JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – An East Tennessee State University kickoff wouldn’t be complete without Bucky on the field, decked in blue and gold and cheering with the crowd.
But what’s a buccaneer doing in the Appalachian mountains in the first place?
In the 17th century, buccaneers were seafarers that roamed mostly the Caribbean, composed of English, French and Dutch displaced settlers
If you asked the Spanish settlers targeted by buccaneers 17th century, buccaneers were lawless pirates prowling the Caribbean seas.
So how did Bucky make his way from a ship in the Caribbean to a football stadium in Northeast Tennessee?
Hidden treasure and Pirate’s Creek
Jeremy Smith, director of the Archives of Appalachia at ETSU, said the earliest record of the swash-buckling mascot dates back to 1935.
After East Tennessee State Normal School opened in 1911, crowds would just call their teams the Teachers.
“When the football team would charge onto the field everyone would chant, ‘Go, Teachers, go!”
The switch from a yardstick to a cutlass has legendary buried treasure attached to it, Smith said.
As the legend goes, a French buccaneer named Jean-Paul LeBucque was ravaging the coast of Florida and made his way northwest in an effort to hide his treasure.
The legend’s original Buc eventually made it to our region, where he wound through rivers and waterways looking for a place to stash his gold and treasures.
He found an underground waterway named Pirate’s Creek where he hid his gold, just in time for the earth above to collapse, encasing him and his treasure.
While it’s a fun story, Smith said this probably isn’t where Bucky truly began.
“There is no historical evidence that anyone named Jean-Paul LeBucque ever existed as a pirate or buccaneer, there’s no evidence that there’s a Pirate’s Creek underground anywhere in the region,” he said.
What probably happened
As it turns out, Smith said, students decided that chanting “Teachers, Teachers, Teachers!” wasn’t the most motivating herald for football players busting onto the field before a big game.
The school held a contest in the mid-1930s for a new mascot. Smith said there aren’t any records of other options that students may have had, but the buccaneer slashed through the competition and became the face of athletics in 1935.
The athletic director and football coach at the time, Gene McMurray, approved the new mascot and holds the credit in most history books as the person who signed ETSU on as Buccaneers.
Smith said a student by the name of Clyde Wayman might have been the student who proposed ‘Buccanneers’ for the contest. Wayman attended East Tennessee State Teachers College from 1934-1938 and hailed from Jonesborough.
Smith said Wayman played football for Jonesborough High School and played against other schools in the region.
One of the teams he likely played against were the Big Stone Gap Buccaneers.
The Big Stone Buccaneer
Big Stone Gap’s history is loaded into a quaint house off Clinton Avenue. Home to the Lonesome Pine Heritage Center, the modest house holds mountains of history of the southwest Virginia region.
Pat Cooper is something of a local history expert, along with Garnett Gilliam, who brought the history center to existence. Flipping back through yearbooks, Cooper finds evidence of the Big Stone Gap Buccaneer as early as 1926 – nine years before ETSU.
On the walls behind her are memorabilia featuring the former mascot, complete with a familiar wash of blue and gold.
“As far as we can tell, this was the beginning of the Buccaneers,” Cooper said, sifting through copies of the former school’s yearbooks.
Big Stone Gap School maintained their buccaneer status through the 1950s until the area schools consolidated and chose the Viking as its mascot.
Big Stone Gap is still wrapped in Appalachia’s embrace without an ocean in sight. Cooper said she isn’t sure who chose a pirate as a mascot for a school in a mountain town, but said she’s glad the legacy of Big Stone Gap School quietly lives on an hour away.
“It’s odd that it would be a Virginia school,” Cooper noted. “Why would East Tennessee State take the name of a southwest Virginia School? But we’re honored that it happened.
A goat, a parrot and the birth of Bucky
The buccaneer isn’t the only mascot to grace the ETSU scene. In the 1950s, ETSU adopted a live goat as a mascot, Captain Kidd. Smith said students affectionately referred to the goat as Billy the Goat.
Captain Kidd stayed on board through the late 1960s, coming to games donned in a cape. The university retired the goat for a few reasons, Smith said. Rival teams liked to steal live animal mascots and dye their fur, so Captain Kidd retired for his own safety.
The administration also decided that a goat didn’t really fit the buccaneer theme at ETSU, he added.
Smith said that’s when the buccaneer got the name Bucky. Although Bucky’s had some style and outfit changes throughout the years, he’s been a staple for the university at games and other events for decades.
Bucky’s sidekick Pepper the Parrot hatched in 1980, and for a while, ETSU had two mascots.
“By the late ’80s, I think people felt like it was unnecessary, it was confusing (to have two mascots),” Smith said. “So Pepper the Parrot flew off to bluer skies and in about ’89 or ’90, we’ve had Bucky the Buccaneer.”
The origin of the Appalachian pirate is still murky, but Smith said the choice of a buccaneer probably boils down to the imagination of the students at the time.
“I would imagine most students here in the 1930s had never seen the ocean, it wasn’t exactly close at the time, so they wanted to think of something exotic, something somewhat dangerous, something that would intimidate their opponents when they took the athletic fields,” he said.