Azul the Eagle has enjoyed quite the flight as Florida Gulf Coast University’s official mascot.
His delightful antics at FGCU sports contests and other university-sponsored events have made Azul a multiple winner of the poll crowning the ASUN Conference’s top mascot. He even was named to the top 10 of one sportswriter’s ranking of the best college mascots of all time.
But in light of such an acclaimed record, Azul’s newest accomplishment will go down as his career’s greatest benchmark.
That’s because it IS a bench — actually, a bronze statue on a steel bench that will forever be perched in Alumni Legacy Plaza outside the Cohen Center on the FGCU campus. It’s the hope of the FGCU Alumni Association and Student Government, which jointly funded the bench, that this monument to Azul and all Eagles who came before him will be the new centerpiece for university spirit. It was dedicated Sept. 12 with a public unveiling.
For FGCU, the Azul Bench means it’s time to start sitting on tradition.
“It will instantly become a beloved photo spot on campus,” said Kimberly Wallace (’09, School Counseling; ’06, Communication-Public Relations), a proud Eagle alumna herself who’s now charged with creating and fostering alumni and student engagement as director of Alumni Relations. “It will signify new traditions at FGCU. It can be a place where freshmen tell Azul what they hope to accomplish as a student, a spot where couples get engaged, or where seniors bid farewell to campus as they transition to alumni.”
Wallace came up with the idea when she learned about Virgil Oertle, a Utah sculptor whose resume includes several mascot benches at colleges and universities around the country. “It was different, and I knew that it would be a perfect addition to FGCU,” Wallace said. “I shared the idea with Student Government, and they agreed that this would help with school spirit.”
Jalisa White (’18, Political Science), who’s now working on her master’s in public administration at FGCU, was Student Government president when the bill was passed to share the $45,000 cost of the Azul Bench with Alumni Relations.
“As student body president, I felt it was important to continue building Eagle pride on and off campus,” said White, now a member of the Alumni Association Board of Directors. “This statue symbolizes The FGCU Effect on students because of the history that will be built upon it. It’s a permanent and lasting legacy on campus that will make students feel like FGCU is their home. Investing in ways to build and expand FGCU’s culture is paramount to building on student success.”
FGCU President Mike Martin, who knows a thing or two about the value of spirit in higher education with a half-century of experience in the profession, sees the galvanizing effect of a metallic Azul. “This addition to our campus creates another unique place for students, alums and friends to connect to FGCU,” Martin said. “It will become an iconic location to build memories.”
The proud symbol of Eagle Nation
The location will indeed be, as Martin puts it, “iconic,” because the bench honors FGCU’s greatest icon. Named “Azul” (Spanish for “blue”) after one of the official school colors of cobalt blue and emerald green, the eagle mascot was selected by FGCU to represent pride, strength and intelligence. Azul has been all of those things and more to FGCU, which is one of 76 four-year schools in the U.S. that adopted “Eagle” as its nickname, by far the most of any such moniker.
Azul was the creation of FGCU students, and two of them involved in the mascot’s 2001 hatching, Shalyn Barker (’02, English) and Becky Harnish (2001-03), posted their pride about their connection to Azul last year when the Eagle was named to a best-college-mascots list on msn.com.
“We fundraised enough money to help design, construct and order a new mascot costume,” wrote Barker, now a choreographer and dance instructor in Ocoee. “We named him Azul to honor the strong Hispanic culture in Southwest Florida, and since the school’s colors are blue and green, we hoped to one day order a female mascot and name her ‘Kelly.’ So proud to be a part of his design team (and giving him a name).”
Harnish, a financial assistant for the Library System of Lancaster County, Pa., wrote that she “worked with a fabulous company in Canada who helped bring our vision to life. We went back and forth between Azul having talons or shoes, but I ultimately decided on his sneakers. I’ll never forget the day he arrived via UPS. … Azul lived in my walk-in closet for months before the school adopted him.”
Since that 2001 hatching, it truly has been a flight of fantasy. Azul’s the only three-time winner of the ASUN Conference Most Valuable Mascot Award as chosen by social-media voting, and he was ranked No. 6 in the website Yardbarker’s recent list of Greatest College Mascots of All Time. His antics and dance routines — both solo and with FGCU cheerleaders — delight thousands of sports fans every year, but his on-campus popularity goes beyond Alico Arena and the Outdoor Sports Complex. He even inspired a 2015 art contest, Azul’s Flight Tour, the statuesque fruits of which are still on display in various university buildings. Azul appearances also are in demand in the Southwest Florida community, making him FGCU’s most feathered personality, if not its most popular. He has his own Facebook and twitter accounts on social media, and he’s a regular attraction at @fgcu on Instagram.
