By Dave Ongie, News Editor
From his time at University School through his college career at ETSU and beyond, the jokes always bothered Bill Bledsoe.
Why on earth is the mascot of ETSU – a landlocked school perched atop the Appalachian Mountains – a Buccaneer?
“No one has a greater affection for ETSU than me,” said Bledsoe, a visiting professor of visual communications and design at Tusculum College. “But I just got so sick and tired of the Buccaneer being treated like a joke.”
As Bledsoe looked around the country, he was envious of college football fans with mascots that roused a sense of community and tradition – the Fighting Irish, the Volunteers, the Gators and so on. Meanwhile, ETSU was stuck with a Buc that was born on a whim back in 1926.
According to Bledsoe’s research, the teams at East Tennessee Normal School were known as the Normalites more or less by default. It was a nickname so lame the football team dubbed themselves the Teachers – a nod to the teacher education program at the institution – and sewed the giant letter T on their uniforms before taking to the gridiron.
The school president finally asked the Student Government Association to pick a proper nickname.
“So the SGA, they just came up with the Buccaneer,” Bledsoe said. “Interestingly enough, that year the biggest movie was ‘The Buccaneer’ with Errol Flynn, and it had shown down at The Majestic for like six months straight.”
So the fad produced a flashy nickname that lacked a connection to the region or the people that inhabited it. By the time Bledsoe worked his way through University School, any meaning behind the Buccaneer mascot had been lost to history.
Following the demise of football at ETSU, the school’s SGA once again broached the subject of changing the name of the mascot while looking for ways to revive the football program. So they called on Bledsoe to help pick a worthy replacement.
Bledsoe had spearheaded a campaign to rename the NFL’s Houston Oilers the Tennessee Copperheads upon their relocation to Nashville, but the franchise eventually settled on Titans as its nickname. Nonetheless, Bledsoe’s campaign had earned a great deal of acclaim, and the hope was he could come in and breathe new life into the school’s athletic identity.
But once he was given the opportunity to put an end to all the jokes about the Bucky the Landlocked Pirate, Bledsoe decided to go another route.
“I said, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea. They’ve been Buccaneers forever, and there is no rationale as to why they picked it, but what we need to do is we need to make a backstory,’ ” Bledsoe recalled.
If that meeting sparked Bledsoe’s imagination, the fuel for the creative fire that eventually led to Bledsoe’s soon-to-be-released book called “Liam McNaughton: Legend of the Tennessee Buccaneer” was provided by his wife Jennifer when he got home that evening. It was Bledsoe’s wife who suggested the backstory of ETSU’s Buccaneer mascot should begin in the same place the people who settled these hills started their journey – in Scotland.
During his research, Bledsoe learned many young Scottish boys orphaned in the Battle of Culloden ended up working as indentured servants on ships in hopes of settling in America. Those who made it to the shores of the New World either settled in Philadelphia or took the Great Road through Virginia and into our region.
“That’s a perfect preface to a young man becoming a buccaneer and finally coming to America,” Bledsoe said.
As he continued to dig into the history books, events and people kept lining up in such a way that Bledsoe claims he didn’t have to blur the lines between fact and fiction in order to craft a new legend that began in Scotland and reached a crescendo at the Battle of Kings Mountain. When the book is released later this month, Bledsoe anticipates a mythology taking root around ETSU’s Buccaneer mascot, adding gravity to an icon that once seemed out of place.
“It stands the test of time because it represents something that’s real,” Bledsoe said of mythology. “Making the Buccaneer a legend, incorporating all that history – it gives it depth that otherwise it didn’t have.”
Updates on the release of Bledsoe’s book can be found by visiting www.tusculum.edu.