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How former Sparky and Wilbur mascots got their fans fired up for the Territorial Cup rivalry

LAUREN GILGER: ASU and UA will both wrap up their last seasons in the Pac-12 on Saturday as they face off in the Territorial Cup in Tempe. The Wildcats won last year’s game 38-35 in Tucson after ASU had won the previous five matchups. Arizona is ranked 16th in the country, while ASU has had a down season under first year coach Kenny Dillingham.

We’ll leave it to others to break down the X’s and O’s of the game. And instead we’re going to talk to two people who have had front row seats to the rivalry, although you probably wouldn’t recognize their faces. Alan Wald suited up as Sun Devil mascot Sparky from 1980 to 1983, and Kirk Sibley played Wilbur the Wildcat from 1996 to ’99.

We’ll hear from them both, starting with Wald, who’s part of the first father-son Sparky dynasty. His son was the mascot from 2017 to 2020. Wald is from the East Coast, and my co-host Mark Brody asked how he decided he wanted to be Sparky.

ALAN WALD: It was very bizarre. It wasn’t really a predestined ordeal, but I saw in the school paper that they were having an audition for the Sun Devil mascot. And I’m a sports junkie, so I was like, “Hmm. Get a chance to be on the field, get a chance to be on the court. I can try to do that.”

MARK BRODIE: What was it like to be Sparky? Like, what is it like to be a mascot at a major D-1 school?

WALD: You know, I really didn’t know what to expect. But again, it was more than I ever could have imagined. And every game was a new adventure. You know, what could I do different? What can I do to get crowd response to something that you did and not just be one of the people that just stands on the field and waves.

BRODIE: So how did you approach Territorial Cup games? Because I would imagine that you tried to bring your A-game for that one.

WALD: Without a doubt. I mean, when I started or came to Arizona State, I wasn’t really familiar with the intense relationship between the two schools. I actually applied to U of A, although that wasn’t my first choice. Back then, ASU dominated Arizona in most sports. So I think if they won, it was a much bigger deal than if we won. And, you know, the first game that I did was in ’81, for the Territorial Cup, and it it poured rain like no other.

BRODIE: Oh, wow.

WALD: And I wound up mud-sliding out to midfield to lead the team out onto the field.

BRODIE: What is that suit like when it gets wet?

WALD: Very heavy, especially when it was made out of corduroy.

BRODIE: Oh my gosh. Wow. OK, so you clearly knew once you got here that Territorial Cup, ASU-UA, you know, in basketball and other sports as well was maybe a bigger deal than other other conference games or other just other games on the schedule. Did you get that sense from the players also that they saw it as a bigger deal than maybe the rest of the schedule?

WALD: I think it did. I mean, our players were focused on winning every game. And, you know, the ’81 game happened to be in Tempe, and the one end zone was flooded. And again, I used to roam all over the stadium. But when I got to that end zone, after they saw the mud-sliding at midfield to lead them out. And Tom Dillon was the announcer, and I heard about it afterwards that apparently he was doing the broadcast and said, “Well, if there’s a lack of traction on the field, it’s because Sparky decided to mud-sliding at midfield.”

But the end zone was flooded. And when I went to that end of the stadium, the whole crowd started chanting, “Slide! Slide! Slide!” And it was quite the splash, as an understatement. And they loved it. And then the Wilbur tried to do it, but he did it once. You know, I probably did it four or five times, and the place went wild.

BRODIE: You got to do it more than Wilbur, right?

WALD: Got to do it more than Wilbur, for sure.

BRODIE: So the Territorial Cup is obviously also a really big deal for the fans. And it seems to me you have such a unique perspective as a student at the school and a fan of the school, but also not just any fan. Like somebody on the field, like trying to get everybody riled up and psyched up for the game in the mascot costume. Did you look at it as a particular responsibility, especially for those games, that you really needed to get the crowd fired up?

WALD: Absolutely. I mean, when I speak to the players even today, they have fond memories. You know, I wore a costume. Period. And they make a big deal. “No, you were part of the team. You’re the ones that get the crowd fired up. You’re the ones that got us fired up.” So when you have that perspective from others, it’s more enjoyable to hear. Because, again, you’re doing your thing. You’re trying to make a difference. You know, maybe you can get the crowd riled up when … Arizona’s about to score or do something, and you get the crowd into it. And or we’re about to score. And, you know, again, the momentum can switch very quickly.

