How white power changed Herbie Husker

For nearly 50 years, fans have loved the burly Husker mascot who wears blue overalls, sports a big red cowboy hat and keeps an ear of corn in his pocket. The depiction of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed farmer with a barrel chest and chiseled chin is, for many Nebraskans, a representation of the state itself.

For nearly all that time, Herbie Husker has held a football in one hand and thrown up an “a-OK” sign with the other. But if you’ve paid close attention, you may have noticed a change.

Now, Herbie’s left hand shows “we’re number one.” 

The reason for that slight switch: White supremacists. 

Internet trolls and white supremacy groups have tried to turn the OK sign into a symbol of white power, claiming the three fingers up form a W and the circle and wrist form a P.

That, in turn, gave Herbie’s OK sign a potential meaning his creators never intended.

Lonna Henrichs

The new meaning was brought to the attention of Lonna Henrichs, the UNL athletic department’s licensing and branding director, in July 2020, just weeks after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s murder prompted racial reckoning and protests across the country – including counter-protests where members of hate groups flashed the sign.

“That hand gesture could, in some circles, represent something that does not represent what Nebraska athletics is about,” Henrichs said. “We just didn’t even want to be associated with portraying anything that somebody might think, you know, that it means white power.

“We made that change as quick as we could.”

She asked an in-house designer to Photoshop Herbie’s left hand to have one finger pointed in the air. While the change hasn’t yet appeared in Nebraska’s brand book, Herbie with his index finger aloft is the only logo that will be approved for merchandise going forward, Henrichs said.

Two years ago, The Anti-Defamation League added the OK hand gesture to its hate symbol database with a caveat: “particular caution must be used when evaluating this symbol.”

They say the gesture has been used in many cultures with different meanings. In 17th Century Great Britain, it was a signal of approval. In Hinduism and Buddhism, it represents “inner perfection.” In American Sign Language, it forms the basis of many words. For high schoolers, it is a part of “the circle game” where they try to trick their friends into looking at the gesture. If they do, the person who duped them can give them a friendly punch.

“In most contexts, (it) is entirely innocuous and harmless,” the ADL writes.

But starting in 2017, the symbol gained a new meaning as members of the forum 4chan attempted to promote the symbol as a hate gesture.

The goal was to “trigger” liberals. The hoax was so successful, the ADL says, that it became popular with some white supremacists who adopted the symbol as their own. Hate groups used it at far-right rallies and during the January 6 insurrection, further pushing it into the public consciousness. 

Lawrence Chatters

Lawrence Chatters, the athletic department’s first senior staff-level head of diversity, equity and inclusion, was hired after the decision was made. He’s proud of the decision. He said he wants the Huskers to be “competitively inclusive.”
“When there is hatred and hurt attached to a symbol, or a word, or a gesture, we have to pay attention to it,” said Chatters, an executive associate athletic director. “We don’t have the choice to just say, ‘well, that’s not what you think it is.’

“Truthfully, those (hate) groups do exist. Truthfully, those are movements that have caused issues in our country. We’re not talking about a false reality here.”

Dick West, a longtime cartoonist from Lubbock, Texas, was presumably thinking about none of this when he drew what became Herbie for the 1974 Cotton Bowl pitting Nebraska against Texas. 

The cartoon, posted in the press box, caught the eye of then Sports Information Director Don Bryant. West created a slightly refined, less hokey version of Herbie for a permanent logo.

Herbie Husker’s first official appearance as a Husker mascot was on the cover of the 1974 football media guide. Photo by Jordan Pascale/Flatwater Free Press

Later that fall, the Herbie logo showed up on the media guide, his first official appearance. He replaced a tall, lanky logo and mascot known as Harry Husker. It was a time of transition for both the look and leadership of the program: A young Tom Osborne had just taken over from Bob Devaney.

West, who worked for decades at the Lubbock paper and eventually became the city’s mayor, drew a few things that wouldn’t pass muster today, including Native Americans with tomahawks, caricatured as Big 8 mascots, and Texas A&M fans as dim-witted. But Herbie spanned decades and changing times, becoming one of the cartoonist’s longest-lasting creations.

Cartoonist Dirk West poses with some of his creations, including the original Herbie Husker logo (bottom right). Photo courtesy of the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library at Texas Tech University.

