Peculiar Pittsburgh

Dear Pitt, PSU: You know you have the same mascot, right?

OK, you probably knew, but do you know who had it first? Or about the “borrowing” incident?

Rob Christy and Gregory Fisher USA TODAY Sports
MJ Slaby

Prepare your insults and rivalry disses, Pitt and Penn State are facing off again this weekend. This time, it’s in a 2:30 p.m. Saturday men’s basketball game at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

But Pitt and PSU fans, have you really thought about how similar your mascots are?

Forget about the type of animal they are for now (we’ll come back to that), and look at the reasons they were selected:

Both were selected because they once lived in Pennsylvania and for their power. The Nittany Lion “never lost a fair fight” and the panther was a “formidable creature.”

Now back to the animal — a Nittany lion is a mountain lion that lived in central Pennsylvania near Mount Nittany (the mountain that overlooks State College, Pa. and the Penn State campus).

And the mountain lion is the same as a panther.

“They think that since they are from Penn State, they are bigger and badder than the Pitt panther,” said Kathy Suthard, lead mammal keeper at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

But not true, she said.

Here’s the science

There are multiple names for the same animal, Suthard said: mountain lion, panther and cougar. “It’s all whatever [name] you grew up with.”

If you want to get scientific, the Latin name for the cats is Puma concolor, she said, adding that anything in the Puma genus lives in North America or South America. Sometimes — including on Pitt and PSU websites — the cats are called Felis concolor. But it’s not another case of multiple names. It’s a changed name.

“Until 1993, the cougar was classified in the genus Felis along with the domestic cat, ocelot and 27 other species,” Suthard said. She said it was reassigned to the genus Puma based on advances in science.

Suthard, who has worked with the cats before, said the Puma concolor is intelligent and athletic and more closely related to smaller cats like the bobcat and and the Lynx than to the large cats, aka lions, tigers and leopards. Don’t expect to see the Puma concolor at the Pittsburgh Zoo, because Suthard said the displays focus on Africa and Asia, not the Americas. But she said there are some in the wild still, such as on the West coast. (The cats have been extinct in Pennsylvania since the late 1800s.)

Despite potential sightings over the years, Matt Lovallo, wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he doubts there is a “reproducing population [of mountain lions] anywhere in Pennsylvania at this time.”

Who had it first?

Technically, Penn State. But in its current form? Maybe Pitt.

Here’s how it happened: In April 1904, the Penn State baseball team got a tour of Princeton, where they saw its Bengal Tiger mascot, before a game between the two schools

“The tone of the tour must have been smug,” said Steven Herb, an education and behavioral sciences librarian at Penn State and a co-author of “The Nittany Lion An Illustrated Tale.” Herb said a freshman Penn State third baseman jumped in with a response to the Princeton players pointing out their mascot. The student, Harrison Denning Mason Jr., told them that at Penn State, there is Mount Nittany ruled by the Nittany lion “who’s never been beaten in a fair fight.”

“He just made that up,” Herb said, adding it was likely that Mason got the idea from the taxidermy mountain lion on campus that he would have passed on his way to baseball practice.

Penn State didn’t have a mascot then, unless you count Coaly, the skeleton of an old mule that Herb said was used to carry limestone to build Old Main. Its bones are still on display at Penn State.

In 1908, Penn State made it official.

In 1909, students and alumni leaders of the University of Pittsburgh chose the panther as a mascot. Until then, the school was named the Western University of Pennsylvania and had the nickname “wups.”

So yes, it could have been the mules and the wups.

The panther mascot was suggested by George M.P. Baird, who at the time had recently graduated from Pitt. And there were multiple reasons to select the panther, according to the Pitt website:

The Panther was the most formidable creature once indigenous to the Pittsburgh region.

It had ancient, heraldic standing as a noble animal.

The happy accident of alliteration.

The close approximation of its hue to the old gold of the University’s colors (old gold and blue), hence its easy adaptability in decoration.

The fact that no other college or university then employed it as a symbol.

“There’s a good chance that Pittsburgh didn’t know” about Penn State’s mascot selection about a year earlier, Herb said. Even if they looked it up, he said, the 1908 PSU yearbook showed a mascot that was more African lion than mountain lion.

“I doubt that they were really in competition,” Herb said.

The PSU mascot’s transformation from looking like an African lion to the Nittany lion as it is now — and as Mason intended — happened piecemeal and really stuck around 1939, he said. But, the Nittany lion did have slightly “longer hair” in the 1960s.

Also in the late 1930s, the Pitt panther became known as ROC, after football player Steve Petro, who was nicknamed “The Rock” and known for his school spirit, according to The Pitt News.

So they’re the same … but the rivalry is still there

In September, the two schools ended their 16-year hiatus in football with a game here. Next year, the teams will face off at PSU.

Signs of the clash were all around Heinz Field — literally.

There are countless arguments why ROC is better than the Nittany lion or why the Nittany Lion is better than ROC. But Herb, the education and behavioral sciences librarian at Penn State, said there is one anecdote that stuck with him from his research.

In the 1950s, a Pittsburgh museum borrowed the Penn State taxidermy Nittany lion, he said. It was likely in a basement at PSU then and would have been used to teach biology. He said the plan was for Pitt to keep it for a year and make repairs while they had it. But the loan “accidentally” went on for much longer, Herb said.

In the 1990s — roughly 40 years later — a curator in Pittsburgh and a PSU faculty member were at a bar during a conference, when the curator asked: “Do you want your lion back?”

Herb said they found the paper trail, and the lion was returned to PSU, where it still is now.