The evolution of the Billy Bluejay mascot costume

May 13, 2021 By Micah Mertes

On the year of his 80th birthday, here is the definitive story of Billy Bluejay — the logo, the costume, the spirit of Creighton.

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Billy hero image main

Billy, when he arrived at Creighton, brought his family out of the pages and cages and into the hearts of Creighton fans. Billy had a human stance and a psyched expression that implied, ‘Don’t Mess With Me.’

Joseph P. Murphy, BSC'31 Creator of Billy Bluejay

The many beaks of Billy

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By Micah Mertes

Billy Bluejay is, first and foremost, a big blue bird who gets Creighton fans pumped at the game. Yet he’s also a symbol, and one whose stature has grown along with Creighton itself.

The current Billy, part of Creighton Athletics’ 2013 rebranding, is a well-respected member of the mascot community. No less than Buzzfeed recently ranked him the No. 7 best mascot in this year’s March Madness tournament.

Billy’s been flapping his wings ’round arenas and stadiums for decades, and in that time he’s taken on half a dozen forms. Many alumni will recall a different mascot costume — perhaps one with thicker plumage or a papier-mâché head. Go back further, and Billy was nothing more than a cardboard cutout standing courtside.

Like any other living creature, Billy has evolved, continually shifting the shape of his beak, each new era marked by the dawn of another Jay. But however much he’s changed, he’s done so without losing the fierce blue hue of his plucky heart.

On the year of his 80th birthday, here is the definitive story of Billy Bluejay — the logo, the costume, the spirit of Creighton.

Billy begins

Long before Billy Bluejay, Creighton’s athletic teams were known by their colors or the unofficial nickname of the “Hilltoppers,” based on campus’ elevated position. But by 1923, half a dozen other teams across the country had the same name.

At the behest of alumni and the athletics board, the Omaha Bee newspaper ran a contest to name the University’s official mascot. There were 200 entries, including the Creighton Golden Rods, Creighton Shamrocks, Creighton Tigers and Creighton Bears. But the winner, of course, was the Creighton Bluejays, largely because the bird kept with the school’s colors.

(Quick sidenote: In the 1930s, Creighton briefly had an additional unofficial mascot, one “liked by all faculty and students” — a rat terrier named Spot. Here is Spot’s obituary. )

For years, the Creighton Bluejays’ blue jay was ornithologically correct and anonymous. Here he is on the cover of the 1928 Bluejay yearbook.

But in 1941, the bird got a humanized form and a name: "Battlin’ Bill Bluejay.” Over the next 80 years, he would be referred to as “The Bluejay,” “Billie Bluejay,” “Billy the Bluejay,” even “William Bluejay” before landing on the tried-and-true Billy Bluejay.

Billy was angry by design. He was meant to look “like he swallowed something that gave him a bellyache,” wrote Joseph P. Murphy, BSC'31, in a 1982 column in the Bluejay yearbook.

Murphy was Creighton’s public relations director in the early ’40s when he commissioned an artist to draw Billy. This will come as painful news to many Creighton fans, but, according to Murphy’s account, Billy Bluejay was inspired by the Kansas Jayhawk.

Yet Murphy thought the Jayhawk looked too “complacent and satisfied.” Billy’s job, Murphy wrote, was to “promote action. He needed to look tough and aggressive, ready to go.”

Murphy didn’t mince words when it came to Billy’s predecessors. Here’s his take on those earlier jays (from a 1982 story in the Creighton Alumni News):

“(Billy’s) ancestors at Creighton were insipid-looking creatures pictured perched on dead branches or in dusty trophy cases. Billy, when he arrived at Creighton, brought his family out of the pages and cages and into the hearts of Creighton fans. Compared to his predecessors, he had life and attitude. Billy had a human stance and a psyched expression that implied, ‘Don’t Mess With Me.’”

