Probing Question: Why do schools have mascots?

Angela Spivey
January 26, 2010

How does a guy in a mountain lion suit inspire a shrine, a book, and 107,000 screaming fans? There's something about mascots that stir up powerful emotions. Penn State's Nittany Lion is a larger-than-life symbol of the pride that fans feel, says Jackie Esposito, University Archivist and co-author of The Nittany Lion: An Illustrated Tale. "Mascots embody that desire to support your school and are a visual representation of what we believe to be the best parts of our school or organization," she says.

Penn State's Nittany Lion mascot does one-handed pushups for fans after a touchdown vs. Notre Dame.

The tradition of mascots dates back at least to the American Civil War, Esposito found while researching the book. Many regiments kept living mascots, several of them dogs, including Sallie, a bull terrier who followed the men of the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry onto the battlefield and stood over the dead and wounded until she was eventually felled by a bullet herself. One of the most famous mascots was Old Abe the bald eagle, who was said to have called out a fierce battle cry as she circled the sky above her regiment, the 8th Wisconsin infantry. After the war, young men carried on the inter-state competition through sports. "Historically, post-Civil War was when intercollegiate athletic games and rivalries emerged," Esposito says. Some mascots even trace their names to the war. For example, Illinois College's teams are known as "The Blueboys," or "The Lady Blues," nicknames that began when many of the college's students volunteered for the blue-uniformed Union army.

Penn State actually had two mascots before its famous lion. There was Old Coaly the mule, who helped haul the limestone for building the school, and two bulldogs, who were acquired to protect the ladies' cottage. The lion was born in 1904, when the Penn State baseball team was touring Princeton before an away game. When shown a statue of the fierce Princeton Tiger, Penn state third baseman Joe Mason made up the story of the Nittany Lion, who'd "never been beaten in a fair fight." Mason was probably inspired by a stuffed mountain lion specimen that had been donated to the university in 1900 and was on display in Old Main building at the time, Esposito says. Mason promoted the idea of the lion in a school humor magazine, and somehow, the story stuck. By 1910 a yearbook was dedicated to the new mascot, and in 1922 a man began suiting up as the lion for football games. By 1942 the lion mascot was so entrenched at Penn State that a shrine was built and dedicated, its centerpiece a limestone statue of the lion.

The Nittany Lion name refers to those large cats that roamed nearby Mount Nittany until the 1880s. It's basically an ordinary mountain lion, or cougar, but Henry Shoemaker, a Pennsylvania folklorist writing into the 1920s, went so far as to argue that the Pennsylvania mountain lion was a separate species that was braver and more loyal, Esposito says. That's an example of how ideas people believe about their schools or teams become embodied in their mascots, she says, adding that Penn State pride in the Nittany Lion runs deep. In a recent poll by the Big Ten Network, the Nittany Lion came out on top, beating out Michigan State's Sparty, Iowa's Herky, Ohio State's Brutus and Wisconsin's Bucky.

While many schools choose lions or panthers or bears for their fierceness or physical strength, other mascots convey decidedly different qualities. One of Esposito's favorites belongs to the University of California-Santa CruzóSammy the Banana Slug. "It sounds funny," says Esposito, "but this mascot denotes something about the school." With an emphasis on science and conservation, UCSC describes itself as "nestled in the redwood forests," which is the slug's home. Another example of an "anti-mascot" is found at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, which doesn't have an athletic program, but does boast...The Fighting Pickle.

Jackie R. Esposito,, is University Archivist and co-author with Stephen Herb of the book The Nittany Lion: An Illustrated Tale, published by the Penn State Press.

Last Updated January 26, 2010