Duke Dog

The Duke Dog helps the cheerleaders pump up the crowd.

For many schools, the origin of their sports nickname and school mascot likely has something to do with where they are or their state’s symbol. But for JMU, that isn’t quite the case. 

The nickname “Dukes” originated in 1947 in connection with the inaugural season of men’s basketball, just one year after men began officially enrolling at Madison College. The team made a deal with then-university president Samuel Page Duke that they’d name the team after him if he’d provide them with towels and equipment. Duke obliged and thus the Dukes of JMU were born.

With the rapidly growing athletics program, the school needed a mascot to go with the newfound name. University leaders deliberated names that would generate enthusiasm and pride among the JMU faithful, but struggled to find a way to enthusiastically personify a Duke. The idea for what would become the adorable yet ferocious mascot we know now came from Ray V. Sonner, then director of University Public Affairs. Sonner claimed that a bulldog would be a fitting mascot for the school because the stereotypical pet for British royalty, such as a duke, was a bulldog. Finally, the Dukes had a mascot: the Duke Dog.

Duke Dog first appeared as a cartoon on the cover of the 1972-73 men’s basketball media guide. The scowling face of Duke Dog among basketball players in a timeout, with Hall of Fame head coach Lou Campanelli, was drawn by graphic artist Bob Privott. The cartoon then changed a bit and appeared as a fierce-looking bulldog clad in a crown and purple robe fit for a king.

That same year, a purebred English bulldog named Bunker appeared at a men’s basketball game on Jan. 16 against George Mason University. Upon entering Godwin Hall at the start of the game, the crowd erupted with roars and cheers for their new beloved mascot. 

Sonner recalled, “I’ve never heard the crowd yell that loud before.” 

Bunker, owned by Henry A. Myers, a Madison professor of political science and history, attended nearly every home basketball game until his untimely death at the age of 10. 

Since then, the Dukes have seen four other bulldogs take on the Duke Dog persona. Currently, Duke V, owned by Harrisonburg residents Solomon Zarchini and Mark Neofotis, has taken the field at every home football game since making his debut in 2007.

In a 2014 interview with The Breeze, Neofotis, a JMU alum (’09), mentioned the dog’s love for starring at home games. 

“He loves it, you can tell, he knows he’s the center of attention,” Neofotis said. “He gets all excited on game days when I pull out his JMU jersey. He just starts jumping up and down and runs to the garage.”

To accompany his four-legged friend, a human began to wear a Duke Dog suit to basketball games during the 1972-73 season. The crazy-eyed, frightening mascot failed to generate any support and was discontinued. 

The Duke Dog we know and love today first appeared on Nov. 28, 1982, at a basketball game between the Dukes and the Virginia Military Institute Cadets at the first game played in the new Convocation Center.

Fast forward a few decades and the 8-foot-tall Duke Dog still appears at nearly every home sporting event and travels across the state making appearances and delighting crowds young and old.

Despite the unconventional inception of the name, fans and students alike adore both the furry human mascot and his canine counterpart.

“Seeing Duke Dog looking so cheerful and happy at the football games really ignites my JMU pride,” Brian Ochoa, a senior biology major, said. “I bet he has the same effect on the players.”

While the history of the Duke Dog is an obscure one, the mascot has become a staple at home sporting events and has become not only an icon of the school, but a beloved friend of the community.

Contact Peter Cagno at cagnopx@dukes.jmu.edu