Becoming the Pioneer: OU’s first mascot


Photo Courtesy of Kresge Library

This is the original design of OU’s Pioneer. Charles Conklin was the first to personify the Pioneer in the 1970s.

Pioneer Pete went down in history as Oakland University’s first mascot, but the man behind those first cheers and crowd leading is actually Charles ‘Chuck’ Conklin. 

“They [OU athletics] needed to do something to take it to another level,” Conklin said. “That’s what the mascot did, so I became the Pioneer.” 

Conklin originally attended Notre Dame University in 1975, but after his field — pre-medical studies — wasn’t a good fit, he decided to “come home” to OU. In 1977, he began studying accounting, and he quickly got involved with OU Athletics. 

With a background in high school cheerleading and announcing, becoming a mascot in college was the next step. 

“My dream as a younger person — I would have loved to play college basketball, but I just wasn’t tall enough,” Conklin said. “I was competitive off the court, and… through cheerleading and announcing, I was able to [follow basketball closely].”

Initially, he was invited to audition for Notre Dame’s mascot — the leprechaun — but he had already committed to transferring to OU. Because OU didn’t have an established mascot, like Notre Dame, he made his own opportunity. 

“To get more involved, I wanted to be a cheerleader,” he said. “Oakland — at that time — had a cheerleading squad, but didn’t have a mascot … I decided — in conversation with them — I had to volunteer to be the Pioneer and work with the cheerleaders as well as lead the team on the court.” 

Then he created his own uniform for games: a raccoon-skin hat, leather jacket, moccasins and a toy gun. While at first this was a just shopping trip, his purchases personified OU Athletics for the first time. 

“I think [fans] were excited, with the exuberance and energy that [the Pioneer] generated,” Conklin said. 

Conklin’s enthusiasm spilled over in every game, building connections with his cheer team, the basketball players and Head Coach Greg Kampe. Today, he still stays in contact with Kampe as he follows OU basketball. 

“I keep very close tabs on Greg’s teams, who is recruiting and who his coaching staff is,” he said. “Every once in a while if I have a question or critique, I give him a call … It’s pretty cool because he appreciates alumni and people that have a sincere interest in the program.” 

He’s a regular season-ticket holder, and “his dream” would be watching them play in the National College Athletic Association — NCAA — Tournament. 

When he cheered at OU, the team was Division II. They transitioned to Division I in 1998. While the switch also introduced the Grizz, replacing Pioneer Pete, he thinks it’s “good” for OU and anticipates watching the team “grow” even more. In fact, Conklin attended the Grizz’s debut game and welcomed them to the team. 

“I think the Grizz does a nice job with the fans: activities during timeouts, goes up and down the stands and especially things around kids,” he said. “It’s good the university has a mascot.” 

Creating a welcoming and fun environment for the team and fans will only help the team and fan base grow, according to Conklin. 

“The students that do that [cheer] have done a tremendous job, and it adds a lot of flair to the basketball atmosphere at Oakland University,” he said.