at Sun Devil Stadium in 1987, the Vatican insisted that all images of Sparky were to be covered.
Meanwhile, the Sun Devils mascot has been involved in several legal disagreements that nearly made their way to court. After Orange Julius released a similar logo and a slogan that read “A Devilishly Good Drink,” the Arizona State alumni association threatened to take the company to court, resulting in the retirement of their version of the pitchforked protagonist.
Then, in 2015, Sparky caused his own criminal complaint after jumping on the back of councilman David Schapira during a halftime ceremony. Schapira had recently undergone back surgery and filed a $120,000 lawsuit that was settled for $76,234 in May 2016.