By: April Burnett, W.S. Hoole Library Archival Technician
At the University of Alabama, Big Al may very well be the most recognizable face on campus. However, that famous face of his has changed over the years. How many of you know that Big Al did not start out as “Big Al” at all, but a large, live elephant named Alamite?
The above photograph from the University of Alabama photograph collection is of Homecoming Queen Sue Donegan, riding Alamite on the sideline of the homecoming game against Louisiana State University at Denny Stadium in November 1947. The University of Alabama defeated the eighth ranked LSU Tigers 41 to 12 with 25,000 in attendance.
Alamite did not stay around long. The cost of housing the elephant became too costly for the University. Occasionally, elephants from zoos or circuses were used during homecoming festivities and other events on campus.
The elephant was not declared the official mascot of The University of Alabama until 1979, even though the University’s association with an elephant symbol began around 1930 and was seen on tickets, merchandise, and advertisements throughout those years.
A student, Melford Espey Jr., was the first to appear in an elephant costume on the sidelines of a football game in the 1960s. The Big Al costume made its first official debut at the 1979 Sugar Bowl, where Alabama came out on top of the defensive struggle against Penn State, 14 to 7.
The photograph below, which comes from an Army ROTC scrapbook from 1980-1, shows Big Al in his original mascot costume and wearing an Army ROTC baseball cap:
Even today, the big, friendly-faced elephant is most likely seen on the sidelines during the University of Alabama football games. In the photograph below, Big Al is sitting in a large, football cleat “car” cheering on the Tide with the cheerleaders during a game.
Big Al is not only a fan of athletics, but also an avid supporter of other groups on campus, as seen below with him standing in formation on the Quad with students in the Army ROTC.
The face of Big Al, as we know today, is still quite similar to the one seen in the 1990s and into the 2000s. The University of Alabama may not have a snarling tiger, a growling dog, or a ferocious alligator, but we wouldn’t have him any other way. The vivacious and congenial pachyderm is loved by all old and young alike. Here he is in an image taken from the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
The original Big AL costume can be seen on display today at the Bryant Museum.