Passing on the Duke Dog Legacy

Mitchell Pitts ('16) and family holding up Ryan Pitts ('13) as Duke Dog.

SUMMARY: Duke Dog has always been a legendary icon at JMU, but we never get to know who’s behind the mask. Until now. Meet two alumni brothers, Ryan and Mitchell Pitts, who were both former Duke Dogs.

By: Brittany Bell, student writing assistant, Office of Alumni Relations 

Everywhere in Bridgeforth Stadium, fans scream and cheer. Instruments from The Marching Royal Dukes clash together, creating melodies that JMU students and alumni know by heart. In the heat of it all, Duke Dog stands amid the cheerleaders, hyping up the crowd for another great football game. 

JMU’s Duke Dog mascot has been a staple in JMU home sporting and community events since his debut in 1982. Named after former JMU president Samuel Duke, Duke Dog stands at 8-feet-tall with a cape and purple crown. He is a JMU icon and the embodiment of our school spirit. Most people know that Duke Dog is a student, but his identity is always kept a mystery while the student is in school to keep the Duke Dog legacy alive. What people don’t know is that they can be unmasked after graduation. 

After being impressed by Duke Dog while touring campus for CHOICES, Ryan Pitts (’13) saw his opportunity to join the legacy his sophomore year. After volunteering for the Student Duke Club executive committee, he made connections with the head cheerleading coach and was able to get an interview for the position. What followed was three years of showing school spirit and making people smile as Duke Dog.

“I loved bringing joy and laughter to students, children and alumni and not receiving any direct praise for it,” Pitts reflected. “Instead, it was Duke Dog providing the joy and good memories. I found myself constantly smiling during pictures with fans even though you’d never see me smiling behind the Duke Dog head.”

As Duke Dog, Pitts attended many events for JMU. Beyond the typical sporting events, Duke Dog would also occasionally make appearances at alumni weddings to dance with the guests and provide memorable photo ops. Although he didn’t do them often, the few weddings he attended were some of his favorite events. Sometimes, Duke Dog would even help promote JMU’s corporate partners at events and in commercials. One of Pitts’ favorite memories as Duke Dog was hyping up the crowd at NFL’s FedEx Field in 2012 for the JMU football game against West Virginia University.

One of the most challenging parts for Pitts was managing his schedule as a student and keeping up with all of the events. Duke Dog was required to make appearances at several events every week, including sporting events. To add more to the mix, Pitts had to keep his Duke Dog activities a secret from everyone. Despite the difficulties, he found a way to manage the events and keep his friends from finding out. His go-to excuse was telling his friends that he worked in the sporting department and did behind-the-scenes work during games. 

When Pitts’ time as Duke Dog came to an end in 2013, a new student was needed to keep the tradition alive. Who better to take up the mantle as JMU’s mascot than his own brother, Mitchell Pitts (’16)?

Ryan_with_Duke_Dog.jpg“I was so happy when my brother got accepted to JMU, and then to have him follow in my footsteps as the Duke Dog made it even more special,” Ryan said.

Growing up, Mitchell had always been interested in mascoting. After watching Ryan at JMU football and basketball games, he knew he wanted to carry on the Duke Dog legacy. “It’s something I wanted to do,” Mitchell said. “I always really enjoyed it and enjoyed watching my brother do it. So that was an easy transition.”

Mitchell quickly made his own persona for Duke Dog. While Ryan’s signature move during football games was the worm, Mitchell had a certain walk and would do a Russian dance during “Start Wearing Purple.” Both brothers reflected on how much they enjoyed interacting with the crowds and getting people to laugh.

“I was more the guy that would rather go interact with a crowd, like more one-on-one get into the crowd and find certain people and just mess with them,” Mitchell said. “If you can make one person’s day, I accomplish my job. Signing a kid’s shirt or giving a kid a high-five, making that lone student in the stand laugh – that was what got me excited about my job.”

During his time as Duke Dog, Mitchell got to be a part of many unique experiences. From running around campus doing the Harlem Shake, filming Gangdom Style, traveling with the women’s basketball team for their national tournament in Texas, and participating in College Game Day in 2015, Mitchell enjoyed his time as JMU’s mascot. He even won All-American Mascot at the NCA National Collegiate Championships during the 2015-2016 school year. 

Now that Mitchell has graduated, the Pitts brothers must pass the Duke Dog legacy onto a new generation of Dukes. With new basketball, cheerleading and Duke Dog coaches, there’s a brand-new team for a new Duke Dog. Ryan and Mitchell both reflect on Duke Dog being an amazing part of their Madison experience. “I would never want my JMU career to not be revolved around Duke Dog, and I would never want a mascoting career revolved around anywhere but JMU,” Mitchell said. 









Back to Top

Published: Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Last Updated: Friday, January 29, 2021

Related Articles