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It’s football season and that means fans, young and old, are sporting shirts, hats, stickers and banners in support of their favorite Utah teams and mascots. Score some serious points with these interesting and fun trivia facts about some of Utah’s most famous mascots and where they got their beginnings.
Mascots and Muppets?
Ever wonder where all this mascot madness came from? The word mascot is from the French term ‘mascotte’ that means lucky charm. Sports organizations were the first to embrace the idea of team mascots, choosing to incorporate live animal mascots as an intimidation strategy against their foes.
But according to the International University Sports Federation, you can thank Jim Henson's Muppets for the switch from live animals and two-dimensional mascots to today’s 3D heroes.
The University of Utah Utes’ 'Swoop'
University of Utah history reports a dual nickname for their athletic teams — the Utes and the Redskins, but in 1972, the school chose Utes as the official team nickname out of respect for local tribal members.
Swoop, the red-tailed hawk mascot (@utahswoop), was chosen because of its indigenous heritage in the state of Utah. Swoop entered the scene in 1996 after the university received permission from the Ute Tribal Council.
BYU Cougars’ 'Cosmo'
Prior to the introduction of Cosmo in 1953, BYU used live cougar mascots on the sidelines. Cosmo was introduced at a pep rally before the Oct. 15 game when BYU played rival Utah State for the Old Wagon Wheel trophy.
Cosmo’s creation is credited to H. Dwayne Stevenson, who was the BYU head of pep activities at the time. So how did Cosmo come about? Stevenson’s then BYU roommate, B. Udell Winkler, told BYU Magazine that, “He thought of it being kind of far out, kind of beyond our reach, something special.”
Utah State University Aggies’ 'Big Blue'
Since its inception in 1888, Utah State University’s mascot has changed almost as much as a football changes hands in a game. Between 1940-50, the mascot was an elderly farmer, clad in bib overalls, chomping on a piece of hay. The farmer, an unsubtle head nod to the school’s land-grant acts from local farmers, survived for about a decade until the Forward USU Forum coalition was formed to find a new mascot for the school.
“In an eight-page notification of their findings, they presented changing the mascot from the Farmers to the Utah State University Highlanders. Their reasons for picking such a mascot dwelt around the idea that too many people still refer to the university as the Agricultural College,” wrote the USU Statesman.
The efforts of the coalition came to nothing as a loyal student body strongly opposed the changing of the mascot.
In 1976, USU purchased a live white bull to serve as a mascot for sporting events and painted it blue — the school’s official color — before each game. Even though it was fitted with large rubber boots, the bull caused significant field damage and was retired. The current Big Blue mascot was introduced in 1987.
Weber State University’s 'Waldo the Wildcat'
According to Weber State University history, how it chose its wildcat mascot remains unknown. One theory claims that the wildcat mascot is in reference to WSU Athletic Hall of Fame football player Wallace F. (Wally) Morris, who was given the nickname “wildcat” by a fellow teammate. Morris was commonly known on the field as "Wildcat" Morris.
As the football team continued to refer to "Wildcat" Morris, local sportswriter Al Warden wrote in an article that the Weber College football players were as "scrappy as a bunch of wildcats," and the name stuck.
Students kept a live wildcat to display at football games for years until the animal delivered a career-ending, bite-on-the-nose of then cheerleader Judy Freeman.
The wildcat continues to stand for the aggressive spirit of WSU’s intercollegiate sports teams.
Utah Valley University’s 'Willy the Wolverine'
UVU’s mascot, Willy the Wolverine, takes his role very seriously and very mysteriously. He never takes off the furry wolverine suit in public and walks campus in stealth. Barbra Wardle, the sculptor who made three of the school’s wolverine statues on campus, said that school President Wilson W. Sorenson compared the school to a wolverine “because of its small size and fearless attitude.”
The prized wolverine suit was purchased by the school soon after the mascot was chosen and worn by both members of the faculty and student government to help inspire fans toward greatness.
Westminster College’s Griffin
With a head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion, a Griffin has been Westminster College’s mascot for decades. Following a financial crisis in 1968, Westminster College had to temporarily let go of its intercollegiate athletic program, but the Griffin was restored as mascot in the 1990s when the program began again.
Southern Utah University’s 'Thunderbird'
Utah State University isn’t the only Utah school to have suffered a mascot identity crisis. SUU’s mascot went from aggie to bronco to Thunderbird, and even a prairie dog, over a period of 116 years. But, in the end, the uniqueness and strength of the Thunderbird won over the masses as school mascot.
“There are some 1,200 member schools in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and each one has a nickname, with birds and cats dominating the list of teams. There are no fewer than 176 genera of cats, from lions and tigers and wildcats to tomcats. And, there are 152 birds represented, including the 44 variants of eagles, the most popular name in the NCAA. However, there is but one school that can boast of its Thunderbird,” writes SUU.
Regardless of which mascot has your heart, this football season they are sure to draw almost as much attention as the teams and players they represent as they connect fans with both deep-rooted tradition and a little bit of whimsy.