Roaring with Pride at 75
Jan. 23, 2024
On January 19, the institution marked the 75th anniversary of the University of North Alabama student mascot, Leo the Lion. It’s an anniversary that takes place just after the University commemorates 194 years as the state’s oldest public four-institution.
Then, as it is now, the idea of a student mascot was founded on excitement – excitement to cheer on the mighty lions to victory on the gridiron, the court, or the field. The men and women who donned the costume, often under the cloak of full anonymity, did so out of one common trait – their love for the University and celebrating the experience of being at a game.
Often, there is dancing, acrobatics, cheering, and mingling with the crowds. Selfies are a new addition, of course, as are the latest dance moves and multiple sports at which the mascots appear. Still, it remains rooted in tradition, and the student mascots of today understand just how important this history is to the University.
When Leo was created, UNA was known as Florence State Teacher’s College. In 1949, the Leo mascot was created as a cartoon, ‘Leo the FSTC Lion,’ and was published on the front page of the Flor-Ala on Jan. 19 of that same year. Leo’s creation was attributed to a freshman at the time, Bobby Mitchell, who is rumored to have taken Leo’s name from his Latin dictionary as it means ‘lion.’ (Students have always been resourceful, and this proves it.)
Despite the creation of the mascot, it would be another 12 years before the costume would be created. In 1961, when UNA went by Florence State College, the Home Economics Department designed the clothing to be worn by the student, and the Art Department constructed the papier-mâché head with help from a sponsorship provided by the Circle K Club, a student outgrowth of Kiwanis International.
The first student to act as Leo was C.W. Hunt during the 1961 football season. The identity of Leo was closely guarded and only revealed during halftime festivities of the last football game of the season. Leo often shared the sidelines with his original female counterpart, whose name is thought to be Leona.
Upon her arrival at UNA in 1979, Ramona Sutton brought the Leo mascot back to life after a hiatus of around four years. Sutton and her mother restored the costume, which had been found to be in terrible condition. For $250, a costume company in Nashville, Tennessee, designed a new costume head for Sutton, and her mother designed the rest, which Sutton proudly wore for four seasons.
In December of 1985, Sutton's costume was replaced by a more ferocious Leo. From 1987 to 1989, Blake Cook wore the new ensemble. He ranked eighth at the National Collegiate Mascot Championships in 1987 and sixth in 1988.
On April 14, 1995, a new, gentler Leo costume was introduced. Several campus organizations contributed to the creation of the new costume, including the Student Government Association, Alumni Relations, the Athletic Department, and the Sportsman's Club, which is known today as the Lions Athletic Club.
This Leo has been slightly modified so as to be welcoming and inviting to children as well as others who attend games. It’s a costume that Chase Rose proudly dons today in his role as the student mascot. The sophomore from Hatton, Alabama, began mascotting in high school, and he took on the role of Leo when he was a freshman.
“I let Leo take over because we are quite different,” Rose said. “He is much more social than I am. I have a difficult time; meanwhile, he can go up anybody. He is a dancing queen.”
Despite the antics – the posing for pictures and hamming it up for the crowd – Rose said he feels compelled to honor the student mascots who came before him, C.W. Hunt, in particular.
“I feel the need to make sure that this is still Leo, that it’s the same Leo that C.W. Hunter first did,” said the student during a rare interview.
The computer science major and self-proclaimed history buff wants to continue his career as Leo while he is at UNA. He has competed at camps during his tenure, and he has thought about continuing his mascotting career at the professional level.
“I think mascotting is really cool,” he said. “I live for it. It’s similar to sports. Thinking of it as a sport, most people watch, and you indirectly make them happy by doing this. The goal is to make people happy. It’s really cool.”
Rose enjoys the competitiveness and freedom of mascotting as Leo.
“Friendly competition is very much welcome. We would welcome that friendly banter, and there are high blows and low blows. For my personality of wanting to entertain people, it works,” he said. “Part of being in that costume is that you’re free. You not only don’t have to act like a normal person; you’re encouraged not to.”
Rose believes Leo is the oldest student mascot in the state, and he may be right. The tradition of Big Al at the University of Alabama dates back to the 1980s, and Aubie, at Auburn University, was born in the late 1950s. What’s certain, however, is UNA’s tradition of having a male and a female student mascot. What began as Leona in the early 1960s transition to Una (pronounced You-na) in the early 2000s with the addition of twin lion cubs on campus – Leo and Una.
Sailor Letson is in her fifth year of mascotting as Una, Leo’s female counterpart. Her first game was homecoming in 2019, and the Nov. 4 home game was the last football appearance of Letson’s career as the costumed lioness.
Although she wears the mascot costume, Letson said she prefers to think of herself as a friend of Una’s.
“I am so not like Una. It's so funny,” she said. “Una has become such an influence on me. I wouldn’t be the person or student I am without her sassy, outgoing, bubbly personality.”
Since 2019, Letson has seen a huge increase in the popularity of Leo and Una. Whereas the pair were requested to do a single or, perhaps, a couple of appearances a month at the beginning of her tenure, those requests have multiplied and number well more than a dozen per month these days.
“There are times that I forgot everybody at UNA doesn’t get to experience what I do,” she said. “I got to conduct the Shoals Symphony Orchestra. We got to go surprise a little girl a couple weeks ago with the birthday fairy. Something so small and simple – just the array of opportunities.”
One of her favorite things is going to Kilby Elementary School and seeing kids form connections with Una.
Like Rose, Letson has competed at multiple mascotting camps, forming connections and friendships in what she calls the “mascot world.” In her first year, she competed as Leo and placed third. Last year, she placed sixth as Una alongside Rose as Leo.
“75 years is huge. It’s a huge opportunity for the mascots to get recognized even more than they already are,” Letson said. “I would say thank you to the students and the University as a whole for loving Una as much as I have and to continue loving and supporting the mascots because we are honored to represent the University, and it helps us by having such a great university to represent.”
About The University of North Alabama
The University of North Alabama is an accredited, comprehensive regional state university offering credential, certificate, baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral programs in the colleges of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering; Business and Technology; Education and Human Sciences; and the Anderson College of Nursing and Health Professions. The first-choice University for more than 10,000 on-campus and online students, UNA is on a bucolic campus in Florence, Alabama, part of the historic and vibrant Shoals region. Lions Athletics, a renowned collegiate athletics program with seven (7) Division II National Championships, is now a proud member of the NCAA Division I’s ASUN Conference. The University of North Alabama is an equal opportunity institution and does not discriminate in the admission policy on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, disability, age, or national origin. For more: www.una.edu and www.una.edu/unaworks/