2013-01-25 / Front Page

What is a Red Riot?

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


The Red Riot fireball logo was adopted in 1979 when the school held a design contest won by teacher and coach Vaughn Fuller. Thor Nilsen, who coached in South Portland at the time and later worked as the school’s athletic director, used the interlocking SP initials, seen on page 3, on his letterhead because he was not fond of the fireball logo. (courtesy image) The Red Riot fireball logo was adopted in 1979 when the school held a design contest won by teacher and coach Vaughn Fuller. Thor Nilsen, who coached in South Portland at the time and later worked as the school’s athletic director, used the interlocking SP initials, seen on page 3, on his letterhead because he was not fond of the fireball logo. (courtesy image) SOUTH PORTLAND – When South Portland Athletic Director Todd Livingston was a child, he remembers his dad, then the baseball coach at South Portland High School, coming home with patches embroidered with the school’s red fireball mascot that the team wore on their jackets.

That was the early 1980s, Livingston said. He was no older than 8 or 9, but the memory stuck with him, and sparked his recent curiosity to track down where the nickname “Red Riot” originated.

Livingston reached out recently to Kathy DiPhilippo of the South Portland Historical Society and Thor Nilsen, a former coach and athletic director at South Portland, now the athletic director of Kennebunk High School.


South Portland High School’s logo for the baseball team. (Courtesy image) South Portland High School’s logo for the baseball team. (Courtesy image) “I think it was a case of (Livingston) wanting to get a real answer,” DiPhilippo said. “I’ve heard many times people say something about a newspaper reporter.”

Nilsen had heard the same story: an unconfirmed legend of the nickname’s inception that predates World War II. After a South Portland coach gave his team a particularly inspirational speech, that team came out with a reckless passion and ultimately won the game. A reporter decided to take what Nilsen called “journalistic liberty” to describe the scene.

“It looked like this big mass of humanity all dressed in red, and it looked like a red riot going on,” Nilsen said.

Archives of South Portland High School’s student newspaper, Echo, seem to corroborate that story. DiPhilippo examined issues of the papers from the late 1920s and through 1930 without finding any reference to a “Riot.”

However, in January 1931, a student reporter wrote the South Portland basketball team came back from a 6-3 deficit to earn a victory for the “Red Riot.”

“Apologies to Bud Cornish,” the student wrote in parentheses, which indicates Cornish, the sports editor for Portland’s Evening Express newspaper, may have coined the phrase. Later in 1931, the student asked “how our Red Riots stack up against Morse.” A month later, the team was referred to as the Red Riot again, interchangeably with “Capers” in a story about a win over Bangor.

The “Caper” nickname was a relic from the days before Cape Elizabeth split from South Portland to become its own town.

“(South Portland) didn’t want to be associated with the working class people of Cape Elizabeth. They wanted to be more of an urban area and have their own identity,” Nilsen said.

However, the two schools kept the same unofficial nickname for years. Even after newspaper reporters began transitioning to the “Red Riot” nickname more often in the World War IIera, the “Caper” nickname wasn’t fully phased out until the 1950s.

Oddly, South Portland is not the only school in Maine to use the Red Riot mascot. Orono High School’s teams are also the Red Riots, although Orono’s Athletic Director Michael Archer, said the origin of the name “likely does not have any relation to how South Portland got their nickname.” Archer was not sure how the Orono nickname came about.

While the “Riot” nickname was used exclusively for all South Portland teams in the 1950s, there was no mascot for about two more decades. Two high school staff members, Vaughn Fuller, a math teacher and girls basketball coach, and Shirley Jones, the head of physical education,decided in 1979 they wanted to create a school store, but realized there was no mascot to put on apparel.

According to Nilsen, who taught and coached in South Portland at the time, the teachers decided to hold a design competition. Students voted on the design Fuller had created, a cartoonish red fireball.

Nilsen never thought it would stick.

“I was not a proponent of that (design). I did not think it would go anywhere,” he said.

“Obviously it’s still around. I was wrong and I’m readily willing to admit it.”

As athletic director, Nilsen used the interlocking S.P. initials on his letterhead, created by the baseball coach at the time, Rod Chorszy. The baseball team still wears that logo on their hats, but the fireball has continued to serve as the primary depiction of the Red Riot for more than 30 years.

While the logo has stuck around, the fireball mascot suit has faded into history. Livingston said when he was in high school, he remembered students wearing the red fireball suit with red sweatpants, a long-sleeved red shirt and boxing gloves.

As athletic director, Livingston has considered exploring what it would cost to get a new mascot suit made, but he said he would never change the school’s logo or its nickname.

“There’s too much history,”Livingston said. “Someone had asked the superintendent about changing the actual mascot. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Not during my tenure. There’s a deep athletic tradition and history there.”

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