The History of the Nittany Lion

Pennsylvania State University, aka Penn State, was chartered in 1855 as an agricultural science college, but quickly eclipsed its modest beginnings and now serves thousands of students on campuses scattered throughout the commonwealth.

Penn State’s athletic teams are known as the Nittany Lions and have a mascot, which is not, in fact, based on an African lion at all. Let’s explore Penn State’s mascot, its origins, and how it came to be.

The Lion of Nittany

There really is no such thing as a Nittany Lion. Don’t tell that to Joe Mason, though, who in 1904 made it up and the rest, as they say, is history. The tale goes that his team was playing against Princeton and was shown a statue of their mascot (a Bengal tiger). Instead of shuffling away and admitting Penn State had no such mascot, Mason invented the Nittany Lion on the spot and said it would totally trash their tiger. And it did – Penn State defeated Princeton that day.

Mason decided to forge ahead with his Nittany Lion campaign, and the school eventually adopted it as its mascot. As mentioned above, this is not an African lion. No, the Nittany Lion is a mountain lion, which roamed central Pennsylvania until at least the 1880s. The Nittany aspect of its name comes from geological features in the area, including the Nittany Mountain and Nittany Valley.

While the Nittany Lion does plenty of dancing, jumping and carrying on, as all great mascots do, he also enjoys doing a one-handed pushup when the football team scores a touchdown.

While the Nittany Lion has a pretty simple costume, it has certainly changed loads over the years. Let’s take a look how he got from then to now.

How to Dress Like a Nittany Lion

While the first “unofficial” mascot of Penn State may have been a mule, this did not require anyone to dress up like one – it was an actual mule. Once Mason’s Nittany Lion became a thing, it started off on an interesting foot. In 1907, the school used two stuffed mountain lions in the rec hall to overlook sporting events, and they were definitely not costumes.

In 1922, the first actual costume was, for some reason, an African lion costume, complete with a fluffy lion’s mane. The mascot “walked” on all fours and looked nothing like today’s version.

The Nittany Lion mascot was absent in the 1930s, but when he reappeared in the 1940s, he was better than ever. He looked more like a mountain lion (no shaggy mane in sight), and he was able to walk upright, dance, and be amazingly funny and upbeat.

In the ’60s, the costume reverted back to the African lion look for a bit, although he was allowed to walk and run around instead of being relegated to all fours.

The ’70s version of the Nittany Lion was better than ever, sporting a more mountain lion-like visage and becoming more crucial to Penn State’s sporting events. He became a symbol of Penn State’s identity.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the costume was updated to what we know the Nittany Lion to be today. The head was altered, given a new set of teeth, and the structure of the head was a helmet, which helped with wearability and stability. The body became a simple fuzzy suit, and the Nittany Lion bears a black and white scarf hanging down the front of his body, emblazoned with the words, “Penn State.” Brown furry gloves finish the look.

Penn State Roar

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