“I’m sure 100 or 200 years from now, Aubie will still be around. He may be a robot, but he’ll still be around. And Phil Neel will always be known as the father of Aubie.” Rep. Barry Mask, R-Wetumpka, who became Auburn university’s first official Aubie mascot in 1979
Phil Neel, the former newspaper artist who created Auburn University’s iconic Aubie character, died early Wednesday morning. He was 84 years old.
Neel died from complications that arose from his battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which re-emerged after he had been cancer-free for about a year, said Cindy Huguley, Neel’s daughter. He had been diagnosed with the disease about three years ago.
Huguley and former colleagues remembered Neel as a true Auburn man devoted to his Christian faith and his love of people.
In Auburn circles, Neel is known as the man that created Aubie, the mischievous tiger mascot that has delighted audiences for years. Neel first drew the character when working as an artist at the Birmingham Post-Herald in the 1950s.
The tiger character eventually graced the cover of Auburn’s football program for its game against Hardin-Simmons University on Oct. 3, 1959. Aubie continued to appear on the program covers until 1976.
In 1979, Aubie made the leap from the pages of football programs to the sidelines as the tiger mascot was unveiled in Auburn’s upset win over Vanderbilt University in that year’s Southeastern Conference basketball tournament.
But it wasn’t until attending an Auburn basketball game about 10 years ago that Neel realized the significance of his creation, Huguley said.
“He looked at me and he just said, ‘People really like Aubie, don’t they?’” she said. “… I think maybe for the first time he realized that people didn’t just like the artwork, they liked the character that Aubie has been.”
Neel was born in 1927 and grew up in Sumter County in western Alabama. Huguley said her father played football at Livingston University — now the University of West Alabama — and also served in the Navy.
Neel worked as a sports artist at the Birmingham Post-Herald for 33 years and at the Birmingham News for one year, but he also did freelance work for schools all over the Southeast. Huguley said her father, who lived in Pinson, continued his artwork even after retiring from his newspaper career.
Aside from his love of artwork and sports, Neel was completely devoted to his faith and family, Huguley said.
“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘All that’s important in life is God and people and connecting the two.’ My dad just kind of spent his whole life trying to do that,” she said. “… He tried to connect the two, and he usually did that through his artwork and his love of sports.”
Neel’s lasting impact
Former Auburn Athletics Director David Housel said he chose to celebrate Neel’s life rather than mourn his death.
While Housel sees Neel’s creation of Aubie as his lasting landmark, he also noted that three of Neel’s four children attended Auburn. Huguley played tennis for the Tigers, while Mike and Rick Neel were members of Auburn’s football team in the 1970s.
“He never went to Auburn, but he is proof that you can be a great Auburn man without having to go to school here,” Housel said.
Alabama Rep. Barry Mask, R-Wetumpka, said Neel’s death was a great loss for the Auburn family. Mask became the university’s first official Aubie mascot in 1979.
He sought Neel’s advice on portraying the character during the summer of ’79 and vividly recalls their phone conversation.
Neel told Mask that Aubie should be a high-energy mascot that wants to zig when everyone else wants to zag. But most of all, Neel said Aubie should always be doing something cute, clever and classy, according to Mask.
“I think if you look at the physical manifestation of what his character has become, then certainly, if Aubie’s anything, it’s that,” Mask said.
Housel said Aubie’s portrayal in Neel’s drawings changed over the years, maturing from a mean, ferocious tiger to a tricky mascot engaged in all sorts of high jinks with the other team.
Mask said Aubie may continue to change over time, but Neel has secured his place in Auburn folklore.
“I’m sure 100 or 200 years from now, Aubie will still be around,” Mask said. “He may be a robot, but he’ll still be around. And Phil Neel will always be known as the father of Aubie.”