BRODIE: Yeah. So do you still talk to some of the players who were on the teams back when you were there? Like are you still Sparky to them?

WALD: Yes, As a matter of fact, last year they had a 40th reunion or, you know, to honor the ’82 football team that won the ’83 Fiesta Bowl. And they had me on the committee. So this was during homecoming. And over 600 people for a luncheon. And I wound up getting beyond a lot of love.

And the the interesting part is we had a college Hall of Famer on the team, David Fulcher. Jim Jeffcoat, who’s won two Super Bowls. All these guys were there. And, you know, people came up to me afterwards, including David Fulcher’s wife. The next day she goes, “If I wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have believed it.” And I go, “What are you talking about?” She goes, “You were the rock star of that event. It wasn’t even close.”

BRODIE: Wow. So your son was also Sparky while he was at ASU. Did you give him any kind of advice or give him any kind of warning for what the Territorial Cup games were going to be like for him?

WALD: I did. I mean, ironically, he had no interest of being Sparky. Matter of fact, when he was a freshman, they had a parents reception. I met a guy who did all the videos for ASU. And long story short, he goes, “I need to do a video on you. It’s Sparky’s 70th birthday.” And we did the video. And he asked my son to be in it.

So he asked him, “Were you pressured to go to ASU?” So, of course, it was like E.F. Hutton because you’re waiting to hear what he’s going to say. And he’s like, “No, my father’s been taking me here since I’m like six months old,” and yadda yadda yadda. And he basically said, “Well, my father said, I can go anywhere I want, I just can’t go to U of A.”

So I knew my work was done. And then the next question that the guy asked was, “So are you going to follow in your father’s footsteps and be Sparky?” And the answer was, “Doubt it.” And all my friends, everyone that knew me kind of, “Well, you know, you’re going to Arizona State, and then are you going to be Sparky?” But he said no.

But then they wound up sending it to 400,000 alums, and then they reached out, and the school paper went out and followed up with him. And then I guess they had an opening. And then, I basically had to tell him, hey, here’s a scoop.

BRODIE: All right. Allen Wald, aka Sparky. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat. I appreciate it.

WALD: My pleasure. Go Devils.

BRODIE: Alan Wald played ASU Sun Devil mascot Sparky from 1982-83. Now to the other side of this rivalry and Kirk Sibley, who played UA mascot Wilbur the Wildcat from 1996-99. When I caught up with him earlier, I asked what led him to want to be Wilbur.

KIRK SIBLEY: You know, it was kind of interesting. I grew up in Tucson, and the U of A was always the center of town. But I didn’t walk onto the campus thinking that I was going to do that. I was actually very involved in band in high school and before that. And I really have never before going to the University of Arizona, have ever been at a football game where I wasn’t participating in something on the field.

So when I got to the University of Arizona, I was signed up for band and did it for about a month. But I was paying my own way through college, and I just couldn’t afford all the rehearsal time with band. So I was like, dang. So had to drop out. And then in the fall, later in the fall, I saw a newspaper article that was talking about the other mascot that was currently doing it retiring, and they would have a follow up in the spring. And I’m like, “You know, that would actually be kind of cool because I could still get back on the field with the band without all the rehearsal time.” And that was kind of the thought process behind why I decided to do it. And wasn’t really even taking it seriously at the time.

BRODIE: What was the audition like? What did you have to do?

SIBLEY: Well, man, so it was a lot more rigorous than I had expected, right? I was like, “Oh, just come in here and I’ll just charm you and you’ll just let me wear the fur for like 10 minutes.” No, it was interesting. Got in there, and it was actually interviews first. So there was a panel that was made up of former — and I didn’t know at the time — but a couple of people that were currently mascots. And they were asking like, “What are some of the ideas?” or “How would you handle this situation? If you were to get mascot, what are some of the things you’d like to try and what are some ideas you’ve had to keep it creative?”

And they said that if you make it to the next round, we’ll call you. And by the time I got home with my Seinfeld-style answering machine and phone with a big antenna, there was a message waiting for me and saying, “Hey, can you come back? We’ve narrowed it down to 10.”

And so Thursday night of that week, went back and it was a lot more specific questions. And then they said at the end of it, “Yeah, we’re going to pick you for one of the four. But you need to be able to pull off 25 one-handed push-ups on Saturday as part of it.

