Ready to Take Off the Mask
After four years embodying the Vandal spirit as mascot Joe Vandal and the UI Marching Band's drum major, grad student Rob Gibson is preparing for life's next move.
You know Rob Gibson, II. Even if you don’t know it, you do.
If, in the last four years or so, you’ve been to a Homecoming parade, a sporting event or a spirit rally, you’ve seen him. If you’ve watched Joe Vandal dance with the spirit squad, if you’ve seen the marching band being led across the field, you’ve seen Gibson.
You’ve likely been mesmerized by his enthusiasm. His infectious energy. His sheer presence.
Even if he’s never said a word to you.
That’s because for the last four years, the spirited master’s student from Florida has been the embodiment of school spirit at the University of Idaho: He is one of a handful of students who plays the role of Joe Vandal and also leads the University of Idaho Vandal Marching Band as the drum major, or band man.
Both characters possess over-sized personalities, calling for an ability to engage with thousands of people at once using nothing but movement, gesture and implied speech. They’re both roles that most people who’ve seen him can easily say Gibson was born to play.
The Journey to Joe
Putting on Joe Vandal’s confidently over-sized head was not Gibson’s first foray into mascot-ing: While attending high school in Orlando, Florida, Gibson worked at a Chick-fil-A restaurant and wore the company’s cow costume.
“My entire life, I’ve had a very outgoing personality, and have been very comfortable in my own skin,” Gibson says.
After high school, Gibson followed his passion for environmental science and the outdoors to Sitka, Alaska, to attend Sheldon Jackson College. Alaska wasn’t a good fit, and Gibson transferred to UI his sophomore year. UI offered a rare combination of excellence in Gibson’s two passions: environmental science and music.
He received his bachelor’s degree in ecology and conservation biology in 2009. This summer, he’ll graduate with a master’s in environmental science, an interdisciplinary program in the colleges of Natural Resources and Agricultural and Life Sciences, where his focus has been studying the interactions of a native rust fungus (Puccinia thlaspeos) on an exotic mustard (Isatis tinctoria). Gibson will participate in the spring commencement ceremony.
Music has not been an official part of his academic study, but a passionate pursuit: Gibson began playing trombone in the sixth grade, and performed in the Vandal marching band and Vandalizer pep band for several years.
It was a marching band friend who initially asked Gibson if he’d be willing to perform as Joe Vandal, UI’s mascot. Gibson resisted.
“Name your excuse, I came up with it,” he said. But his friend prevailed, and after about an hour of training, Gibson found himself dressed as the Germanic warrior on a volleyball court. “Every time a song would come on, I would dance. I just danced my hiney all over the place and had a great time. By the end of it, the cheer coach walked up to me and said, ‘You did a great job. And the fans loved it. From here on out, Joe Vandal is now a dancing mascot.’ After that, I kind of fell in love with it."
Another Role to Play
Gibson’s ability to draw a crowd with his flair became more apparent during a pep band performance in Boise. While the band was waiting to perform, “Down” by Jay Sean was playing over the PA system. Gibson gave in to the beat and started grooving.
“Before I knew it, the videographer for the band had zoomed in on me,” he said. “By the end of the song, I noticed that I was up on the PA screen.”
Composer Jeff Chambers decided to arrange the song for the marching band, and every time they’d play it, Gibson would dance in the center of the basketball court. It caught the eye of marching band director Spencer Martin.
“I saw this guy who could dance and take over an arena just by being him — he had this infectious energy,” Martin said.
Martin and Gibson worked together to put that energy to good use by bringing back the role of drum major (also called the band man). It’s a historic tradition that the university abandoned sometime in the 1960s. But Martin was intrigued by the role the band man played and the possibility to create something unique to UI. Fans have responded to Gibson’s tall, fluffy white hat in a big way.
“He’s just great with people. It’s been overwhelmingly positive,” Martin said.
Now the marching band has several “Robs,” as Martin calls them, who take turns leading as the band man. Though they by no means are asked to copy Gibson’s style.
“We want them to be them,” Martin said, and bring their own flair to the role.
While Gibson has been proud to contribute to the legacy of the University of Idaho through Joe and the band man, these areas aren’t the only ones he’s touched: For the past couple years, he has also volunteered at Moscow High School and helped revamp the school’s marching band program.
He worked with the band director to grow the program, writing drills, directing the ensemble on and off the field, and hosting band camps. In 2015, the high school group competed in two competitions, something that it hadn’t done in decades.
Risks Worth Taking
Gibson credits his success as Joe and the band man to his willingness to take risks. While his enthusiasm looks effortless, it all comes from the knowledge that without risk, it’s hard to make progress. It’s a trait he shares in common with Joe, as well.
“An important aspect of Joe’s personality is that he takes risks. He’s a German Viking. He conquers any opponent,” Gibson said. “Nothing and no one will stand in his way. It’s really great to put on the suit and have that kind of personality and confidence, because you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I’m not scared of anything. Approach me if you dare!’”
Gibson is able to incorporate Joe’s confidence and sense of risk into his own life.
“It’s really great, because at that point, everything you would potentially fear as yourself in the real world, all of a sudden disappears,” he said. “Risks become opportunities. And opportunities — the sky’s the limit. The only limitations you have are the ones you place upon yourself. So then taking off the costume, I’ve noticed that I address the world with more confidence.”
Graduation might offer the biggest risk of all: A future without that big, cheeky Vandal face. While he does not yet have firm plans for after commencement, Gibson hopes he’s able to continue mingling his love of science and nature with his skills as a natural entertainer with a job that encapsulates his many talents and passions: “I’ve always imagined myself I guess, in the same format as a super hero or vigilante: Scientist by day, entertainer by night.”
Regardless of which path he chooses to take, Gibson is proud of his work at UI and happy to turn over Joe’s over-sized head to a new generation.
“As people have told me many a time, I leave big shoes to fill. But I’ve learned from my own experiences and through the teachings of others, shoes are best filled not by trying to match what the previous person did, but adding your own spark, your own twist, your own personality,” Gibson said. “And at that point, the legacy will continue to grow and my shoes — Joe’s shoes — will be filled easily.”
Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications & Marketing