This fall represents a new era in Orono. The University of Maine’s furry mascot known as Bananas T. Bear has undergone a transformation, shedding his old costume in favor of a newer, more menacing outfit that more closely aligns with the school’s athletic logo. The head is smaller, the nose no longer tan and the mouth has opened into an apparent growl.

Bananas made his debut at the football home opener last weekend and will be seen in Portland at the Ice Breaker hockey tournament on Friday and Saturday, including a free family-friendly block party that runs from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday along Spring Street.

“It was kind of shocking,” Steve Van Dolman said of the new-look mascot. “I guess it’s what the university wants to do, but I think it’s just going to scare kids.”

Van Dolman, now a special education teacher at Brewer High School, knows of what he speaks. As an undergraduate, he inhabited the mascot suit on visits to hospitals, schools and other special events in addition to athletic contests. He was even on the ice in Milwaukee to celebrate Maine’s 1993 NCAA hockey title.

“As with every new Bear, he’s receiving a variety of different reviews,” said Robert Dana, the university’s dean of students and vice president for student life. “Some people see the traditional UMaine sports Bear in him. Others want the big old roly-poly Bear. He’s ingratiating himself, as every Bear up to this point in time has done.”

The current iteration is actually the sixth costume makeover since the human-in-a-suit mascot debuted in 1969, three years after live mascots were outlawed by the state. An actual black bear cub first appeared at a football rally in 1914, according to a history of the Maine Bear Mascot compiled by the Sigma Xi chapter of Alpha Delta fraternity, and the tradition of a live bear as mascot continued until the fall of 1966.

The first bear cub was named Jeff, according to the Sigma Xi historians; it was the crowd’s reaction that prompted the “Bananas” sobriquet.

“The Bear is a big part of who they are and who they’ve always been,” Dana said of the Alpha Delta brethren, a service fraternity with no physical housing on campus. “There are probably 25 or 30 members and they all participate in being the Bear or being the Bear handler.”

The first costume consisted of a papier-mâché head, a pair of legs, a sweater and two genuine bear paws. It quickly transformed into a one-piece suit before receiving an upgrade in 1976 and again in 1984, when light blue fur replaced black in order to be more photogenic and kid-friendly.

Bananas went back to black in the early 1990s, with a larger fiberglass head and oversized cap, but that costume eventually proved a bit cumbersome for the human inside.

“The one I wore in 1993 was heavy and hot,” said Van Dolman, now 45 and a father of two.

The fifth iteration made its debut at a 2004 football game and served admirably for the next decade before wear and tear prompted the university to explore yet another makeover. The foam feet deteriorated over time and the gloves sported such long fingers that it was difficult to hold anything, said Peter Sprague, a UMaine student and current Sigma Xi president.

The process of coming up with a new Bananas took about two years, Dana said. As part of the university’s 150th anniversary celebration last winter, a Spirit Room in the Memorial Union was built to display former mascots and related memorabilia.

“We wanted to engage different stakeholders,” Dana said. “We had people from the fraternity, from athletics, from marketing and ultimately you end up dealing with a mascot maker.”

A company in Minneapolis with roots in large-scale theatrical productions of full-bodied Sesame Street Muppet characters built the new Bananas. Other sporting mascots in its catalog include Wally the Green Monster (for the Boston Red Sox) and Crusher (for the Maine Red Claws).

The new suit features more flexibility and better ventilation and visibility. From within, that is.

“So the Bear could see where it was skating, where it was running,” Dana said. “Those are the practical considerations. The mascot does a lot of stunts (with the cheerleaders) and certain calisthenics and skating.”

Sprague said he and his fraternity brothers who wear the suit are excited about the change, but understand the mixed reaction, particularly from young children and alumni.

“There has been a lot of negative feedback relating to the design of the head,” Sprague wrote in an email exchange. “As history has reminded us, this happened when we launched the last suit as well.” Sprague said the shock factor will subside and that Maine fans will get used to the new Bananas. Until then, whenever he hears a less-than-flattering comment about the mascot’s shrunken head, Sprague will just grin and wear it.