Imagine being a celebrity, a household name chanted across the country. And yet, even your closest confidants don’t know that you are famous. How can this be, you ask?
For Nicole Niemiec (BA Marketing ’18) this puzzling question was her reality from her sophomore year until her May graduation. In between, she held on to the secret of being one of the nation’s most famous college mascots, MSU’s very own Sparty.
Around her friends, family, and college colleagues, Niemiec was your everyday Eli Broad College of Business student, but at Michigan State football games, in Quicken Loans commercials, and as the guest of honor at various weddings, Niemiec was Sparty, MSU’s beloved mascot.
Recent Michigan State graduate, Nicole Niemiec, poses with Sparty May 7 on campus. (Photo: Dave May photos)
Niemiec is the second and longest-serving female Sparty in Michigan State University’s history. Sworn to secrecy until graduation, Niemiec got to put on her Sparty boots one last time along with her cap and gown as she walked across the stage at graduation, outing herself as Sparty to her friends, family, and colleagues. (Check out her reveal video here.)
Sparty’s armor does not change regardless of the stature of each student filling the role, resulting in a rule that those who audition be 5’11” for a proper fit. However, Niemiec – who stands at 5’8″ – found a loophole: she stuffed her shoes with lifts to make the height requirement.
“I did appreciate that the height requirement of 5’11” eliminated 99.6 percent of the female population,” Niemiec joked about her competition before adding, “I realized that my role as the ‘female Sparty’ would be the barometer for any females choosing to follow in my footsteps. I overheard a discussion by a few female Spartans while waiting for a flight saying they heard a rumor that there was a ‘girl Sparty’ and that made them – and me – very proud.”
As imagined, living the double life of a Broad College student and being Sparty was not always easy. Taking on the role of Sparty required a minimum of eight hours per week, and frequently two to three times that. Between group projects for class and playing club softball at Michigan State, Niemiec had a lot to juggle and little wiggle room to explain to her colleagues her very limited availability.
Hiding such a big secret from those around her proved difficult. Niemiec said there were numerous times she would have to prevent her dad from posting pictures of her as Sparty. One time in particular was at a women’s basketball game where her dad took a picture of her three siblings with “Sparty” and an overt Nicole obviously missing.
Niemiec recalls fun moments while living her double life, noting, “Some of my opportunities included being able to attend business college events as Sparty. I recognized my classmates, but no one recognized me. I shook (Broad College) Dean (Sanjay) Gupta’s hand countless times as Sparty over the years, but as Nicole, I only shook his hand once – at graduation.”
Nicole Niemiec (center) reveals herself as a Sparty mascot by wearing her mascot costume’s footwear at Broad College of Business commencement ceremonies in May. Photo by Matthew Mitch
While juggling being a Broad College student and Sparty proved difficult at times for Niemiec, the two roles also proved to work in unison with one another, one proving extremely helpful in the completion of the other.
Being a Broad College student helped Niemiec to expand Sparty’s brand, where she personally devoted hundreds of hours to Sparty’s social media, growing his online presence using tools learned from her business classes in the Broad College.
“Being able to portray Sparty, as well as work behind him from a business perspective was a truly unique experience. It was being the celebrity and his public relations agent,” Niemiec said.
Staying highly involved in college was extremely important to Niemiec, which paid off in the skills and lessons her activities have taught her. There were times Niemiec would fly back on a Sunday night with one of the varsity sports teams, getting into East Lansing well past midnight, only to have to turn around and wake up at 8:00 a.m. for a class Monday morning.
Niemiec would always make sure she had the discipline to wake up and stay consistent with her routine, as she feels that will be an important part of post-grad life. “I was always a very involved person and being able to manage my time, as well as be reliable as a student and a leader, was important to me,” she said.
Now retired from her role, Niemiec’s hope is for a future full of Spartys that represent diversity. “Don’t let the fear of not fitting the mold keep you from this amazing experience,” she said. “You don’t have to be anyone but yourself because you are enough.”
Nicole Niemiec and Sparty wave good-bye to Spartan Stadium. Photo courtesy Nicole Niemiec
Living the post-grad life for Niemiec means pursuing a career with General Motors in its dealer development program. But she doesn’t rule out a return to a costume sometime in the future.
“I absolutely love making people happy, and that feeling alone keeps that question open for me,” she said.
However, she also recognizes the difficulty in portraying a character other than Sparty. “The real issue is that Sparty is uniquely cool with a huge fan base. He is much more than a mascot,” Niemec said. “I always considered him the face of Michigan State.”
Niemiec has the following lessons and advice to share with all current and future Broad College students:
- Be bold.
- Be different.
- Being yourself can get you farther than you could ever imagine.
- Join clubs and go to campus events. Meet and engage with as many people as you can and enjoy your time at MSU. There is more learning at MSU to be done outside the classroom.
- GET INVOLVED. Students would be amazed at how easy making connections can be when they meet new people. Networking while in college is the first step in building your “brand” and paving your career path.
“Every person at MSU has a remarkable past” said Niemiec. “There’s a reason why you were chosen to be a Spartan. This is what makes MSU so special. We need to respect and support each other and create an environment where everyone has the opportunity to excel and contribute to the Spartan ‘brand.’
“Go Green … and Sparty On!”
Kait Kisel, “Breaking glass ceilings with a big, green helmet: longest-serving female Sparty graduates from Broad College“, MSU Eli Broad School of Business website, June 11, 2018
For another version, see Cody J. Tucker, “Sparty Shares Her Tale“, Lansing State Journal, June 17, 2018.