From Hungary with love


The statue can be found outside the Athletic Center.

At Oakland University, bronze, bears and Budapest have an interesting connection.

Campus is dotted with several inspired creations from artists the world over. But the Grizz statue just outside the doors to the Athletic Center has a very special place in the hearts of many.

It all started when head swim coach Pete Hovland and the Athletics department came into contact with a then 18 year-old swimmer from Hungary named Hunor Ma’te’ (Hoonor Mah-tay).

Ma’te’ was a stellar athlete and Hovland wanted him for the men’s swim team, offering him a scholarship to come from Europe and swim for the newly entitled “Golden Grizzlies,” as the university had just made the mascot switch from the “pioneers.”

Ma’te’ accepted Hovland’s offer and started school and swimming at OU that fall.

Hovland and Ma’te’ had a good relationship both on and off of the pool deck, which is why Hovland didn’t think much of it when Ma’te’ asked him a peculiar question one day.

“He approached me,” Hovland said, “and asked me, ‘Pete, what would you think if my parents gave you a bear?’”

Amused by the silly nature of the swimmer’s request, Hovland tossed it up as a mistake due to the language barrier that he and Ma’te’ would often contend with.

“I don’t think I paid much attention to it,” Hovland said, “but a month or two later he said ‘Pete, my parents want to give you a bear.’”

After mentioning the mysterious “bear” for a second time, Hovland thought that there might be something more going on than an international student using the wrong word to express himself in a different language than his own.

Excited that Hovland was ready to discuss his question, Ma’te’ explained that his parents Istva’n Ma’te’ and Gyorgi Lantos were internationally recognized bronze sculptors out of Hungary and they wanted to gift the university with a statue of the new grizzly bear mascot.

“I didn’t pick up on it at first, how renowned his parents were,” Hovland said, but Ma’te’ was happy to provide the coach with several ink prints and a small bronze-cast horse plaque to show that his parent’s work was the real deal.

At the time, there had been discussion between then president Gary Russi, OU Student Congress and the Athletics department about bringing the “Grizz” to life somehow on campus. With the generosity of the Ma’te’ family, it seemed as if the hunt was over.

Hovland was excited about Ma’te’’s offer, but his enthusiasm was not unmet with reservation. The coach wondered how long something like this might take, and more importantly what the cost could be to the university

The president’s office had reached out to an American artist for the creation of a similar statue with a cost quote falling somewhere between a staggering $600,000 to $750,000.

Hovland expressed his concerns to Ma’te’, who, according to Hovland said, “no, no, my parents want to give it to you as a gift to thank you for taking care of me for these two years.”

Hovland, stunned by the family’s generosity, turned to his colleague and Athletic Director at the time, Jack Mehl, to propose the offer to president Russi.

Russi was shown the sample artwork that Ma’te’ had brought for Hovland and was sold on the idea. A committee was formed with the help of then Vice President of Student Affairs Mary Beth Snider, and the dreams of having a grizzly on campus started to become a reality.

Once the statue was completed in Hungary, Hovland said that it was shipped overseas to a port in New York and from there, it was brought to OU via truck. The university only had to cover the cost of materials and shipping.

Center for Student Activities director Jean Ann Miller confirmed for this story that OUSC pulled together $10,000 for the completion and shipment of the statue in conjunction with funds from the Athletics department, president’s office and division of Student Affairs.

When the statue arrived in 2006, Hovland was the first to see it. He and Snider had thought extensively about the best place to put the Grizz, and their first idea was the one that stuck: outside of the Athletics Center.

A landscaping crew built a special area for the statue on the sidewalk, enhancing its grand presence further.

“When it got here, I was so excited and it was laying there on the ground in a big crate,” Hovland said, “[and] I had someone open the crate so I could see it.”

There was a special ceremony for the reveal of the bear, and Ma’te’ flew up from Alabama where he then attended school after two years at OU to pursue his dream of leaning bronze sculpting like his parents.

“The university did it great,” Hovland said of the ceremony, adding that Ma’te’ joined in the removal of the black cloak that covered the masterpiece.

“It was really memorable,” Hovland said. “It’s everyone’s [statue]…like the bell tower, you kind of stand there and puff up your chest a little bit. It’s a defining feature on campus.”