While college football teams spent New Year's Day battling for bowl game glory, the University of South Florida claimed some bragging rights, too.
USF's mascot, Rocky the Bull, won the Capital One Mascot Challenge on Wednesday, beating 15 other furry foes from around the country via online fan voting. He outlasted Cam the Ram of Colorado State University, Mike the Tiger of Louisiana State, Michigan State's Sparty and more. Rocky's final opponent was Raider Red, the cowboy from Texas Tech University.
Capital One CEO Rich Fairbank announced the win in a commercial at halftime of the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.
Rocky danced and fist-pumped to a backdrop of exploding fireworks. Rocky, the announcer said, had "unparalleled sideline skills." Online voting decided the winner of the week-to-week matchups, said USF athletic director Doug Woolard, and Rocky was the first mascot in contest history to go undefeated.
"Last year, this contest only got 4 or 5 million votes total, but this year the votes went over 100 million," Woolard said at news conference in USF's Athletic Center on Wednesday afternoon.
President Judy Genshaft was on hand to congratulate Rocky and thank the fans on his behalf. He doesn't do interviews. For one, he's a bull and can't talk. But also, USF is fiercely protective about the identity of the suit-wearer.
"It's a wonderful way to start 2014," Genshaft said. "It's a big win for Rocky, but also for the students, alumni, business leaders and the whole Tampa Bay area that supported Rocky all the way to victory."
After the speeches, Rocky made his entrance (to the Rocky theme) and fist-pumped as he received roses and a green and gold balloon drop.
It was USF's first year in the contest. To even be considered, USF had to submit proof of Rocky living it up at games and events, getting the crowd excited, boxing, being a bull. Rocky appears at about 350 events on and off campus all year.
The contest also added extra social media features through which fans could earn their mascot bonus points. Genshaft tweeted a photo of herself kissing a trophy to earn Rocky an extra 100 points. Woolard said the athletic department also asked fans to vote on the Jumbotron at each football and basketball home game.
It's a boost for USF athletics after a disappointing 2-10 football season. It also comes with a financial reward: USF gets $20,000 for the mascot program, going toward mascot travel and upkeep of suits, which can cost as much as $3,000.
But the biggest reward might be from brand exposure in commercials aired on national television, including one in which Rocky politely exits a China shop, closes the door and knocks down a wall of dishes.
"Mascots are more than just symbols for the athletic department," Woolard said. "They are symbols of universities. Having people see Rocky the bull and think University of South Florida is a great thing."
Some people commenting on the mascot challenge's Facebook page have insinuated that uncontrolled online voting taints results. A Capital One spokesman said the company does not release the final vote tallies, but does allow for unlimited voting. Contest rules, the spokesman said, prohibit automated voting in which computer programs repeatedly cast votes.
University spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez said the contest was very evenly matched.
"We beat the reigning champion, who is from a big state with lots of loyal sports fans," she said. "This was fun for our students and community."