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University of Missouri

The Truth about Truman

Go inside the black-and-gold fur to discover what it’s like to be Mizzou’s mascot.

Truman the Tiger from the back

Letter 'T' covered in tiger mascot furEarly football season in Missouri can get pretty toasty. The 2011 opener against Miami of Ohio lingered in the 90s, and black-clad Mizzou players periodically showered themselves with water bottles to cool off. The hottest Tiger of all, however, was too focused on drenching Memorial Stadium revelers with his trademark fire hose to request a sip.

Truman the Tiger, named after the 33rd U.S. President and Missouri native Harry S Truman, has been Mizzou’s sideline-sauntering mascot for nearly three decades. Other iterations of Missouri’s tiger date to at least 1948. Although many students have worn anthropomorphic cat costumes, none have learned to tame the heat.

On a cold day, it’s 110 degrees inside the suit,” estimates former Truman Brad London, BS ’98, of Frisco, Texas. “It didn’t matter if it was freezing or 100 outside, you wore shorts and a T-shirt inside. You took breaks, drank water, lost weight — the costume weighed about 10 times more than it did when you started — and it smelled wonderful.”

Susan Cohen Bierman, BJ ’61, of Orlando, Fla., was one of the earliest Mizzou mascots. She remembers the rudimentary papier-mâché tiger noggin she wore from 1958–60, including on two trips to the Orange Bowl in Miami. But the heat was only one hazard.

Tiger mascots from 1974

Lil Tiger and Big Tiger, precursors to Truman, pictured in 1974. Photo courtesy of MU Archives C: 1/139/1.

I could see out of the mouth, but it was so small that I was kind of cross-eyed by the end of the game,” says the 4-foot-10-inch tigerette. “The chicken wire on the inside would scratch my face.”

Costume technology has come a long way since the 1950s. After MU students voted on the presidential moniker in 1984, former Director of Athletics Joe Castiglione tapped Fiberworks LLC in Phoenix for the costume’s construction. Festus, Mo., native Joe Turnbough, now the company’s member manager, had a hand in the initial Truman design, which debuted at the beginning of the 1986 football season.

Back then we were doing the head in fiberglass, and it weighed 7½ to 8 pounds,” Turnbough says.

In 1993, Fiberworks — which also manufactures the St. Louis Cardinals mascot, Fredbird — switched to a more malleable foam that lightened Truman’s head to 2½ pounds. Turnbough worked side by side with Donna Nagel, who did the pattern work and would eventually become Turnbough’s wife.

Love has always seemed to surround Missouri’s mascot — and not just because of leg-hugging, tail-tugging tots. Former Truman John Lyman, BA ’03, and former cheerleader Molly White Lyman, BS Ed ’05, M Ed ’06, were married during his senior year as the fuzzy feline. And Susan Bierman’s husband, Arnold Bierman, MD ’62, spotted his beloved through binoculars one sunny day in 1960.

It was very hot, so I took my head off,” says Susan, who has been married to Arnold for 50 years. “He said I looked short, cute and Jewish.”

vintage Mizzou mascot

In this Kansas City Star photo from Nov. 26, 1948, Tom Finley battles the intense sun in his leopard-spotted “tiger” costume. Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Star.

Truman’s adorability has saved his skin more than once. Cheerleading Coach Suzy Thompson remembers a near disaster at the 2005 National Cheerleaders Association Collegiate Cheer and Dance Competition in Daytona, Fla. Moments before taking the stage, a Truman who shall remain nameless notified his coach that he had forgotten the “skin” (the costume minus the head, paws and feet) in Columbia.

We found some tiger-striped spandex, a black leotard and a Mizzou cheerleaders’ shirt, and he went out and performed,” Thompson says. “Now we always take two suits when we go.”

During the interview and audition process, Thompson looks for extroverted students who understand the demanding schedule. The always-hilarious training sessions include a handful of days during which all five or six costumed Trumans practice identifying body parts like enthusiastic toddlers.

I feel like a mom with five kids and the cheerleaders to the side, laughing. ‘Where are your eyes, Truman? Where are your ears?’ ” Thompson says. “We work on the tail-spin, too, because it’s his signature move. You gotta have a swagger.”

Former Truman Matt Hamner, BA ’98, JD ’01, of Camdenton, Mo., learned from experience how that attitude sometimes leads to trouble. Once, while razzing Colorado cheerleaders in Boulder, CU’s Chip the Buffalo crashed on a skateboard into Hamner. His knee gave out, resulting in some time on the injured reserve list.

vintage Mizzou mascot

A third version of the pre-Truman tiger dons shades and a bowler hat at the 1983 Holiday Bowl parade. Photo courtesy of Jeff Zumsteg.

I’ll never forget lying in the Colorado snow with a sweaty guy in a buffalo suit saying, ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’ ” Hamner says, laughing.

Truman might be striped, but he can be spotted all over the Show-Me State at birthday parties, gas stations, hospitals, shopping malls, weddings and zoos. The game-day gig calls for stamina, frequent breaks and lots of hydration, but it’s worth it to play one of Missouri’s most adored characters.

We’ll get calls from people requesting Truman, and I think folks forget they are students,” Thompson says. “They think he’s sitting in my office next to a black-and-gold phone just waiting to jump in the Truman-mobile and go somewhere.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the students who posed as Lil Tiger and Big Tiger in 1974. 

More: Bringing Up Truman