NCAA.com has previously taken college sports fans down the rabbit hole behind how some of the country’s most beloved college mascots came to be. While Yale’s living, breathing bulldog mascot Handsome Dan wasn’t the first real-life bulldog the school had, Handsome Dan I started a lineage that now stretches to Handsome Dan XVIII.

As unlikely as it sounds, Youngstown State is nicknamed the Penguins because of a remark an opposing basketball coach reportedly made five years before there was a student poll to decide the school’s mascot. All because of an unheated locker room and the lack of warmups caused Youngstown State’s basketball team to wave their arms like penguins.

The stories behind the mascots at Alabama, Arizona, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest are all compelling, too.

Here’s the true story of how UC Irvine adopted the nickname Anteaters.

What is an anteater?

Giant anteaters, or just “anteaters,” are among the most threatened mammals in Central America, according to National Geographic. Anteaters can weigh anywhere from 40 to 140 pounds, from head to tail they can grow to about 85 inches long (about seven feet) and they eat insects.

Former UC Irvine student government officer Jim Breslo told the Los Angeles Times, “The anteater is not threatening, but if he is attacked, he will fight to the death. As UCI students, we’re all anteaters. People might think it’s embarrassing at first. But by the time they leave, they’re proud of it.”

Do any other schools have the nickname ‘Anteaters’?

There is only one Anteater mascot among NCAA Division I schools and it belongs to UC Irvine.

In 1989, former UC Irvine marketing director Carl Herrman told the Los Angeles Times, “My philosophy is [that]a place should have its own personality and a mascot helps to do that. We’re the only anteater as far as we know. We should stand out from the menagerie.”

Where did the nickname ‘Anteaters’ come from?

Like many college mascot origin stories, the nickname “Anteaters” involved a student vote.

Some of the other options on the ballot?

Bison. Seahawks. Centaurs. Toros. Roadrunners. “None of these.”

But the more interesting aspect to the school’s nickname and mascot is how “Anteaters” ended up on the ballot in the first place.

Water polo players Pat Glasgow and Bob Ernst, who were on UC Irvine’s first water polo team, are credited as the students who proposed the nickname after – as one version of the story goes – they had taken a liking to an anteater in a comic called “B.C.” designed by Johnny Hart, according to UC Irvine’s website. “B.C.” features caveman-type characters, along with dinosaurs, ants, and yes, an anteater, among other animals. It is still in circulation today, although thanks to the drawing of Mason Mastroianni, after Hart’s death in 2007.

A UC Irvine-themed anteater, drawn by Hart, is shown below.

A blog published on UC Irvine’s libraries website presents a slightly different story, saying that Glasgow thought of a potential anteater mascot “as he sat in the sun, working as a Newport Beach lifeguard” in the summer of 1965. “It wasn’t an epiphany,” Glasgow said later, according to the school. “I just had a thought – Irvine Anteaters. It just rolled off the tongue.”

NCAA.com spoke with Audra Eagle Yun, Head of Special Collections & Archives at UC Irvine. “Well, it’s a little bit mixed because the different interviews they’ve had with the students who kind of pushed for it, apparently one of them was a lifeguard and it kind of just came to him,” Yun said. “He didn’t know why, but it was probably from the comic strip and ultimately, that was the image that they started pushing.”

“That was the only popular representation of the anteater in that time,” she said. “It was a very popular comic strip at the time.”

That fall, Glasgow and fellow dorm residents Schuyler Bassett, and Bob and Bill Coleman, handed out anteater buttons, including one design based off of the Playboy logo (shown below), and started “B.C.”-inspired cheers, such as the following: “Give ’em the tongue, give ’em the tongue, give ’em the tongue, where? Right in the ear, right in the ear, right in the ear, Zot!”

Ernst and Glasgow, along with the “creative marketing genius of fellow student Schuyler Hadley Bassett,” campaigned for the Anteater on campus, according to the university. During move-in day at their dormitory, Glasgow and Ernst reportedly welcomed all the students and campaigned for the Anteater mascot, saying things like, “You know what the mascot is don’t you? An Anteater. You better believe it.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, there was an informal student poll during the all-university dance in October 1965 and Anteaters won.

UC Irvine’s athletic director at the time, Wayne Crawford, told the Los Angeles Times, “I liked Seahawks and one other, Bearacudas [sic].”

Renderings were made for several mascot options. Here’s the sketch of mascot for “Explorers,” courtesy of the UC Irvine Libraries.

“Selecting your mascot means a lot more than meets the eye,” Crawford said. “For one thing, it should be something that will not become an object of derision. I heard one suggestion for the name ‘Anteaters.’ You can imagine what would happen to that. Newspaper headlines have to shorten everything, so you have to be careful from that standpoint.

“Radio and television announcers don’t like to get tangled up on tricky pronunciations. Finally, your mascot must lend itself to a good rousing cheer.”

However, Crawford told the Los Angeles Times to not bet on his favorite candidates – Seahawks and Bearacudas. Crawford had been the athletic director at UC Riverside when the university chose “Highlanders,” even though Crawford like “Bearcats.”

Soon after the informal poll, UC Irvine’s administration “aired its disapproval,” according to the Los Angeles Times, which only emboldened the pro-Anteaters students.

“While the final selection has the potential of either making or breaking the university image, there are no guidelines to direct the students as they meditate upon their prospective mascot,” the L.A. Times reported.

