Many college mascots or nicknames originated in one of two ways: from a local newspaper story or from a student vote. Arizona’s nickname, the Wildcats, came from the former.
Arizona played the Occidental College Tigers on November 7, 1914 and afterwards, William M. Henry of The Los Angeles Times wrote, “The Arizona men showed the fight of wild cats and displayed before the public gaze a couple of little shrimps in the backfield who defied all attempts of the Tigers to stop them.” And that’s how the University of Arizona sports teams became known as the Wildcats.
Here’s the original story from where the Wildcats (or technically, “wild cats”) nickname originated.
Though Arizona lost that game to Occidental College 14-0, the school’s football team still left a positive impression upon The Los Angeles Times’ Henry.
“Confident of rolling up a big score, the Tigers took the field with grins on their faces, but before the game was ten seconds old they knew they had a battle on their hands,” Henry wrote. The headline of the story was “Tigers Take A Hard Game” and one of the subheadlines was “Arizona Puts up Unexpected Struggle.”
Henry referred to Arizona as the “Prohibitionists” a couple times in the story. The fall after Henry dubbed the fight of Arizona’s football team to be like a “wild cat,” the school had a living, breathing embodiment of that fighting spirit. Arizona’s athletics website notes that the school’s original mascot was a live bobcat that had been purchased by the freshman football team from an Army blacksmith named F.W. Fawkins for $9.41. The freshman team bought the wildcat from soldiers stationed in Douglas, Arizona, according to the Arizona Daily Star.
The bobcat was reportedly named Tom Easter and was given to the student body at an assembly on October 18, 1915.
The first newspaper reference we could find of the bobcat mascot was in the Arizona Daily Star on Oct. 19, 1915. Prior to Arizona’s trip to play Pomona (Calif.) College, the Arizona Daily Star reported, “On the trip to Pomona the Varsity will take the new mascot, a genuine wildcat, purchased by the Freshman class team.”
The bobcat was later renamed Rufus Arizona in honor of University of Arizona President Rufus Bernard Von KleinSmid after a student body vote. The first newspaper reference we could find for “Rufus Arizona” was on April 18, 1916 in the Arizona Daily Star, which reported on the bobcat’s untimely death.
Rufus Arizona was then sent to a taxidermist (a 1919 story in the Arizona Daily Star said Rufus Arizona I was on display in the university museum) and its trainer, John Hedgpath, told the newspaper he would find an animal to replace Rufus Arizona I.
Ten days after the report about Rufus Arizona’s death, the Arizona Daily Star reported that Hedgpath, the trainer, was looking for someone who could watch Rufus Arizona II over the summer and if proper arrangements could be made, he’d have someone in Nogales, Arizona, provide the school with another wildcat. This time, the school would have a cage for its live mascot to keep it safe.
On May 20, 1916, the Arizona Daily Star reported that the university had found a successor to Rufus Arizona I, or rather, several potential successors.
“As the result of a thrilling adventure which befell Stanford Williams, a ferocious mother wildcat and four kittens were captured, the University of Arizona has at last procured a mascot to succeed Rufus Arizona I, peace to his ashes,” the Arizona Daily Star reported. “The adventure came about when Mr. Williams, while prospecting in the mountains about 40 miles southwest of here, entered a deserted tunnel and as he was examining the character of the rock, was attracted by a soft mewing, which upon investigation was found to be the ensemble protest of four little wildcats huddled together in the corner of the cave. Mr. Williams caught them, put them in his specimen pocket and carried them to camp.”
Williams reportedly returned to the tunnel seven times, waiting for the mother to return. She never did. The next morning, he saw the mother return so he found a 20-foot-long pole, fashioned a copper noose around it and managed to corner the wildcat. The mother was then placed in a cage with the four kittens and he later presented the mother and kittens to Arizona’s student body. “With four wildcats, the University will be well supplied with mascots,” the Arizona Daily Star reported.
There wasn’t another mention of a Rufus Arizona in the newspapers.com database until November 1919, when, according to the Arizona Daily Star, a “Feline was trapped near Oracle a few days ago by Charlie Briavitch and given to his friend Warren Grosetta. ‘Grossy’ is an alumnus of Arizona and a strong supporter of the University. What more fitting than that the cat should go to the students?
“Two valient [sic]youths by the name of Joe Eichbaum and Jack McQuiston succeeded in making a strong cage to house the animal and today he resides at the chapter house of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. For several days the keeps of the cat were engrossed in a controversy as to what the cat should be named. Some of them insisted that Jasper would be the correct moniker, while the other faction was sure that tabby should be named Mary. Many days the battle over the nomen raged but at last the difficulty was settled and today he calmly goes under the name of Mary.”
The Arizona Daily Star reported that, fittingly, when Occidental College comes to visit Arizona during Thanksgiving — remember, Arizona’s game against Occidental College is what sparked the original “wild cat” moniker — “Mary will be led on the field and be one of the chief advertising stunts of the game.”
Arizona’s athletics website states that the school used live mascots “off and on between the early 1900s and the late 1950s.” In the late 1950s, Arizona introduced a costumed wildcat as its mascot.
The brainchild of Arizona students Richard Heller and John Paquette, Wilbur the Wildcat debuted at an Arizona-Texas Tech football game on November 7, 1959 and “was an immediate hit,” according to Arizona’s website.
The original Wilbur Wildcat costume was “head-to-toe fur with an American flag patch on the left shoulder. This costume was very ‘cartoony.’ It had big rounded eyes, a button nose and a curved black line for a mouth.”
The following is from the Tucson Daily Citizen in June 1960 before the Powder Puff Derby.
Over the years, Wilbur the Wildcat has been involved in numerous marketing and publicity campaigns. The Arizona Republic reported in November 1965 about how fraternity pledges at Alpha Kappa Lambda attempted to push Wilbur the Wildcat from Tucson to Tempe, taking half-hour shifts, with a patrol escort prior to an Arizona-Arizona State football game.
Wilbur the Wildcat was later remodeled as its fur body was eliminated and replaced with an Arizona sweater and pants, which was the mascot’s look until the 1970s. That’s when Wilbur “underwent a ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ phase,” according to Arizona’s website, a look that included an “oversized, paper mache head, and donned blue jeans, a vest, cowboy boots and a holster.”
Wilbur’s fur returned in 1982. Arizona also introduced Wilma the Wildcat as a second mascot after costume designers created Wilma while trying to make a new costume for Wilbur. Wilbur and Wilma the Wildcat were “married” on November 21, 1986 and they “renewed their vows” in 2006 as part of their 20th wedding anniversary.
Wilbur the Wildcat celebrated his 50th birthday in 2009.