Wings with widespread impact
Although Azul’s pay basically comes down to minimum wage and/or service-learning hours, students fortunate enough to don the beak, basketball shorts and signature green-and-blue sneaker boots carry great responsibility. As listed in his official job description, Azul is “FGCU’s No. 1 personality, supporter and fan (who) serves as the ambassador for all things green and blue.” The chosen one or ones —required to toil in quiet secrecy inside what can become a rather uncomfortable costume in Florida’s steamy weather — must be an active, degree-seeking student carrying a minimum 2.5 grade-point average, stand between 5 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 4 inches tall, possess a strong fitness level, and have an interest in acting, sports or theater.
Of the students who have filled the bill, perhaps the most accomplished — at least in terms of making it in the mascot world — is Matt McLaughlin (’09, History), who used his Azul experience to land subsequent jobs as Miss-A-Miracle, the Fort Myers Miracle’s former golden retriever mascot; and backup roles playing Boston sports icons Blades, the NHL Bruins’ mascot; and Wally the Green Monster, who leads cheers for MLB’s Red Sox.
McLaughlin told Pinnacle magazine (the predecessor of FGCU360) in a 2011 article that he based his interpretation of Azul on professional wrestling antics. “With Azul being a very big, muscular, intimidating-looking eagle, I just started mimicking wrestlers — the crowd taunts they would use, the arm-in-the-air pose, the hand behind the ear. It was perfect.”
Michael Julius (’09, Sports Management) also graduated from playing Azul from 2005-07 to assuming the role of Miss-A-Miracle like McLaughlin. He had transferred to FGCU with experience as RapidMan for the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer, and prepared for his Azul stint by attending the Mascot Boot Camp run by Dave Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic of the Philadelphia Phillies. “Once the head goes on, you become that character,” he told Pinnacle.
A woman who flapped the feathers, Jen Fritz (’05, Nursing), said playing Azul in 2003-04 “was one of the best times of my life” because it was how she met her husband (Brett Fritz, ’04, Health Sciences; ’06, Master of Business Administration), who was captain of the FGCU basketball team. “You could say it brought us together,” she said.
And for Tyler Cole (’12, Communication), who was Azul from 2008-11, the highlight was swishing a 65-foot shot in costume at a 2010 women’s basketball game. But Cole, who works for a film-and-television production company he co-founded, Tunnel Light Pictures, in the Los Angeles area, said being Azul was more than just his informal introduction to the entertainment business.
“Being Azul for three years was an insane, immeasurable experience,” said Cole, who was delighted to learn about the Azul Bench. “From hitting a near-full-court shot in the costume, to ‘flying’ through mid-court, to creating silly sketches, to making the crowd laugh, it was honestly the best time ever. I have so many incredible memories from behind that mask, and I was lucky enough to meet lifelong friends that I wouldn’t trade for the world. It’s really hard to put into words, but that was a huge part of my life, and one that I will never forget.
“FGCU was the perfect school for me,” Cole said. “My twin sister was also attending, and that allowed comfort through the travels and adjustment periods. I’m still very close with a lot of people from college, and I think the culture and atmosphere of FGCU matured me and shaped me into the person that I am today.”
Bronze sculptor behind the bench
While those who have portrayed the live version of Azul have their personal memories, new memories will be created by the bronze Azul in Alumni Legacy Plaza, which weighs about 800 pounds between the statue and bench, according to its creator, Utah sculptor Oertle.
The Azul Bench is the seventh mascot bench Oertle has created for various schools — his first was for Brigham Young University — and the third bird. “There seems to be a preponderance of eagle and bird mascots in the country,” Oertle said, “but they’re all different in their own way.”
The project began late last year when Wallace contacted Oertle through a friend of his who works in email marketing. “She got the mascot to pose the way she wanted the design, and she sent me the pictures,” he said. “I did some sketches for her, and we went from there.”
Oertle takes about four months to sculpt the clay and create the mold for the statue, which he does while working on simultaneous projects. It takes the foundry with which he works two to three months to cast the sculpture in bronze. Oertle fabricates the bench himself with stainless steel in his garage. “I box it all up in a crate, send it by truck and hope they have a forklift to unload it,” said the artist, who doesn’t like to attend the unveilings of his works because he feels it would detract from the moment.
“I hope you guys love it, and it adds something to the campus.” Oertle said. “Kim gets all the kudos for spearheading it.”
Wallace also gets accolades for apparently talking Oertle into a good deal on his artwork. Although the artist said he doesn’t charge a fixed amount for his mascot benches — “I try to keep it in a price range where the school will say yes,” Oertle said — he’s currently working on a similar project for another school for which he’s getting paid $85,000, or almost twice what FGCU commissioned for the Azul Bench.
“If your school sends me another $30,000, I’ll be very pleased,” Oertle joked.