The History of Penn State’s Nittany Lion Logo
It didn’t take long for Joe Paterno to be won over.
Roy Parcels spoke to a table of Penn State power during that lunch in 1983 — Paterno was surrounded by legendary broadcaster Fran Fisher, athletic director Jim Tarman, and assistant director Tim Curley.
Parcels’ pitch to put an image to the Nittany Lion was just too good to deny, Fisher recalled.
“I’m telling you, he put a sales job on Joe you wouldn’t believe,” Fisher said. “He told me, ‘you gotta do this.’”
And so began in earnest the mission to create what is now so commonplace. The image of the blue and white Nittany Lion was created after that meeting and has been untouched ever since.
Fisher, 90, still speaks so smoothly. When he was the voice of Penn State football in the 70s and executive director of the Nittany Lion club, Fisher sat on a licensing committee that sought to copyright university marks and symbols so it could collect royalties. But Fisher and the committee discovered the only way to make money in such an endeavor was to license symbols that no one else had used before. An attorney advised Fisher that Penn State should create its own logo, so Fisher called some firms in New York.
That’s when he discovered Parcels, who was part of the Dixon and Parcels firm. On an unrelated flight to New York, Fisher told Paterno of the news.
“He asked how much it would cost,” Fisher said. “I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and he said, ‘Well, don’t go bananas.’”
But Parcels didn’t give a price. Upon hearing the opportunity, he simply came to State College.
“I’m a New Jersey guy,” Parcels said. “So of course, I followed Penn State quite a bit because Rutgers wasn’t doing too well and Penn State was always winning. Gotta go with the winner, you know.”
Making a Mark
Parcels recalled bringing down a New York Daily News to the meeting. The entire back page of that issue was dedicated to Penn State’s recent National Championship victory over Georgia, one that wasn’t expected to happen. Yet Parcels was still embarrassed during lunch, as he had no clue what a Nittany Lion looked like – “I thought for sure there must be one over in those mountains somewhere” – and had all sorts of questions about what they had in mind.
Paterno was prepared. Parcels said Paterno showed him the emblem of the University of Pennsylvania at the meeting, using that as a starting point to find something that would be different, modern and representative of the athletic department.
But how does one define a Nittany Lion? The creature had been extinct in this region for decades when it was named Penn State’s mascot in the early 1900s, so the group, which was led by Fisher from that point on, had to brainstorm.
“[Paterno] expressed, ‘I just don’t like those ones with big teeth and big claws,’” Parcels said. “He said, ‘we carry a big stick.’”
During Parcels’ research, he discovered that 200 secondary schools claimed a lion for their mascot.
“So we had to find a lion that couldn’t look like a lion, but you’d need to have success with this lion or you wouldn’t get the trademark,” Parcels said.
Parcels came up with about 15 designs after the meeting, but none immediately stood out. He said they sent a survey to all the coaches in Penn State’s athletic programs, asking what symbolized a Nittany Lion to them. Echoing Paterno, the respondents thought of class and dignity, not ferocity or meanness.
About three months after, Fisher said, Parcels gave him a call. He said he had his whole shop working on the logo and they found one they thought to be ideal.
Looking like Lions
Sure enough, that design is now ubiquitous in State College, so recognizable that “Penn State” need not accompany it to give it identity. When it was made, though, the stylized “Penn State” that still appears on some logos accompanied the right-facing lion.
The goal of the logo design team was to make the logo so recognizable that the name wouldn’t be necessary anyway, which Fisher thinks took one year at the most after its release.
According to Fisher, Penn State hired an attorney to research the use of commercial logos in intercollegiate athletics. The attorney told him that Penn State was the first to use a logo commercially.
Fisher liked the logo so much that he tried the impossible.
“I thought, ‘My god, that would look good on the side of the helmet. It’d look so natural,’” Fisher said. “…If people saw them run out with that on their helmet, they’d buy jockstraps with that logo on them.”
After putting some of the decals on helmets, he figured he’d sell it to Paterno.
“I got cold feet. There’s Joe in his office and I’m hiding the helmet behind me, thinking if I have the courage to do this,” Fisher said. “But I walk in and I tell him, ‘I’ve got this idea that’s really going to help us generate some funds.’ I show him the helmet, and he said three words: ‘Get outta here.’”
Regardless of Paterno’s reluctance to change the uniform, it didn’t take long for the logo to gain traction. Companies like Nike paid for rights to use it along with the stylized “Penn State,” which was soon dropped from most uses of the logo. Parcels’ goal had been realized.
“It was a wonderful experience,” said Parcels, whose company is still in business under a different name. “I learned so much about the school’s history.”
Symbol through scandal
Karen Magnuson is an assistant director in the department of university marketing at Penn State, serving as the primary contact for the university mark.
She explained some of the terminology involved with the logos. The logo seen on many classroom podiums and the university’s official website is known as the “institutional logo” or “Penn State mark,” whereas the Lion is the “athletics symbol.” The Lion with a stylized “Penn State” attached to it in some way is the “intercollegiate athletics logo.”
Whatever it’s called, it works.
Penn State’s director of licensing Maureen Riedel e-mailed that the university does not keep records on how often specific marks are licensed, but said it makes about $3.8 million annually from sales of licensed merchandise. About 400 licensees make products with a university mark.
The logo is atop the north scoreboard at Beaver Stadium, meaning students stare at it during all of the games. There are thousands of the logos in the various apparel stores in State College and University Park. It’s not displayed prominently on the football uniform, but that’s done little to lessen its significance.
“The Penn State brand is extremely recognizable within the world of college sports,” wrote sportslogos.net’s Chris Creamer in an e-mail. “It’d be hard not to be with all those years of success and media attention, both negative and positive, attached to it.”
Indeed, the negative publicity associated with the Sandusky scandal has hurt Penn State’s ability to license its marks. Riedel wrote that the university experienced a downward trend in licensing sales after the scandal from which it has yet to fully rebound.
“Honestly, while it’s unfair to the Nittany Lion, I think within the general public it symbolizes a lot of negativity associated with the school,” Creamer wrote. “The scandal really brought the wrong kind of attention to Penn State in recent years.”
But the university did not rebrand then, and the logo still looks the same. Riedel expects the university to have a full rebound from the downward sales, citing its strong fan base.
Magnuson expressed complete confidence in the logo’s future.
“I’ve heard absolutely nothing about changing the athletics logo,” she said. “Logos have lives of their own, and I think there’s a lot of identity value in this logo.”
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“If they make a mistake, it’s not a failure unless you don’t try again.”
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The Nittany Lions are off to a 11-1 start through their first two tournaments.