Kim Kirschnick has been leading Virginia’s football team onto the field on horseback as the mounted Cavalier for over two decades. When Kirschnick announced he would be stepping down last year, an extensive hunt for his replacement went underway. As it turns out, his successor had been spending her weekdays as the interim dean of students.
Julie Caruccio, assistant vice president for research on student experience, decided to throw her hat into the ring when the job was posted by Virginia Athletics. A Charlottesville native, Caruccio is an alumna and an avid horse rider and owner who was a member of Virginia’s riding team during her time as an undergraduate in the 1990s. With careful consideration and the blessing of her longtime friend Kirschnick, Caruccio was selected to don the cape.
“Once I decided to apply, I was all in on wanting to do it,” Caruccio said. “It was super exciting to know that I’d have the opportunity.”
She began training with Kirschnick over the summer, and the announcement was made earlier this month. Caruccio is more than aware that she will be carrying forward a fan-favorite, time-honored tradition.
“I have had lots of folks tell me the mounted Cavalier is one of their favorite parts of football games,” Caruccio said. “I hope I can keep that part of the tradition alive.”
While Kirschnick has served as the mounted Cavalier for the most recent generation of Virginia football fans, he was far from the first to saddle up and lead the team onto the field. The tradition can be traced back to the fall of 1947 when Virginia was preparing for a historic homecoming bout against Harvard. University student and Dublin native Francis Bell and another unknown member of the Student Independent Party, a non-fraternal political organization, saddled up for the first time in front of the then record-breaking 24,000 fans and the mounted Cavalier was born.
However, the riders’ first appearance didn’t immediately catch on. The tradition of the Cavalier on horseback went dormant until 1963 when the Virginia Club Polo team re-established it. Polo team member Doug Luke was among the first to have taken the reins, but various members alternated turns in the role until 1973.
In 1974, Scott Stadium underwent a facelift which included the implementation of Astroturf to replace the field’s natural grass. The new surface was not suitable for horses to charge out onto and the Cavalier was forced to perform on foot for the next 15 years.
Virginia football languished in the basement of the ACC for a decade after retiring the mounted Cavalier act and efforts to engage already frustrated fans with the likes of “The ‘Hoo”— a perplexing fuzzy orange mascot — were failing. However, the mid-1980s offered a fresh start with new coach George Welsh righting the ship.
Under Welsh, Virginia finally strung together consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1952 and appeared in multiple notable bowl games. In 1989, Virginia was a top team in the nation, winning a program-record 10 games to earn a trip to the Florida Citrus Bowl. To celebrate the occasion, the mounted Cavalier made a special return and led the team out of the tunnel once more in Orlando, Fla. The entrance was a hit and the Cavalier on horseback returned to Scott Stadium the following year. Riding duties in the 1990s were shared between the polo team and the mounted police of Charlottesville.
“I think the mounted Cavalier has been established as an important tradition for U.Va. football,” Class of 1988 alumnus and longtime fan Terry Young said. “The crowd generally gets really fired up when they see Sabre and the rider come out of the tunnel and ride across the field.”
In 2000, with the introduction of the Carl Smith Center, Kirschnick made his debut as the mounted Cavalier, taking the field by storm. The 2000s and 2010s were often unkind to Virginia football fans, but Kirschnick’s Cavalier and steed Sabre endured the program’s tumult, reliably energizing fans through the good times and the bad.
“I remember the entrance to the 2019 game against [Florida State] was one of the more recent really exciting entrances,” Young said. “The crowd went crazy when they saw the Cavalier riding out of the tunnel.”
Though all good things must come to an end, fans like Young have embraced the changing of the guard.
“Kim Kirschnick was fabulous, but it was inevitable he was going to retire at some point,” Young said. “I think it was extremely important that his replacement be someone who understood the importance of the Cavalier rider and its role in the team entrance. Julie Caruccio is essentially a lifelong Wahoo. She has worked closely with Kim Kirschnick and I have no doubt that she will do a great job.”
Caruccio has found the response from family, friends, and fans to her new position to be gratifying.
“It’s amusing to me that the splash on this has been way bigger than when I became interim dean of students last year,” Caruccio said. “The best part is I think this might be the first time I’ve done something that actually makes both of my teenage kids proud, which is no easy feat!”
Caruccio is the first woman to assume the role on a full-time basis, although a few of the rotating polo players in the 1990s were women. Her goal is to add to the fans’ anticipation and excitement, but she also knows that she has the potential to serve as an inspiration.
“I hope there are lots of little girls that see me and think they could do it too,” Caruccio said.
Virginia football fans will have to wait until Saturday to see Caruccio lead the Cavaliers onto the field once more. As the team charges out of the tunnel behind her, Caruccio will simultaneously take part in a decades-old tradition while creating something brand new.
“I think this is an example of the best way to update a tradition,” Caruccio said. “Keep the positive, fun, community-focused elements while ensuring it reflects who and what U.Va. is in its third century.”