What started out as a birthday joke has morphed into a movement.
The creative minds behind the Alma Otter say they had no idea when they threw together a photoshopped otter for a Facebook post that it would go viral.
It has prompted enthusiasm (mostly from students) and scorn (mostly from alumni and Chief backers), and it's also the subject of a nonbinding referendum this week asking UI students if they would like to see Alma Otter be the official Illini mascot.
"We never had any intention of it actually becoming a thing. We just posted a joke picture," said UI junior John Farwick, a physics major who came up with the original idea along with friends Austin Lindell and Connor Latham, both juniors in aerospace engineering.
Here's the origin story: Lindell and Farwick were hanging out at Cocomero on Wright Street in December, across from the Alma Mater, talking about potential mascots.
"I mentioned Alma Otter would be funny because it sounds like Alma Mater," said Lindell, who is from Aledo.
It was Farwick's birthday, and he and Lindell went back to his apartment, where Latham helped them create a photo that they first posted on Reddit.
"We just looked online, scrolling through Google images at pictures of otters until we found one that we thought could maybe wear a jersey. And that one had his hands up so it looked like it could fit sleeves," said Farwick, who is from Wauconda.
It took maybe 10 minutes.
"We really put no thought into it at all," he said.
It happened to be during the Illini volleyball team's postseason tournament run, and a fan noted that the otter's arms were in a volleyball-type position, he said.
Within a day, the Reddit post received a few hundred "upvotes." The students decided to post it to a "University of Illinois Memes" Facebook page, where it got a similar response.
"That's all we had to do with it," Lindell said. "All the support has really come from students. And then just over the last week, it really blew up."
As in: a change.org petition to make it the official Illini mascot and a resolution to put it on the ballot for this week's student elections — which prompted a News-Gazette story, other media coverage and more online support/backlash.
Local artist Nina Paley drew up cartoons with her version of Alma Otter that she submitted in a letter to the editor, and a Twitter account called "Creative Illini" came up with a full-sized mascot with an Illini jersey.
That version showed up on ESPN's "Around the Horn" segment Monday, where panelists debated the idea. (They were mostly critical but liked the potential for otter puns.)
Before the Horn, the panelists debate about the best animal mascots with some fun (incorrect) facts pic.twitter.com/BoseuFyq0z
— Around The Horn (@AroundtheHorn) March 4, 2019
Lindell, Farwick and Latham had kept a low profile after their original post, hoping to remain somewhat anonymous. But once Alma Otter became a campus referendum question and appeared on ESPN — and the social-media rhetoric became a bit heated — they decided to go public to "make sure people know it was a joke," Farwick said.
They created a new Reddit post explaining how it came about and offered to answer questions. Some of them were along the lines of, "Why would you do this to us?"
"One thing we've noticed is that the people who don't like the otter really, really hate it a lot," Farwick said. "We were like, 'We just made a joke.'"
The reaction on Reddit and Facebook has been mostly positive.
"The general majority of students seem to like it and enjoy it and know that it's a fun mascot idea," Lindell said, while older fans and alumni don't approve "because they obviously enjoy the Chief."
"Twitter is especially very hostile. The majority of people on Twitter are very upset that it even exists," Farwick said.
Lindell and Farwick are still surprised how much thought people have given to the idea, coming up with rationales for the otter.
They like the connection to Alma Mater and say it's compatible with other Big Ten mascots like the Wisconsin Badger and Minnesota Golden Gopher. They note that the river otter is found in every county across Illinois and has made a remarkable comeback from near-extinction in the state 20 years ago. One person posted a video showing a real otter fighting off an alligator in Florida.
"It's so odd how we just made a meme for my birthday for no reason, and people are making very clear and distinct justifications for this being the school mascot," Farwick said. "It's wild."
If the vote goes Alma Otter's way, they're not sure it will go any further.
Chancellor Robert Jones is still awaiting recommendations from his Commission on Native Imagery on whether to pursue a mascot at all.
At this point, Lindell and Farwick think Alma Otter could be a contender, mostly because it has organically generated so much student support.
"The whole point of a mascot is for the students to enjoy," Lindell said.
Other mascot suggestions have also popped up in recent days — "Krush" the bear (for the Orange Krush), a "Flying Illini" eagle, an "Illini 22" bus, or some kind of robot to commemorate the strong tech history on campus.
UI student Mike Skibski also drew up "Champ the Fighting Illini," a World War I soldier, to tie in with Memorial Stadium.
Lindell and Farwick think there are strong points for each, and they could foresee Alma Otter working alongside Champ, for instance.
After 12 years with no mascot or symbol, the campus is ready for something, Lindell said, though he's not sure Alma Otter will "be the one that sticks."
"What people are realizing, no matter if you support the Chief or not, is that it's really controversial, and it's going to be tough to bring that back at all. So it's probably best to show that we're ready for something else," Lindell said.
"Alma Otter offers a way for it to be kind of fun. And there's no controversy associated with it. It's just a fun mascot."