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Unveiling the Exciting Future of the Next UCF Mascot

A single voice begins the countdown, the only audible noise amidst the squeaking of sneakers on the gymnasium floor at the campus.

Over 50 students, spanning from high school seniors to graduate students, form pairs to practice dance routines just demonstrated by two instructors. The sole accompaniment to their movements is the music emanating from a nearby speaker connected to a smartphone.

Moving among the groups, a figure closely observes the intricate footwork, occasionally jotting down notes on a clipboard. Pausing to verify a name on a participant’s nametag, the individual records it before proceeding.

The clock reads just past 9:30 on a Saturday morning, marking the commencement of what could potentially evolve into a lengthy day.

Students practice a choreographed dance to the Knights That Never Die song as they audition to be UCF’s mascot Knightro at The Venue Orlando, Fla., Saturday, April 6, 2024. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

Students engage in a choreographed dance routine to the tune of “Knights That Never Die” as they vie for the role of UCF’s mascot, Knightro, at The Venue. (Willie J. Allen/Orlando Sentinel)

At the conclusion of the auditions, the fate of UCF’s mascot program rests within this assembly of students, knowing that only a fraction will be selected to carry on.

Embracing the Knightro Persona

Wearing the Knightro helmet carries significant weight, a fact not lost on Callahan, who embodied the character from 2002 to 2004 before assuming the role of head coach.

“As someone deeply devoted to the school spirit,” recalled Callahan, who also fulfills the role of director of informational systems at UCF, “I was always the one painting myself green during high school and energetically cheering at various sports events.”

Upon his arrival at UCF from Massachusetts, Callahan initially pursued joining the band but soon redirected his focus towards a different path.

“Spotting Knightro, I felt an instant connection,” Callahan shared. “It resonated with my exuberance and allegiance to the school. So, I decided to audition that April and was fortunate to secure a spot on the team.”

UCF coordinator Michael Callahan instructs about 50 students auditioning for the UCF Mascot Knightro at The Venue Orlando, Fla., Saturday, April 6, 2024. Callahan took the students through a series of games, dances, interviews, and improvisations to find the next group to put on the Knightro uniform. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

UCF coordinator Michael Callahan guides around 50 aspiring Knightro candidates through various activities including games, dances, interviews, and improvisations to identify the next members of the team. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

Reflecting on his initial experience donning the Knightro costume, Callahan reminisced, “It’s truly transformative. You instantly become a sensation. Shedding your identity as an individual, you emerge as a star in the suit.”

The Evolution of Knightro

In the genesis of UCF’s mascot history, there was the .

Originally representing Florida Technological University, the mascot sported an orange body coupled with an astronaut’s head. Subsequently, a series of characters emerged, including Vincent the Vulture, Sir Wins-a-lot, Puff, and Mack the Knight.

Most of these mascots lacked official recognition until the late , when the then-athletics director advocated for establishing an authorized mascot. Trey Gordon, a former cheerleader deeply involved in student governance, played a pivotal role in conceptualizing the figure that would eventually become Knightro.

Thus, in November 1994, Knightro made his debut.

“The costume was crafted by a company in Pompano Beach,” shared , overseeing UCF’s spirit program and cheerleading squad. “Initially designed more for aesthetics than practicality, the first costume, Glitter Knightro, weighed a hefty 50 pounds.”

Despite undergoing various costume modifications over the years, Knightro’s popularity has remained unwavering.

“With his quirky and engaging appearance, people are always eager to have him present at events,” noted Gooch.

Knightro averages around 250 appearances annually outside of athletic department commitments, from welcoming speakers at the College of Business to kick-starting events at the Orange County Convention Center.

Students play the Human Knot game as they compete during the audition to be UCF’s mascot Knightro at The Venue Orlando, Fla., Saturday, April 6, 2024. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

As part of the audition process to embody UCF’s mascot, Knightro, students engage in the Human Knot game. (Willie J. Allen/Orlando Sentinel)

“He’s undeniably a crowd favorite,” affirmed Gooch. “Meeting the demand for his appearances is quite a task.”

The Collective Effort Behind Knightro

This fall marks the 30th anniversary of the program, with 74 individuals having had the honor of portraying Knightro.

However, assuming the role of Knightro is not a solitary endeavor.

A dedicated team is essential to ensure seamless and successful appearances by Knightro.

“In my time, the team comprised three to four members,” recalled Callahan. “Over the years, the escalating presence of Knightro and the expanding array of activities necessitated a larger team.”

Typically, the team consists of approximately 12 students, though the exact number varies based on applicants and successful candidates. Team members are considered integral to the athletics program, enjoying similar benefits to other athletes.

These perks include partial scholarships, complimentary tickets to sporting events, and an array of Nike-branded UCF athletic apparel.

Nonetheless, Gooch cautions that the program demands a high level of commitment.

“If Knightro misses an event, it doesn’t go unnoticed,” she cautioned aspiring candidates. “You need to be reliable, self-sufficient, punctual, and capable of executing your duties independently.”

Students compete in an improv session with props during the audition to be UCF’s mascot Knightro at The Venue Orlando, Fla., Saturday, April 6, 2024. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

During the audition process to become UCF’s mascot, Knightro, students engage in an improvisation session with props. (Willie J. Allen/Orlando Sentinel)

“You are the face of the university,” Callahan emphasized. “When people think of UCF, they think of the football coach, the basketball coach, the school president, and Knightro. Knightro is the enduring image on billboards and bus advertisements.”

Upon selection, team members undergo a summer mini-boot camp to grasp the essentials of portraying Knightro. They are expected to participate in campus and community events featuring Knightro, ranging from visits to children’s hospitals and birthday celebrations to luncheons at the Governor’s Mansion.

Once the fall semester commences, selected students convene weekly to review their appearance schedules. Practices are held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 6-9 p.m.

A typical football game day sees Knightro and the team engaging in various activities, from attending tailgates to participating in the March to Victory alongside fans. Knightro often makes appearances on stage during pregame concerts, interacts with fans for photo opportunities, and leads pregame festivities on the field, all while energizing the crowd throughout the game.

Silent Expressions of Knightro

At the auditions, candidates focus on non-verbal communication, a fundamental aspect of embodying Knightro.

“Remember, Knightro doesn’t speak,” Callahan reinforces to the group.

Participants form smaller circles to engage in storytelling using props like oversized scissors, an umbrella, or fake dumbbells. Each candidate endeavors to convey a narrative before Callahan signals a prop change with a blow of his whistle.

Throughout this exercise, silence prevails, punctuated only by occasional suppressed laughter.

Requesting anonymity for the participants, Callahan emphasized their motivations:

“I was drawn to the program due to my love for dance, a true passion of mine,” shared one candidate ahead of the auditions. “Having been a mascot in high school, I find immense joy in donning a costume, embodying a new persona, and showcasing my character.”

Echoing this sentiment, another candidate expressed, “After attending the first football game this year, I was captivated by Knightro and felt an instant connection. I’m thrilled to be here and eager to contribute to this esteemed program.”