Fifteen minutes before the LSU basketball team tipped off against No. 1 Kentucky on Feb. 11, a sizable hole in the roof of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center opened, sending a disco ball down toward the court. Mike the Tiger straddled the spinning, glowing ball, illuminating the darkened arena and sending the near-capacity crowd into a frenzy as he descended onto the floor.
Mike dismounted and went on his way. The mascot, standing 6 feet tall, ambles about crowds with ease. He points to the rowdiest fans, while revving up those who need to be more expressive. Children often tug at a whisker or pull his tail, but he pays no mind, often sticking out a paw for a high five or squatting to eye level to give a hug.
“Mike is a kid at heart,” said James Lowder. “He’s got ADD. He loves the ladies. He’s a fun guy to be around.”
Lowder is in his first season as Team Mike’s coach. Team Mike is a group of five to six LSU students — predominantly male — given the task of portraying the mascot. They go wherever he’s needed, not merely limited to athletic events. Sometimes, they are dispatched to reward a group of well-behaved elementary schoolers. Other times, they’re sent to a wedding for die-hard LSU fans.
Then there are funerals. Families sometimes request Mike to attend as a celebration of a relative’s love of LSU sports.
“He never knew if he needed to be sad or happy,” Lowder said.
Mike will go anywhere for $250 and stay anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. The students who take on Mike’s persona divvy up assignments during the year, though all are required at football games.
Lowder underscores the privilege of being named to Team Mike. A three-year member himself from 2010-2013, Lowder is said to have revolutionized Mike the Tiger’s antics, shown by the third-place finish in the mascot category at the 2012 College Cheerleading Championship and a fourth-place finish one year later.
Pauline Zernott, LSU’s Spirit Coordinator, who oversees all the spirit squads, credited Lowder with taking Mike to “a new level.”
“Mike started dancing a little bit, which the crowd loves,” she said. “His enthusiasm really showed through his movements. (Lowder) kind of revamped the character.”
Team Mike members are held to the same standards as LSU athletes. Drug tests are common and grades monitored. They join training programs, and a monetary stipend is given to each member.
But Team Mike’s members are sworn to secrecy regarding their involvement and duties on the team, though after graduation they are permitted to reveal themselves. Lowder said he’s never had a problem with any Team Mike members revealing themselves outside of the suit. Conversations are awkward, he acknowledges, but all have been able to keep their “night job” concealed.
Involvement can bleed into obsession as Team Mike is required to practice weekly, sometimes crossing over mediums. During football season, Mike leads the Golden Band from Tigerland onto the field for pregame, so Team Mike is at band practice.
Certain basketball games necessitate Mike performances with the Tiger Girls at halftime. To prepare, Team Mike heads to Tiger Girls practice to learn that week’s dance.
Even Team Mike’s walk is different. Mike walks on the balls of his feet, almost as if he’s prancing or skipping along with his arms outstretched. Practices center on ensuring the walk is consistent.
“There’s a certain charisma and an attitude he carries around,” said LSU senior Caleb Bates, Team Mike’s outgoing captain. “You have to make sure you embody that when you’re helping Mike out and make sure it stays the same.”
Bates tried out for Team Mike as a junior with little insight to the covertness or intricacies of the position for which he’d soon win. On a recent Friday, he paced in the volleyball practice gym at the PMAC, anxiously awaiting a new crop of Team Mike hopefuls in a similar mindset.
His favorite memory when recalling his past two years?
“Getting to see him crowd surf all the way to the very, very top (of Tiger Stadium) was one of the coolest things ever,” Bates said, adding, however, that Mike was “a little scared.”
Lowder is in dental school now but kept tabs on Team Mike from afar. After noticing an air of complacency on the team, he agreed to come back into the fold as coach.
He’s still got a pair of commemorative paws and feet — a parting gift for all Team Mike graduates. But even more than those, Lowder cherishes the experience, which he hopes to impart to future Team Mike members.
“Helping Mike out is probably one of the most humbling experiences,” Lowder said. “Being able to do some things most people can’t and realizing it’s an honor to be part of the team. That’s probably the best part about it.”