Fear the Tree: an inside look at the creation and audition process for the Stanford Tree mascot

The Stanford Tree is a well-loved crowd pleaser in the eyes of Stanford students and the Palo Alto community, who often look forward to seeing it perform on the sidelines just as much as watching the game itself. This unofficial school mascot has been cited on Wikipedia as “one of America’s most bizarre and controversial college mascots,” earning a place on several “Worst College Mascot” lists—though simultaneously ranked on multiple lists for “Best Mascot.”

According to the Stanford athletic website, the Tree originated in 1975, when the Stanford Marching Band performed a series of halftime shows featuring different mascots deemed relevant to the school (among those also “Steaming Manhole” and “French Fry”). Though Manhole did not make the cut, the Tree was warmly accepted by fans and became the band’s permanent mascot and unofficial mascot of the school.

Neal Ormond, a Stanford alumni (’01), explained that spring quarter, students partake in outrageous stunts during “Tree Week” to prove themselves worthy of the coveted position of the Tree.

“When I tried out back in the day, I had two llamas that I camped out with in the middle of campus,” Ormond said. “[I]  brought them into the president’s office, and before it was all over, the llamas had gotten arrested and impounded.”

Ormond also built a 50-foot ski jump ramp in an attempt to win support for his Tree candidacy.

“We ended up turning (the ramp) into a volcano on wheels,” Ormond said. “We rolled [it] down Campus Drive to the band shack, with music and fireworks emanating from the volcano.”

Unfortunately, Ormond did not get the position, despite smothering himself in syrup and leaves (“as opposed to tarred and feathered,” he said) and gaining the support of the school Dean, Jim Montoya.
Ormond said he is not the only student to go all-out in the audition to become the band mascot.

“Other people have eaten live goldfish and worms, drank their own pee, set themselves (safely) on fire, had themselves waterboarded, and bitten the head off a chicken,” Ormond said.

An anonymous Stanford graduate, “Beth,” over the years has heard  stories of the unlucky students who have failed to become the tree (‘10). “I have heard of multiple ‘unconfirmed’ Tree candidate stunts that have resulted in permanent scarring.” “[The stunts are] stupid, ridiculous and totally outlandish, usually increasing in stupidity throughout the week,” Beth said.

According to Ormond, the Tree of 2012, Nicoletta Heidegger, also engaged in many impressive stunts to earn her position as the mascot.

“The current tree rode in to the first event semi-naked on a horse, and held a lube wrestling match with 75 gallons of lube [during her audition], ” he said.

Every year, Ormond says there are anywhere from three to 10 Tree hopefuls.

“As the week and a half of tryouts goes on, there’s usually a few who drop out, and by the final night there’s usually just three to five left,” Ormond said.

It is the marching band who is ultimately in charge of choosing the mascot.

“The band selects the tree,” Beth said. “Usually, the tree candidates bribe their way into the hearts of various band members.”

Ormond has contributed to the building of the tree for the past six years, due to his close ties with his former marching band mates.

“I started a design firm on my own…but still hung around with the band a bit, so I sort of stepped in to fill the role of advisor…of the costume,” he said in an interview with BBC.

The appearance of the Tree varies from year to year, as the student chosen to become the Tree is primarily in charge of the design.

“They formulate an idea of whether they want a pine, palm or deciduous Tree, other elements they want include, as well as the overall style of it,” Ormond said. “From there, we work together to figure out the best way to make that happen, then set about building it.”

“The Trees themselves create the majority of the costumes leaves,” Ormond said. “But usually, I handle the trickier metalworking and welding of the frame, and the structure of the outer shell.”

Though the design of the Tree may change year to year, one can count on seeing the Tree dancing, jumping and cheering  alongside the Stanford band every football and basketball season, entertaining fans while reflecting on the school’s great sense of humor.

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