That took place, and then right after that, they posted up the names of the people that got it. And I was completely shocked that I was even on the list. I really didn’t even know what it entailed. I was like, “Well, I guess we’re going to do this.” And that was that. So yeah, it was a really wild weekend.

And then literally like a week later, I’m on a bus that’s being police escorted through Southern California on the way to the USC game. Like totally changed the direction of my collegiate career and experience, right? I was a resident assistant, I was a student, and all of a sudden I’m off like at an away football game and wearing this thing. So yeah, really unique time.

BRODIE: So what was Territorial Cup like for you? I mean, obviously you were on the field not playing, but a pretty big part of the action.

SIBLEY: Yeah, yeah. You know, I had two really memorable ones. The first real big one for me was up in Tempe in ’97. It was an away game for us. You know, growing up in Tucson, you knew what the Territorial Cup was. And you also realized that as a U of A fan, we had played spoiler to ASU many times in the ’80s.

In fact, there was a 10-year streak that the football team went at U of A beat ASU in a row. And I don’t think it’s ever been bested by ASU. And so you just expected when you go to that game that that’s the role we’re going to play. We never had the the Rose Bowl-contending football program. I think one year we were in the running for it, in ’98.

But other than that, the real role here was just to have a pretty good season. And then the bowl game for us was the Territorial Cup. And so it was always this real tense and emotional matchup that you looked forward to every year.

BRODIE: So did you try to make sure that you had — like as the mascot, as Wilbur — did you try to break out some new tricks? Did you try to really up your game for that particular game, for the Territorial Cup?

SIBLEY: Yeah. So knowing that Arizona played the spoiler for the Rose Bowl, I kind of played off of that. So when I got up in Tempe, I was staying with a friend that weekend. They were up in north Phoenix. And I’m like, “Hey, I don’t have a car, but I need to go do some shopping here.”

And they’re like, “What do you need to go do?” And I’m like, “I need to go buy like a dozen plastic roses. And then if anyone has like some hedge shears, let me know because I want to do something on the field.” And so I did at the end of the game, my plan was — and it went off, you know, when the game was winding down, the crowd was still in the stands. And it was a close game. I started clipping off the rosebuds off of the stems and then tossing them into the crowd. And then that was that was retaliated with hotdogs and cups and the booze bottles that were being hidden by the students. But that was a big helmet on my head, so it didn’t hurt or anything when it hit. But, you know, just sitting there like letting it rain on me. And I totally deserved it. But that was the plan and that totally went off as predicted. So it was good.

BRODIE: So when you look back at your time as Wilbur, how how did it affect your college experience? How did it maybe affect your post-college experience?

SIBLEY: Yeah, well, I mean, it affected a lot of ways. Like I said, I was no longer just a student. It was a club of — there was two of us that played mascot. My focus for every weekend wasn’t like, I’m going to a game. It was like, who are we playing this weekend? What kind of stuff do we need to put together for this game, right? Is it Washington State? Is it UCLA? What can we do to make fun of their mascot or the school and get the crowd involved?

But it wasn’t like just going to attend anymore, right? And so that was my experience. … It’s kind of weird. You kind of assume this identity, even though it’s secret. Like that’s the thought process that’s going on. And even things like March Madness, you wouldn’t plan for spring break anymore because you expected that you were going to go to somewhere out of town, so you’d have to wait until Aelection Sunday to see where you’re spending spring break. Is it going to be Bakersfield, right? Lovely Tulsa? Or will it be Memphis? You don’t really know.

So yeah, it changed everything. It put me in a role and it gave me this identity. And then, that was largely a really huge part of my college experience after that. And then afterwards, I stayed really connected because I have a real strong connection to the school, the athletics, the football team, the players that were there. And I still put the costume back on every year for homecoming for halftime on. So it still keeps me that connection to the to the university.

BRODIE: All right. That is Kirk Sibley, aka Wilbur the Wildcat. Kirk, thanks for your insights. I appreciate it.

SIBLEY: You’re so welcome. You guys have a great, great rest of your week and see you at the game.

BRODIE: Kirk Sibley you played UA mascot Wilbur the Wildcat from 1996-99. This year’s Territorial Cup will be played on Saturday at Mountain America Stadium in Tempe.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.