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The Many Faces of Big Al

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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?

Sue Donegan, 1947 University of Alabama Homecoming Queen, riding Alamite the elephant

Sue Donegan, 1947 University of Alabama Homecoming Queen, riding Alamite the elephant

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.

Elephants, one wearing an Alabama drape, on the Quad for Homecoming

Elephants, one wearing an Alabama drape, on the Quad for Homecoming

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:

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Big Al in Army ROTC hat. This item recently was digitized as part of an effort to digitize a series of University of Alabama ROTC scrapbooks.

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.

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Big Al in Cleat Car during the 1983-1984 football season, from an Army ROTC scrapbook

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.

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Big Al with ROTC, from a 1980-1 Army ROTC scrapbook

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.

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Big Al featured in the Encyclopedia of Alabama

The original Big AL costume can be seen on display today at the Bryant Museum.

For more history on how Big Al came to be, RollTide.com also discusses “The Elephant Story.” Big Al also released a video of his life and times from the 2011-2012 academic year.

 

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