What Is a Nittany Lion?

Mar 29, 2011

While Penn State University got knocked out of the NCAA tournament early this year, its teams have historically been a force to be reckoned with. Yet how exactly did the university get its unusual Nittany Lion nickname?

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By Jeff Calareso

Penn State Nittany Lion

What is a Nittany Lion?

A nittany lion is a mountain lion based near Pennsylvania's Nittany Mountain, which separates Nittany Valley and Penns Valley. The term Nittany comes from the Algonquian word 'nit-a-nee,' which means 'single mountain.' This refers to Nittany Mountain's large size for the area.

Nittany lions are also known as cougars, panthers or pumas. It's believed that there are no remaining lions in the area of Nittany Mountain, though unconfirmed sightings occur from time to time. The last certain nittany lion was killed in 1856. That lion was mounted and preserved; today, the last nittany lion, which is over 150 years old, resides at Penn State.

Nittany Lion Push-Up

The Nittany Lion's Surprise Attack

In 1904, Penn State lacked a mascot. The baseball team was visiting Princeton one day when they saw that university's famous Bengal tiger statue. They were told the tiger was indicative of the ruthless treatment they would receive in the upcoming game. Joe Mason, a member of Penn State's team, immediately responded that Penn State was represented by the Nittany Lion, which he called the 'fiercest beast of them all' that could overpower the tiger.

While Mason's story was invented on the spot, Penn State beat Princeton that day. The legend of the Nittany Lion grew in no small part due to Mason's campaigning. In 1907, Mason wrote an impassioned plea for a student publication in defense of the Nittany Lion. He boasted of the lion's strength, calling it a 'kingly, all-conquering Lion as the eternal sentinel.'

The nickname was overwhelmingly approved by the university's students. Mason even had an effect on traditions surrounding the mascot's behavior. When he predicted Penn State's victory, he claimed the lion would use its strong right arm to slash at its enemies. Today, the mascot does one-armed push-ups after the football team scores a touchdown as a reminder of this claim. Because of the unique geographic nature of the Nittany label, Mason created a mascot that remains highly distinctive to Penn State.

While Penn State's Nittany Lion is based on an extinct creature, Georgetown University's Hoyas nickname draws upon an ancient language for its origin.

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