The moment is as iconic as The General himself. It’s as American as the Fourth of July.
The ‘Power T’ forms in Neyland Stadium. The crowd watches with baited breath. They’ve been waiting for this moment all week.
The Vols are at the mouth of the tunnel.
102,455 fans lose their minds as the team bursts onto the turf. Joining the jaunt onto the field is one of Tennessee’s most beloved symbols—standing two feet tall and weighing 65 pounds, with the speed and agility equal to that of the NFL’s best.
Out bounds Smokey X.
As the famous Tennessee-bred, bluetick coonhound—sporting his equally famous Orange & White sewn vest—makes the right turn in the T, the crowd knows ‘It’s Football Time in Tennessee.’
What they probably don’t know is who is responsible for that dapper vest that all of Vol Nation sees each and every Saturday.
That person is Jill Mayfield.
In her 9-to-5 gig, Mayfield serves as the office administrator for Tennessee’s athletic facilities department. During evenings and weekends, she goes above and beyond the call of duty, applying her talent on the sewing machine to several important aspects of a Saturday in Neyland.
“In 2000, I began helping (craft) the outfits worn by the human Smokey mascot,” Mayfield recalled. “I did that for years. Then, in 2014, I was asked if I would be interested in making (canine) Smokey’s vest and I said, ‘Oh I’d love to!’ Then, before the 2015 season, I made my first vest for Smokey.”
Now in her fourth season as Smokey’s official “vest master,” her general rule of thumb has been to supply him with four outfits each year.
Each vest is hand-stitched using Rocky Top’s favorite color combination.
While the colors will never change, what does vary from season to season is the intricate design of the accoutrement itself. The vision for the design is conjured up each year by Smokey’s senior handler.
This means that the amount of time Mayfield spends making each jacket is dependent on input from the dog’s longest-tenured handler. This year, two senior handlers collaborated on the design—Marketing major Chase Cardoza from Gallatin, Tennessee, and Civil Engineering major Jesse Head from Adams, Tennessee.
“The senior handler gets to design the vest each year,” Mayfield said. “And at the end of the year, they get to keep one of the vests. It depends on the handler as to how intricate they get. If the entire back is the checkerboard, then it can take me a while, because each square is sewn around, sewn together, then the rows are put together—and then you have to go around each square. The design we have this year, I can typically get done in an evening.”
This year, there’s an added twist to Smokey X’s wardrobe. Mayfield—a 20-year UT employee—took it upon herself to provide Smokey with multiple weather-specific variations of his beloved vest, to better suit him as the seasons change.
“This is the first year that we’ve done different-seasoned vests,” she said. “It’s always been one type of vest. It’s made out of double-knit fabric, so it’s pretty heavy and didn’t breathe very well. So, I said ‘It’s so hot at the beginning of the season, what if we did something lighter?’ This is the first year we have what we call a ‘summer’ vest, his ‘normal’ vest and a ‘cold-weather’ vest.”
In the early parts of the season, Smokey is outfitted with a light, breathable vest that keeps him cooler in the scorching Knoxville sun. In October and early-November, he’ll sport the original, classic Smokey vest. As fall gives way to the early hints of the winter chill, the handlers break out Smokey’s thicker vest to keep him nice and warm as the temperature dips.
With all of this responsibility in making sure Smokey looks and feels as good as he possibly can on gamedays, Mayfield makes the most of the time she gets to spend with the state’s favorite pup.
“He’s really an awesome dog,” Mayfield said. “The first year I did this, I spent a good amount of time with him so I could get used to him and his size, which was great. Then, each year before I make it, I’ll bring an old one in and we’ll try it on him to make sure it still fits. When they’re ready to pick up the vest, they bring him up again, so we can try it on him.
“They let me put it on him, so I can say ‘This is how I think it should look and fit,’ then I let (the handlers) do it, and they can give me feedback on how it fits and how easy it is to take on and off.”
This season, as Smokey X gets set to run through the Power T seven more times, pose for countless photos with Vol fans across the country and continue his service as the four-legged figurehead for one of America’s premier universities, Mayfield will watch closely like many of us at home.
She’ll smile at every tail wag and every bark. However, now she won’t be the only one who knows the origins of the outfit of college athletics’ most recognizable dog.
Editor’s Note: The 2019 football season marks the first fall during which visitors to Rocky Top will see 10 statues commemorating the history of Tennessee’s canine mascot, Smokey, scattered throughout campus. The statues pay homage to UT’s current canine, Smokey X, along with his nine predecessors dating to 1953.