The Fantom of the ‘Dome will make his long-awaited return to the Thunderdome tonight to help the Gauchos battle #1 University of North Carolina. The Fantom has been UCSB’s basketball mascot for the last 17 years, and despite graduating in 1994, being a full-time high school teacher and a father of three, the Fantom still makes time to root on the Gauchos.

“I just can’t get UCSB out of my blood,” the Fantom said. “I absolutely love it.”

The Fantom’s passion for UCSB dates back to the upset over #1 UNLV Rebels on Feb. 28, 1990. Still a senior in high school, the Fantom had yet to make his decision on his future college. However, after watching the game on television and seeing the energy of the crowd and aura of the Thunderdome, he knew where he wanted to go.

“We beat #1 UNLV in the Thunderdome,” UCSB’s biggest fan said. “That’s it! I wanted to go to UCSB ever since!”

UCSB’s basketball during the Fantom’s freshman year was “crazy.” It was the prime of UCSB basketball as the team was playing consistently well and the crowd was among the best in the nation. During this time, former coach of #1 UNLV Jerry Tarkanian summed up the essence of the Thunderdome in one sentence.

“I don’t believe there’s anyplace in the country better than this,” Tarkanian said.

The Gaucho fans were then led by Gaucho Joe, who channeled the crowd’s energy through his stomp dance. However, Joe graduated and was gone the next year. The Thunderdome was not the same and the crowd’s enthusiasm was slowly dwindling. That’s when the Fantom and his friends decided they needed something to regain the energy the Gauchos crowd once had. The Fantom then pieced together his outfit, which was compiled of a pair of swim goggles, a cape sewed by his mom, jean shorts resembling Gaucho Joe’s, biking gloves for the cold winters and a referee shirt from his job as an IM ref. With his outfit completed, he tried to lead the Gaucho crowd, but, like most great things, he was not immediately accepted. His beginning was plagued by harsh criticism, even from UCSB fans, who called him names and cursed at him.

“It was a very rough start,” said UCSB’s unofficial mascot. “But once we played [the] St. Joe Owls and I ran out on the floor, everyone went crazy and that was it! That’s all she wrote!”

Ever since, the Fantom has been one of the most popular mascots in college. He was ranked in a top 10 list of best mascots and in 2001, when the basketball team qualified for the NCAA, ESPN called him “the best mascot west of the Mississippi” because of his cheers, which were met with resistance by other fans.

“They love to boo me. But I know once they boo me I’m doing my job,” the Fantom said.

The Fantom has numerous stories from his several journeys accompanying the UCSB men and women basketball teams, including trips to Texas Tech, New Mexico and UConn, where there were as many as 17,000 fans cheering with or against him. Having seen several arenas in his travels, the Fantom still believes the Thunderdome is the cream of the crop.

“When the Thunderdome was packed, there was no other place in the world like it,” the Fantom said. “It didn’t matter if there was an engagement party, if there was a wedding, if there’s a funeral [or] if there’s a tidal wave. Everyone was in there. It was awesome.”

And, upon seeing the North Carolina game on the schedule, the Fantom was “super pumped,” and has been working out everyday since in order to be ready.

“I knew exactly the hype it would bring back to the whole program, back to the Big West, [and] back to the community,” said the UCSB mascot.

And despite the Gauchos playing the #1 ranked team in the nation, the Fantom remains confident.

“I have never gone into the Thunderdome thinking we are going to lose,” the mascot said. “There’s only one option, and that’s to win.”

In a David and Goliath matchup like this one, several people on the side of David may say they believe, but the Fantom really feels it.

“We are going to make believers of the nation back into Santa Barbara,” the Fantom said. “We can do it. It has to be a team effort. Not just to the team or coaches, but to the sixth man all the way to the 7,000th man!”