Behind the Orange

Behind the Orange

After a dozen years of coaching team Otto, Julie Walas has built her legacy by training the students who bring Syracuse University’s mascot to life.
Published: February 8, 2021
Julie Walas and Otto the Orange

Jeyna Minnick and her boyfriend walked to Syracuse University’s Quad with friends and a frisbee in hand. Minnick, who is afraid of mascots, was frightened to see Otto scooting down the Quad toward her. Minnick figured her boyfriend, Kyle Fenton, was up to something. As a former Otto himself, Fenton knew of her fear.

Otto convinced Minnick to put on a blindfold and led her to the nearby Kissing Bench. When she took the blindfold off, Fenton was down on one knee, Otto was cheering and Fenton’s friends – all former members of the a cappella group Otto Tunes – were gathered around applauding.

Minnick said “yes.”

Fenton, who graduated in 2015, had his former Otto coach to thank.

Fenton and Coach Julie Walas used to butt heads. Fenton blamed his rambunctious, teenage personality for their friction. Walas said Fenton would miss practices and was hard to connect with.

But for Fenton, being on the Otto team meant a lot. He said it shaped his college experience and made him who he is today.

On her birthday this year, Walas was cleaning her window gutters when a notification popped up on her computer. Fenton called and left her an unexpected video message.

“Coach, it took me this long to figure it out, but you’re the most positive influence I have ever had,” Walas recalled.

Still cleaning, Walas started to tear up. Before, the thought of Fenton made Walas’ eyes roll, remembering him as a difficult student. Now, Walas said she is appreciative to see his growth and is thankful that her job put her in a position to have such an impact.

“I think my biggest privilege moments have come from coaching,” Walas said. “Knowing that your impact takes decades sometimes, or lasts decades sometimes, makes me still be here at the job.”

During his senior year, Fenton was one of three Otto team co-captains. Another co-captain, Andy Pregler, agreed that Walas is a great coach, in part because her pride in the students and the school is so apparent.

“She gives everything that she has because of her love for the school and for the students,” said Pregler, who had Walas officiate his wedding.

Fenton said that Walas possesses immense school spirit, even when compared to other SU fans and alumni.

“I think she lives and breathes orange more than most, and I think there is something to be said about that,” Fenton said.

Besides teaching students to be Otto, Walas finds joy in raising her 5-year-old foster daughter, Ana, as a single mother.

“Everything about my life is different. Every perspective that I had on the world has changed,” Walas said in regard to Ana, who came home with Walas when she was three.

Walas uses an untraditional coaching style, and unlike other sports teams, the Otto team does not meet on a field or on a court.

“This team is different,” Walas said.

A ‘practice’ looks more like a meeting. The full team gets together once a week for a few hours to go over logistics and review upcoming appearances. The team works out with a trainer three mornings a week.

Once a week, Walas conducts two-on-ones where she checks in on her students to determine out who needs extra attention. Walas goes to great lengths to make sure the team gives each member the support they need.

On average the process to becoming an Otto takes six months: to recruit, train, develop, and then set free.

As an Otto herself, Walas was a captain her senior year, graduating from Syracuse University in 2007. Because she stayed to pursue her master’s degree, Walas started coaching right after her undergraduate graduation. She was the first official coach for Otto and started the mascot program. Walas came to Syracuse University in 2003 and has been here ever since.

Walas said when she was an Otto, there were only five Ottos and now the team consists of a dozen. She became an Otto after a friend on her Resident Advisor staff told her she would make a great Otto. The friend gave Walas the tryout information, and Walas said she went as if it was a dare.

“I don’t think I thought I was going to be chosen,” Walas said.

Walas noted she was not as silly as the male students trying out but was organized, and the team needed that element.

Then, she suddenly found herself on the court of Madison Square Garden having a dance off with a leprechaun. Walas said she felt embarrassed and always tried to lay low and just give out high-fives.

“I had this realization, that no one knows this is me,” she said. “Not even my friends who are watching this on TV know I am a mascot, let alone the mascot dancing on the floor of this arena.”

Walas said when she was an Otto, she would count down the minutes remaining in suit. With this, her goal as a coach is to make sure her team members feel so present in the moment that they are becoming the character of Otto.

“It is meant to be anonymous, because Otto is not a person, Otto is an orange, who is meant to bring joy and happiness and represent the university,” Fenton said. “And I know that sounds cheesy.”

Julie Walas and Otto the Orange
To help keep Otto’s identity hidden, Julie Walas is known as his spokesperson and advocate.

Although Otto’s identity is a secret, his personality is not. An ‘Otto’ is constantly moving and views everything as something to play with: smelling every flower, jumping on every rock, pretending the curb is a balance beam.

“Everything is imagination and playful,” said Walas, who described Otto’s actions as, “curious and just a little bit boundary pushing.”

When Walas is not coaching the Otto team, she works as the director of recruitment and student engagement at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. Walas joined Newhouse’s staff this spring after working as the director of student and alumni engagement at the university’s iSchool.

Currently, Walas is looking after foster baby Gianna until a safe home can be found for her to become a part of.

“She’d give her shirt off her back to anyone and I think that that should be known, notonly from the mascot program but in general,” Fenton said.

Fenton is awed by Walas’ selflessness.

“Look at what she’s done for the iSchool,” he said, “what she’s done for the Otto program, and what she does for other people.”