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Penn State History Lessons: The Nittany Lion Mascot

More than fifty privileged people have worn the Nittany Lion costume to embody Penn State’s beloved mascot throughout its lifetime. Beginning unofficially with a mule and ending with today’s version, there isn’t time to explain the Nittany Lion’s rich history on even the most honest campus tours.

old coaly

Some credit a mule named “Old Coaly” as Penn State’s unofficial mascot before the Nittany Lion. Old Coaly arrived in State College in 1857 and helped construct Old Main by hauling limestone blocks to the construction site from a quarry located near the intersection of College Avenue and Pugh Street, where a plaque now commemorates the site.

The University purchased Old Coaly for $190 at the end of Old Main’s construction. He spent 30 years helping with landscaping and farm chores on campus, so 1863-1893 Old Coaly served as the beloved, unofficial mascot of Penn State (or at that time, the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania). Students loved Old Coaly so much that his skeleton was preserved and is still on display at the the HUB-Robeson Center on the first floor near the Freeman Auditorium.

The Nittany Lion would come soon, however. According to legend, Penn State senior Harrison D. “Joe” Mason visited Princeton University to play for the Penn State baseball team in 1904. Facing Princeton’s intimidating tiger mascot, Mason was embarrassed by Penn State’s lack of a mascot, so he made one up on the spot. Because the Bengal tiger was supposed to indicate the challenge of playing against Princeton, Mason thought of a mascot he knew could beat a tiger — a lion.

Specifically, Mason thought of the mountain lion that roamed Mount Nittany until the 1880s, and his idea must have worked, as Penn State beat Princeton that day. After the game, the Penn State Nittany Lion grew so popular that it eventually became the school mascot even without an official vote. Mason defended his choice and encouraged other students to accept the Nittany Lion as the official school mascot by writing about it in a humor paper he co-founded called “The Lemon.”

“Every College the world over of any consequence has a College Emblem of some kind,–all but the Pennsylvania State College…What do You Say? Why not get for State College, Our College, the Best in all the Menagerie of College Pets.–Our College is the Best of all,–Then why not Select for ours, The King of Beasts,–The Lion!” he wrote.

The student body loved the idea of making the Nittany Lion its mascot. Though the lion did not make a public appearance until the early 1920s, a pair of lion statues dubbed “ma” and “pa” were placed atop the columns at the university’s main entrance on College Street and Allen Street in 1907.

1910 lion--
Photo: Penn State Archives, 1910

Two stuffed mountain lions were placed in Rec Hall to watch over athletic events during the 1920s. As you can see above, they were really quite something.

Student Richard Hoffman was chosen to wear an African lion suit to athletic events in 1922. Hoffman, called the “man in the suit,” previously played the lion in the Penn State Players’ production of “Androcles and the Lion.”

This first mascot debuted as Nittany Leo I, and was nothing like today’s costume. In the Nittany Lion’s early days, it was required to walk on all fours like a real lion and came equipped with an African lion’s mane.

1929 nittany lion--penn state archives
Photo: Penn State archives

Former Glee Club member James Leyden also wrote “The Nittany Lion” song for the lion between 1922 and 1924. The Blue Band still performs this song, though students often incorrectly refer to the song’s title as “Hail to the Lion.”

The Lion disappeared from the public for a short while in the 1930s when students created the idea for the Lion Shrine, but the Lion reappeared better than ever in the 1940s. The Lion now resembled an actual mountain lion, and had its own routines, comedic skits, and entertaining performances.
Photo: Penn State Archives

The Nittany Lion grew to be the ultimate symbol of Penn State, but even by the 1950s it was not quite the same as today’s Lion.
Photo: Penn State Archives

During the 1960s, the costume reverted back to the original African lion style for a time.

Photo: Penn State Archives

The 1970s brought another new version of the Nittany Lion — mountain lion once again, he had become more than a football game staple. Attending various sporting events and incorporating other aspects of student life into his agenda, the Nittany Lion emerged as a symbol central to Penn State’s identity.
Photo: Penn State LIbraries

After 60 years of the Lion varying between African lion and mountain lion, he began to resemble the Lion we know today in the 1980s.

The Nittany Lion at SportsNation
Photo: Becky Perlow/Onward State

Meiko DeAngelo accepted responsibility for the Lion costume in 1990 and updated the costume with the help of her son-in-law, John Tucker. The updated version sported a new set of teeth, and the base of the head became a helmet, adding more structural support to the costume and developing the modern Nittany Lion mascot.

It took decades for the original Nittany Lion costume to progress into our beloved Nittany Lion, but the efforts of all those involved are what make the Lion a symbol to admire.

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About the Author

Erin Servey

Erin Servey writes and copy-edits for Onward State. She's a Junior Schreyer Honors Scholar and Paterno Fellow at Penn State, studying English and psychology, with a French minor. Editing, poetry, and photography are her passions. Send questions and comments via e-mail ([email protected]) and follow her on Twitter (@ErinEServey).

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