West died in 1996, just a year after Husker Athletic Director Bill Byrne attempted to get rid of the logo and mascot, saying Herbie was “not nationally marketable.”

“We’ve worked and worked with Herbie. No matter what we do, he doesn’t seem to be very appealing to our fans,” Byrne said at the time.

That market research upset some Husker fans, who started a petition demanding Herbie return as the school’s official mascot – 1,200 people signed.

“You’d be surprised how agitated people are about this,” Sandi James of Big Red Etc. said at the time. “They’re more angry than they were the year Nebraska lost to both Oklahoma and Colorado.” 

Herbie stayed as he was until 2004, He slimmed down under Athletic Director Steve Pederson,  went from blonde to brown hair, and traded in his overalls for a red polo and jeans.

But just six years later, the old Herbie came back in a big way. Vintage logos were in style and so popular that the Husker basketball team started using Herbie on shirts and hats.

“Nostalgia is wonderful here at Nebraska,” NU branding director Henrichs said. “Everybody loved the ‘90s.”

For the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s 150th anniversary, the athletic department created a montage of Husker mascots over the years. It goes back as far as 1940 with some farmer images, corn mascots, “Harry Husker” or “Red Man” and different versions of Herbie Husker. Image courtesy of Husker Athletics. 

Now, Herbie has changed, ever-so-slightly, again.

Fans interviewed for this story understand the switch, though one laments it as a tad too politically correct.

Andrew Monson recently noticed the change to Herbie’s left hand. He  spent his early years in Nebraska and is a fan of logo design with an eye for detail. (His dad, a newspaper editor, would pay him a quarter for every mistake he found in the paper when he was a kid).

Monson suspected the white supremacist ties spurred the new logo. He thinks the quick switch was smart.

“From a marketing point of view, they absolutely nailed it in terms of brand preservation and getting out ahead of things,” Monson said. “Their worst-case scenario would be a… white supremacist who notices it and starts co-opting it… that would be an absolute disaster for the university.”

He said the decision was savvy, but a missed opportunity for a serious public dialogue.

“Even just saying, ‘hey, look, we realize this is maybe ridiculous to some people, but from our standpoint, we just can’t have any kind of association (with this), even if it started as a joke. That’s not who we are,’” he said, noting it would’ve been a good opportunity to teach about hate symbols and how they can gain power.

Aaron Wade of Alliance, Nebraska, is a long-time fan and artist who wrote about his love for classic Herbie

“The original hand-drawn Herbie had some character,” he said. “It was hand-drawn and not computer-generated. Any more logos are just so refined… they kind of lose their character.” 

He didn’t notice the hand change until it was pointed out to him.

“I understand from the (university’s) perspective, I really do,” Wade said. “It’s just sad when something so innocent gets portrayed that way… the world’s political correctness anymore is just kind of baffling sometimes.”

Scott Strunc, owner of Husker Hounds, said the change was so subtle he didn’t notice. Regardless of Herbie’s hand signal, the old school character is “the one that everybody wants,” Strunc said. 

The cash register isn’t ringing as much as in years past. But that’s not Herbie’s fault.

“The reason sales are down,” Strunc said, “is because they went 3-9 and they’ve had five consecutive losing seasons.”

27 Comments

You bent the knee to political correctness on
changing Herbie husker what a sad commentary you guys are weak and spineless

“The had gesture in some circles???” NOT in our circles, Lonna. This so absurd. Particularly in a state that pushed the envelope to emancipate the slaves and many counties are named for abolitionists. (see the Kansas/Nebraska act) It’s disgusting that you think you speak for the school and the state. Affiliations with the University by folks like you make me less proud to be a Nebraskan and Alumni. Shame on you Lonna. There is no need for this state or University to explain itself or apologize. I hope you are getting loads of crap for this.

only a weak minded, spineless cowardly fool or fools would make a change for that reason period. don’t let other idiots dictate what you do., good grief.

“I understand from the (university’s) perspective, I really do,” Wade said. “It’s just sad when something so innocent gets portrayed that way… the world’s political correctness anymore is just kind of baffling sometimes.” I am certain this comment was not intended to sound as if political correctness was more egregious and “inconvenient” than white supremacy. Political correctness is not the source of the problem, white supremacy IS.

