The sometimes amusing, sometimes troubled history of Utah's school mascots

Utah State Aggies mascot Big Blue dances at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas on March 14. The origin stories of some Utah school mascots might surprise you.

Utah State Aggies mascot Big Blue dances at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas on March 14. The origin stories of some Utah school mascots might surprise you. (Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Monday is National Mascot Day. Take a look at the evolution of some school mascots in Utah over the years.

Brigham Young University

Before there was Cosmo — the stunt-loving BYU student in cougar costume — there were actual, live cougars for mascots at BYU.

Two cougar cubs named Cleo and Tarbo were brought to the Provo campus in 1925, where they served as mascots and permanent residents. When they escaped from their cage in 1929, the faculty cried, "The cougars are out!"

The incident inspired the BYU Fight Song and prompted changes in the mascot department. Things have been more mainstream since then.

The first incarnation of Cosmo, as students and alumni know him today, was in 1953, when he parachuted onto the field at the football stadium.

The cougar costume has seen some updates over the years. The human-sized cougar's head has gotten smaller in the last few decades, to allow Cosmo more mobility for stunts. And most recently, Cosmo has been endowed with a furry set of abs.

Southern Utah University

Thor the Thunderbird marries Norse mythology with Native American culture to be "the electrifying embodiment of SUU's pride and spirit." Thor was created in 1958, but it wasn't until the 1970s that he came to life as a costumed character.

The mighty T-bird hasn't always been SUU's animal rep. In 1946, the year of the school's inaugural football season, students were in search of a more compelling mascot than the "Branch Aggies" and settled on the Broncos.

It was a great mascot choice, except for one thing — lots of other agricultural schools in the region had also chosen the Broncos as their good luck charm. After a few too many Broncos v. Broncos games, SUU opted for Thor the Thunderbird.

Fun fact: Out of around 1,200 member schools in the NCAA, SUU is the only one to claim the thunderbird as its mascot.

University of Utah

Utah's flagship public university has had a few mascots since its pioneer beginnings, some of them deeply controversial.

The U. was first known as "the Crimson," but terms such as "Indians," "Redskins" and "Utes" started cropping up in the student-run Daily Utah Chronicle in the 1920s. This was also when stereotypical cartoons of Native Americans began to appear in connection with the university.

Utah retired the "Ho-Yo" cartoon mascot and the "Redskins" nickname in 1972 amid concerns from students and faculty.

The school introduced a new mascot in 1985 — a member of the student body dressed in supposedly traditional Native American clothing, riding a horse across the football field — which was intended to be a symbol, rather than a mascot.

Some students were not fans and the live mascot/symbol was retired in 1993. Since then, the university has maintained use of the "Utes" name, with permission from the Ute Tribe, and students started cheering on Swoop the red-tailed hawk in 1996.

Swoop's appearance on campus aligned with Utah's 100th anniversary of statehood.

Utah State University

The origins of USU's bull mascot, Big Blue, are a little rough and tumble.

The school used to round up a live white bull, slap some blue paint on it and send it onto the football field. It wasn't perfect, but it worked — at least until Big Blue was needed on the basketball court.

To avoid scuffing the new court, Big Blue got some red rubber boots, which was "a disaster," according to historical accounts. The live bull was officially retired.

The first attempt at a costumed version of Big Blue appeared in 1987. It had real bull horns and wasn't very functional. Things have improved since then, and the new-and-improved royal blue bull still gets Aggies excited on game day.

Utah Tech University

Utah Tech, formerly Dixie State, cycled through five mascots before landing on Brooks the Bison in 2016. It was a little bit of a bumpy ride.

Rodney the Rebel, a Confederate soldier mascot, debuted in 1980 and held on for 22 years. He was updated to be an Indiana Jones-style mascot in 2002, but his name stayed the same. Three years later, Rodney the Rebel was decommissioned in favor of Reb the Red Hawk. The school permanently swapped out the Rebels nickname in 2009, when it switched to Red Storm and a bull mascot named Ragin' Red. Big Dee the bull came a few years later.

The current bison was selected for its status as a literal trailblazer — when bison trekked across North America, they created paths that Native Americans and pioneers would later use.

Utah Valley University

Willy the Wolverine is something of a mystery, as wolverines aren't native to Utah. And the exact date of Willy's appearance at Utah's largest university isn't clear.

Here's what we do know: Willy was named for UVU President Wilson W. Sorenson, who served from 1946-1982. It seems the student body voted for the mascot to be a wolverine. After the vote was called, the school bought the iconic furry wolverine suit.

Weber State University

How did a wildcat get to be Weber State's mascot? It kind of just happened.

Legend has it that football player Wallace "Wally" Morris got the nickname "wildcat" while playing for Weber's team. Newspaper reporters started calling the team the wildcats, and it stuck.

Then-President Aaron Tracy was unhappy with the name, which he found demeaning. He was hoping for a "more noble" mascot, like a lion. The students didn't mind, though.

Weber State students paraded around a live wildcat at football games, which grew more and more discontent with each season. The wildcat's illustrious career ended when it bit cheerleader Judy Freeman on the nose.

Since then, WSU has recruited the much friendlier Waldo the Wildcat to pump up home crowds.

Correction: A previous version said BYU's Cosmo as he's known today parachuted onto the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium in 1953. The stadium didn't open until 1964. Before that, the football team played at the old hillside stadium between the Tanner Building and the southwest end of campus, according to the Daily Universe.

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Emma Everett Johnson covers Utah as a general news reporter. She is a graduate of Brigham Young University.


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