The University of Iowa has displayed three mascots over the course of its history. Before the introduction of Herky the Hawk that Iowa fans love today, the Hawkeyes did feature live mascots in the early 1900s.
However, after their live mascots came to tragic ends on two separate occasions, the decision was made to make the switch away from a live mascot to what is more traditionally seen in mascots today.
Burch the Bear
In 1908, the University of Iowa featured a black bear cub named Burch, to serve as the football team’s mascot. The story tells that Burch came to Iowa from Moscow, Idaho and was shipped in a package to assistant coach, John Griffith.
Burch became an instant sensation at the University of Iowa, as he lived at Iowa Field and would travel with the team to away games being walked with a leash, which was a rope with a long pole. Players would even wrestle with Burch as if he were a dog. In Iowa’s first game with Burch the bear as a mascot, Iowa defeated Coe College 92-0, the second largest margin of victory in Iowa football history.
He became a sensation when the University of Iowa traveled to play the University of Missouri, as the team was bombarded with questions regarding the bear and Burch was even taken on walks around the stadium.
It was reported in July of 1909 that Burch the Bear got out during a flood, frantically searching for some sort of higher ground. After quite a battle, Burch was finally captured. It is unsure if it was due to the escape, but Burch would then be relocated to the City Park Zoo for the remainder of that 1909 summer.
As the next season approached, Burch had grown to full size and was now much more aggressive than he was as a playful cub. This led to the decision to relocate Burch to a cage at Iowa Field. Burch had officially become too big and too aggressive to be handled.
In 1908, Burch, a 4-month-old bear, was the 1st mascot for Iowa football. He lived under bleachers at Iowa Field. pic.twitter.com/oGMEDKpd1T
— The Iowa Hawkeyes (@TheIowaHawkeyes) November 10, 2014
The Death Of Burch
The 1909 season was not a memorable one for the Hawkeyes, as they would finish the season 2-4. Coach John Griffith, now the head coach of both the football and basketball teams, would leave to coach both sports at the University of Idaho following the 1909 basketball season. This would create some uncertainty regarding the future of Burch, given Coach Griffith’s involvement in Burch’s arrival to Iowa.
Unfortunately, Burch would not live to see another Iowa football game. On February 4, 1910, Burch returned to newspaper headlines as it was reported that the bear had passed away. It was reported that the bear was found dead in his cage by a groundskeeper who was there to feed him.
Despite the report, the groundskeeper would not allow anyone to see the bear. It wasn’t until weeks later that another headline appeared in the paper which questioned whether or not Burch was truly dead.
Finally, the groundskeeper allowed people to go see the cage, however when they got there, it was evident that Burch had broken free from his cage. Reports of sightings arose around the area, but Burch was eventually found, floating among pieces of ice in the Iowa River, lifeless, after falling through the ice.
Burch the Bear’s death was nothing short of a tragedy. He was adored by the community of Iowa City and the University of Iowa football team. Despite his tragic death, Burch paved the way for future mascots, as he was the University of Iowa’s first reported mascot. The life of Burch the Bear was far too short, but his impact is still seen today.
Probably not able to bevel the original Iowa mascot, Burch the Bear? pic.twitter.com/G5OLGdLts0
— Andy Globokar (@AndyGlobokar) December 31, 2022
Rex the Dog
It wouldn’t be until 1929 that the Iowa Hawkeyes football team would have another mascot. Just like their former mascot, Burch the Bear, a live dog named Rex emerged to serve as the team’s mascot. To this point, Rex had been serving as the mascot of the ROTC’s military band.
In 1929, when the new Iowa Stadium opened, the decision was made by the ROTC to bring in Rex to serve as the football team’s mascot. Rex the Dog was a Great Dane who wore a cap and a black and gold blanket that had the ROTC insignia on it.
Much more easily managed compared to Burch the Bear, for obvious reasons, Rex would roam the sidelines at Iowa football games. He was referred to as the team’s good luck dog and even famously chased the Minnesota team’s pig around the field during halftime of one of their games. Much like Burch the Bear, Rex became a sensation in his time as the Hawkeyes’ mascot, even being featured on the homecoming button in 1923.