In a nation whose founding credo is that ALL people are born equal and endowed with inalienable rights…the change is the correct move. In a country where we stand, put out hands over our hearts, and repeat the words that we are a nation “with liberty and justice for ALL”…the change is the correct move. Thanks to UNL for seeing the need to make the change.

For being such a supposedly great research institution, UNL apparently didn’t bother researching into the fact that the alleged “white supremacist” hand gesture their apparel people were so up-in-arms about was a 4chan HOAX. When an institution or corporation goes “woke”, nothing good will ever come of it.

absurd
isn’t it only a P and a W if it is upside down ?
Stretching the truly righteous cause of equality to this extent diminishes the real problems.

Great article! I liked learning about the history of Herbie Husker. The reporting is non-biased and factual, which I really appreciate. It was nice to get the reasoning behind the change.

I think they need to work a month on a farm or ranch and get a real opinion other than what gets force fed to them as “News” on Twitter or Facebook. This appears as a joke to most people.

reasoning is cheap. Proof and facts are harder to come by. The argument is dumb. It explains in the way Lenin explained why the Tsar was murdered. That is to say it is not really an explanation at all it’s a justification of a biased narrative.

The Klan used three fingers downward while looping their thumb in their belt. They never make the O-Kay sign. What this shows is how white progressive will invent then enforce a narrative as a means to demonstrate power. Universities are beholden to this class of people. They are no longer free thinking or questioning and rational institutions. You wonder why people are turning their backs on HE?

I pole vaulted at the ’66 State Track in Memorial Stadium. And I even got a mimeographed football recruitment letter from Coach Bob Devaney. I bet he’s rolling….
Little did I realize how far down the toilet the PC Culture could take the Nebraska leadership.
Next up: they’ll want to change the name of the venue.
It’s time to clean house.

What happens if and when white supremacists copt the micky mouse ears, or the peace and prosper from Mr Spock? Perhaps they can start wearing BYU or UCLA tee shirts? And then suddenly, BOOM! No longer can wear any of that stuff? Point is, when we start reacting to idiots by banning items or gestures based on them using it we have lost and they won.

Th OK sign? I was originally not a fan of it because that was an Oklahoma reference! Ha! QUAD, you nailed it. Precisely what the leftist’s goals are. They’ll force a removal of any kind of tradition with this rationale simply because ‘they’ want to define it. These hand signals are also defined in military guidebooks to enable ‘quiet communication’ when in combat situations. Are those racist as well? Hogwash!

I thought colleges and universities were institutions of higher learning. Now we know how stupid they really are, at least in Nebraska.

And the world laughs at you… the connection of the ok hand symbol to white supremacy was trolling material. Chum in the water for the stupid people of cancel culture. Proof that those idiots will believe anything. That waking up in the morning on a planet made by the hand of God is a triggering event, every breath they take is taken as a micro aggression. That it only serves to perpetuate the hate they have for themselves and the world they perceive around them.

And you bend the knee for these people, congratulations.

“Truthfully, those (hate) groups do exist. Truthfully, those are movements that have caused issues in our country. We’re not talking about a false reality here.”

When you have two or more consecutive sentences beginning with “truthfully” it is a tell

It’s a cartoon mascot. People need to grow up and stop being sensitive snowflakes. The simple fact is that mascots change all the time for any number of reasons, and trying to distance yourself from white supremacists seems like a pretty good reason to make an update. I promise that you will all get used to the new Herbie; you can go through whatever grief process you need and you will come to accept it. Also, as an aside, saying that something is an online hoax when it is easily proven (with the most minor level of research and critical thinking) that it is actually happening right now in the real world, only adds to the aura of delusion your head in the sand was already emanating. If conservative spokespeople and politicians would stop making the hand signal, then the liberals would stop talking about it. So if we want the liberal nonsense to end we have to start by trying to Make Racism Bad Again. Put that on your red hat.

“Put that on your red hat.”

Oh, no, now you’ve done it!! Herbie’s wearing a red hat! MAGA supporters wear red hats!! NU’ll have to change the hat color if they don’t want to be identified with MAGA supporters!