Nearly 70 years after Murphy created Billy Bluejay, his grandson — Lt. Col. Michael Murphy, BA'84 — endowed a scholarship to honor his grandparents. Now, every year, the Joseph P. and M. Kathryn Murphy Endowed Scholarship Fund supports students who serve as the mascot the donor’s grandfather brought to life.

Billy evolves

Before we dive into the history of the mascot costume itself, let’s talk just a bit more about the illustrated Bluejays.

As a reminder, we started with this …

And went to this …

And from there, the bird took a few unfortunate detours, in some cases flying directly into a window.

For example, here’s Billy in 1955 …

And 1970 …

After alumni complained about the universally disturbing image of a bird with teeth, Creighton reverted to the 1941 illustration, which served as the reigning Billy until 2013, when the University unveiled a new logo and mascot …

Still, the original Billy lives on in the form of the bronze statue outside Morrison Stadium. Word has it, he and the modern mascot get along quite nicely. Creighton’s past and present, united for its future.

(The White & Blue Review wrote an excellent account of the Creighton brand’s evolution, if you’re interested.)
 

The costumes

Exactly when Creighton’s costumed mascot first emerged is hard to say. But archive photos at least give us a rough timeline.

At first, the “live” mascot was just a big cardboard cutout of the bird who attended various events. Here’s Billy in 1958.

The earliest costumed version of Billy we could confirm in old game photos is from 1973.

However, some form of costumed Billy might go back much further. This 1961 crowd photo appears to reveal … something?

Over the shoulder of the standing woman, that looks like a papier-mâché head of Billy.

And this 1962 Creightonian article reported that a costumed mascot had been around at least as long as the early ’60s.

Update: We were contacted by George Walton, BSBA'69, who played the mascot in the late '60s. Walton was Billy Bluejay while a member of Creighton's Pep Club. Read a Creightonian article about the club.


By the ’70s, the tradition of a costumed mascot was firmly established at Creighton. Based on old photos, we’ve constructed a rough timeline of Billy Bluejay costumes.
 

Papier-mâché Billy

Lifespan: Circa 1975 to 1979

Characteristics: Big ol’ papier-mâché head, tennis shoes


 

Scary Billy

Lifespan: Circa 1979 to 1985

Characteristics: Thick feathers, startled expression, vaguely extraterrestrial

In a 1985 Creightonian column, a student defended Billy’s look — “OK, so maybe Billie does look like he got hit with a shovel. This just makes him look that much meaner to me.”

 

Photo courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald archive.

This Billy sometimes liked to play the cowboy …

Make appearances at JCPenney …

And parade around the heads of his rivals.


 

Robot Billy

Lifespan: 1980

Characteristics: Machine

The same year “The Empire Strikes Back” was released, a robot that looked like R2-D2 roamed Creighton home games. Coca-Cola loaned Creighton a remote-controlled device, which the University named “BB2.”

 

Natural Billy

Lifespan: Circa 1986 to 1987

Characteristics: Perhaps the most birdlike of all Billies; albeit a bird that’s seen better days.

 

A fun fact about the cheerleaders pictured above — 33 years later, their children, also Creighton alumni, were married. Billy Bluejay crashed the wedding. Julie Walker Ermer, BSOT’89, left, and Michele Brockhaus Seifert, BSOT’87, made sure to get a photo with him.

(Read more about this very Creighton family here.)
 

Billy (plus Betty)

Lifespan: Circa 1988 to 1995

In the late ’80s, Billy got not only a new look …

But a partner — Betty Bluejay.

They looked quite a bit alike. (They are birds, after all.) But you could distinguish them by Betty’s big red bow.


Cute Billy

Lifespan: Circa 1996 to 2013

To the best of our knowledge, this is, so far, the longest-serving mascot costume in Creighton’s history. The only bird to span a whole decade.


 

Modern Billy

Lifespan: Circa 2013 to present

Characteristics: Sleek, athletic, influential, likes to travel.

Do you have old photos or stories of the Billy Bluejay mascot? Send them to micahmertes@creighton.edu and we might feature them in a follow-up article.

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