What happened to Rex?
Eventually, in the early 1930’s Rex would retire, after spending the 1920’s and early 1930’s with both the ROTC being succeeded by his grandpup, who was named Rex II. Unfortunately, Rex II’s time with the team would be far too short, ending in 1935 with yet another tragic death of an Iowa mascot. Just like Burch the Bear, Rex II would fall through the ice of the Iowa River, ending his life.
Technically the Hawkeyes’ third mascot, after succeeding the original Rex the Dog, Rex II would be the last live mascot to serve the University of Iowa. Despite the appeal of having live mascots at games, clearly, it was time to make a change.
Losing multiple mascots to the Iowa River proved that it was time to make a change. If it wasn’t tragic enough losing Burch the Bear, the loss of Rex II 25 years later certainly would have been.
Herky the Hawk
Following yet another absence of a mascot, 13 years after the tragic loss of Rex II, Herky the Hawk was brought to life. In 1948, athletics business manager Frank Havlicek began a search for new mascot ideas, seeing as rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin had mascots of their own, Goldy Gopher and Bucky Badger.
The winning idea was submitted by a journalism professor and featured a bird wearing a sweater with the Iowa “I” on the chest. Now that the design had been picked, it was time for a name. Another contest was then formed, and this one went state-wide.
As we know, the winning name was Herky the Hawk, Herky being short for Hercules. Herky would appear on the field for the first time in 1959, over a decade after the initial mascot hunt began.
Herky took the scene by storm, much like the former live mascots had. This time, Herky’s appearances at games were full of action, often pulling pranks on opposing teams’ mascots, as well as some dangerous stunts.
Herky predicts Iowa State to win the #CyHawk game. Says Matt Campbell is best coach in state. #RVTV pic.twitter.com/LSCTp884ZW
— Chris Williams (@ChrisMWilliams) September 5, 2018
The Many Faces Of Herky
These stunts led officials at the University of Iowa to put an end to the shenanigans of the costumed Herky. Eventually, a student and member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity convinced those same officials to give him a chance at being the mascot.
This would lead to the first evolution of the costume, in which a fiberglass headpiece was made. Following the student’s departure from the university, he passed the mascot responsibilities down to another member of the fraternity, which would create a tradition in which Herky was always worn by a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. This tradition would last all way until 1999.
Over the years, Herky has taken on many forms and transformations. These include an alumni representation of the mascot, which includes Herky with a white beard. Others include themed versions of Herky, such as a Captain America-themed costume.
The helmet of Herky would be remade using Kevlar in 1998, after a historic fight between Herky and a drummer from the University of Minnesota, which left the historic 40-year-old helmet broken into pieces. The University of Iowa now uses Herky as a form of marketing; he is seen at many other sporting events, not just football and basketball.
Retro Herky making a special appearance on the Pentacrest lawn for Homecoming at Iowa this week! pic.twitter.com/5IniTA4nax
— University of Iowa Center for Advancement (@UIAdvancement) October 28, 2022
Throughout the history of both the University of Iowa football and other sports programs, mascots have been an instrumental part of fan engagement at games.
Despite the current success of Herky the Hawk, who has been around for over 60 years, Iowa’s first two live mascots were also very successful in their far too short of terms spent representing the Hawkeyes.
The University of Iowa seems to have found the answer to the possible curse of the Iowa River that took both Buch the Bear and Rex II the Dog. Herky the Hawk has become one of the more recognized mascots in college sports throughout his lifetime and will continue to entertain Iowa Hawkeyes fans for the foreseeable future.
While both Burch the Bear and Rex II the Dog were taken too soon, the University of Iowa has found major success in Herky the Hawk. Herky will continue to represent the Hawkeyes for years to come, so long as he can be kept away from that all too dangerous Iowa River ice.
Credits on Featured Image: Fmcclaery, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons