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UNLV’s mascot, Hey Reb!, has been worth millions in licensing over the years, but in 1982 artist Mike Miller charged the university just a dollar for the design. Now, 29 years later, the UNLV Alumni Association has honored Miller for creating an icon.
“It seemed at the time the right thing to do,” Miller says of giving the university exclusive rights to use the character. “I was trying to be a good community citizen and a friend of the university.”
The history of Hey Reb! is just as eyebrow-raising as its price tag. It goes back to 1955 when the school, known then as Nevada Southern University, sought to break away from the University of Nevada, Reno. Its student government organization, the Confederated Students of Nevada Southern, selected the first official mascot, Beauregard. The cartoon wolf wore a Southern Civil War uniform and his sly smirk contrasted with UNR’s ferocious wolf mascot.
As race discrimination issues dominated national events, community members voiced concerns that Beauregard glorified the Confederacy and had little to do with the community’s history. In the early 1970s, students voted to banish Beauregard but retained the Rebels name (rejecting alternatives such as Big Horn Rams, Nuggets, A-Bombs, and Sand Burners). Replacing Beau was a musket-toting Minuteman, but that Revolutionary War figure didn’t resonate in the West either. So UNLV essentially went without an official mascot.
In 1982, Miller was a partner in a local advertising firm and headed the UNLV account. When he heard of UNLV’s search for a fitting symbol, he offered to sketch some ideas. He brainstormed about the kind of character that could embody the spirit of a Rebel while representing the community’s history. His inspiration came from the mountain men of the 1800s.
“Pathfinders were severely independent people who went all around the West looking for new trails, agriculture, gold mining, and everything,” Miller says. These rugged men ventured into uncharted Nevada, mapping trails, discovering new resources, and building new communities. “I don’t think anyone really understands this until you look at the streets downtown,” says Miller, before naming off Carson, Ogden, Bonneville, Lewis and Clark, all streets named after famous frontiersmen.
Fred Albrecht, executive director of alumni relations at the time, remembers the character finally resonating with the campus community. “We wanted to have our own identity… [to] come out of the shadows of UNR,” he says. And Hey Reb! fit the university many thought of as “young, rambunctious [and] kind of wild.”
While the Minuteman figure was universally uninspiring, some graduates, like Bill Terry, suggested bringing back Beauregard. “UNLV didn’t have a tremendous amount of tradition back then,” Terry says. But the controversy over the Confederate symbolism still stood in the way. The students ultimately voted to adopt Miller’s design and welcomed Hey Reb! as the university’s official mascot. Terry, then president of the alumni association, was glad to finally have a mascot that aroused spirit from the entire community and the association stepped in to fund construction of the costume.
Hey Reb! made his debut at a UNLV-UNR basketball game Dec. 9, 1982. Miller had included the name on his initial sketches to encourage people to call out to the mascot at games. Gail Lehtinen, a costumer in the theatre department, made the first suit and had the cheer embroidered on the back.
Over the years, Hey Reb! has had a few image tweaks. The original was armed with a rifle and later held a pistol. When UNLV decided to ditch the firearms, Hey Reb! got some beefy muscles and a bigger mustache to maintain his bravado. “He’s all cut and strong like a UFC fighter now,” Miller says.
Hey Reb! enjoyed a popularity boom in the early 1990s, as the Runnin’ Rebels were nationally ranked with the 1990 National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament win and a Final Four appearance the following year. In 1991 alone, UNLV athletics earned $5 million in Hey Reb! licensing fees.
“It just caught on and took off,” says Brad Rothermel, UNLV athletic director from 1981 to 1991. “Miller’s design has stood the test of time.”
In 2004, Hey Reb! came in second in the Capital One Mascot of the Year competitions. No stranger to national television, Hey Reb! has also appeared in two memorable ESPN SportsCenter commercials. To celebrate UNLV’s 50th anniversary, alumni Helen and Chip Johnson donated a full-size bronze of Hey Reb!. The statue sits in the courtyard of Tam Alumni Center and has become a favorite photo location for students and visitors.
“Outside of the letters ‘U-N-L-V, the mascot is the most recognizable symbol of the university,” Chip Johnson, ’71 BS Business Administration, said when the statue was dedicated. “People don’t really associate UNLV with a particular building, but they know Hey Reb!.”
Miller has gone on to create more characters reflective of Southern Nevada. He worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 10 years as an artist and 25 years before that as a consultant. His work for the paper has included drawing the Sir Oscar parody cartoons.
He continues to write and illustrate the Tomás children’s books published by Stephens Press. The publishing company wanted a book about Southern Nevada written for Southern Nevada kids, Miller says. So he created animal characters indigenous to the desert, such as the desert tortoise. Tomás lives in a burrow in Red Rock Canyon.
His family, especially his wife Barbara, has supported him throughout his career. “You just have a job that you do whether you’re an artist or you drive a truck,” Miller says. “It’s just a job you do.”
Before moving to Las Vegas in 1962, Miller worked at Walt Disney Studios on the movies 101 Dalmatians and Sleeping Beauty. He painted scenery for NBC television and Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) Studios. In Las Vegas, he painted scenery for several shows at the Stardust and Tropicana hotels before starting an advertising agency.
In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s Miller worked a lot with the hottest stars, handling marketing and advertisements for the likes of Wayne Newton and the king of rock ’n’ roll. “I spent a weekend with Elvis Presley, doing private marketing for him and his karate interests,” Miller says.
When he created Hey Reb!, Miller was also a bronze sculptor, most notably making mountain men statues. “Mike is a renaissance man,” says former coworker Terry Shonkwiler, now owner of Shonkwiler Partners Advertising. “He is one of the most creative people this town has ever seen.”
The UNLV Alumni Association honored Miller during halftime of the Feb. 26 basketball game.
“He’d never been officially thanked,” says Jim Ratigan, executive director of the alumni association. “That was something that had to be corrected.”
He received a lifetime membership into the association and an autographed Runnin’ Rebels’ basketball. A commemorative photo of Miller alongside Hey Reb! will hang inside the Thomas & Mack.
Miller didn’t attend UNLV, but there are Rebels in his family. Daughter Shelly graduated in 1982 and son Donald in 1984, both with bachelor’s degrees in communications. In 2008, grandchildren Matthew Harris and Emily Miller both graduated. Grandson Anthony Miller is a current freshman. (Granddaughter Allison Miller is a bit of a rogue, having chosen UNR.)
Miller’s family is proud of his Hey Reb! contributions, but also give him a hard time. “The kids laugh at me for being so stupid. My grandkids really rag me for donating it for $1,” Miller says.
More info: Visit mikemillerart.com.