At UC Irvine water polo matches, where Ernst and Glasgow played for the university, students chanted “Zot!” – a sound that the Los Angeles Times noted was the sound of the anteater’s tongue in the comic strip. “Students expect ‘Zot’ to be carried on into basketball and be shouted when Irvine gets the ball and repeated, ‘Zot, zot, zot’  as the team peppers the basket,” the Los Angeles Times reported on Oct. 24, 1965. Sports Illustrated referenced UC Irvine’s new cheer in an issue published on Nov. 8, 1965, helping the Anteaters go mainstream.

Today, the campus email is called “Zotmail” and there’s a chain of convenience stores called “Zot ‘n Go.”

Thanks to a student vote on Nov. 30, 1965, “Anteaters” officially became UC Irvine’s nickname, receiving 559 of 998 votes, or 56 percent. It needed 51 percent to win.

It may come as a surprise that the second-leading vote-getter was “None of these” with 121 votes.

“The election confirmed what most everybody had suspected for weeks – that ‘Anteaters’ would win,” the Los Angeles Times reported, however a 1989 Los Angeles Times story called it “a rigged election.”

“No,” Yun said, laughing, when asked if she has heard anything about some election day shenanigans. “But the circumstances of the vote, right, who conducted it and things like that, that’s not clear to me. I can’t say one way or the other whether that was a situation or not.”

The following story was published in the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 30, 1965. “At long last, UC Irvine has made one of the most momentous decisions of its young life,” the Times reported.

Even after the nickname became official, there was still push-back against it. A United Press International newspaper write story editorialized that it was a “nickname that would dismay any coach.” The story also called names like Centaurs and Seahawks “more conventional choices.”

Crawford, UC Irvine’s athletic director, told the UPI: “Actually, I’m not too much in favor of it, and I’m skeptical about the name as a permanent thing.”

Well, 55 years later, Anteaters appears to be pretty permanent. “A mascot can either be an asset or a liability,” Herrman, the former marketing director, told the Los Angeles Times. “We think there’s no end to the things we can do with our anteater. It’s an affectionate character. Everyone loves it. No one has yelled, ‘Stop it with the anteaters already.'”

Years later, Glasgow, who’s credited with originally proposing the mascot, said, “I hope people enjoy the uniqueness of the Anteater. It wasn’t done in jest or to make fun of the university system, it was just an antihero of the time.”

Why didn’t UC Irvine take after other UC system schools that had bear mascots?

A few schools in the University of California system have bear-related nicknames, namely University of California-Berkeley (the Golden Bears) and UCLA (the Bruins).

“I was at the beach thinking about how we were going to be UCI’s charter students and how we needed a mascot,” Glasgow told the school years later. “It was the ’60s. I was part of a generation that questioned everything. So I wasn’t thinking about a traditional mascot, like Tommy the Trojan or a bear.”

Yun, the Head of Special Collections & Archives at UC Irvine, told NCAA.com, “It seems pretty clear that there were some higher-ups – it’s unclear which ones – who wanted it to be a bear. The tradition in the University of California [system]was some version of the bear, just to kind of follow suit with Berkeley.”

However, neither UC Irvine nor UC Santa Cruz, which were founded in the same year, followed Berkeley’s footsteps, or paw prints. “So, very similar story there with students trying to say, ‘We’re not going to be just like anybody else,'” Yun said.

The decision to chart a new course in the naming of the university’s mascot – unique both in the University of California system and nationally – may have been a reflection of the sociopolitical climate on UC Irvine’s campus in the ’60s.

“It almost seems to run along the narrative of ‘the students were more independent-minded,'” Yun said, “because they were willing to be a part of something that had just started and why not give yourself a name that no one else has.”

“My understand of what it was like, having spent some time with some of the alumni,” Yun said, “was it was a quiet place, that there wasn’t a lot to do and there was a very wind-swept landscape. There were, what, eight or nine buildings and this was the excitement. That and sports. We didn’t have any of the – of course – technology that we have today, the ability to get around. Most of them recollect their friends being like ‘Where’s Irvine? What is that?'”

“I’m sure they were politically engaged and didn’t take themselves too seriously as being driven by the state government or the university’s priorities.”

What does the Anteater mascot look like?

UC Irvine’s Anteater mascot is named Peter. Peter the Anteater.

However, the Los Angeles Times story published on on Aug. 10, 1989 reported that “Peter has suffered from species confusion over the years, often appearing as a lesser anteater with a ratlike tail and threatening claws, sometimes as a tree-hanging, two-toed anteater and, occasionally, as a common aardvark.”

“Johnny Hart made him look somewhere between an aardvark and an anteater,” Yun said. “Students, and most people in the United States, I would say, don’t know the difference.”

To remedy the confusion around the mascot’s identity and appearance, UC Irvine enlisted the help of a new marketing director, Carl Herrman, who had previously designed a mascot for Syracuse, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“I was infatuated by the anteater,” Herrman said. “But we were using so many different types on T-shirts, ads, and other items that he didn’t have a clear identity.”

To improve the mascot’s look and to clear up any confusion, Herrman embarked on a $3,000 campaign in which he went to zoos in San Diego, Santa Barbara and the state of Washington to observe anteaters, and UC Irvine enlisted the help of a graphics firm, that drew more than 200 anteater designs.

The following was published in the Los Angeles Times, when the Anteater was redesigned to be standing up on two feet like a human, wearing shorts and shoes, and looking athletic. “Peter no longer spends all his time on all fours like a dog,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “Gone are the talons, the oversized ears and the humpback.”

Instead, depictions of Peter the Anteater showed him sailing or playing water polo or soccer. He often exhibited a stereotypical California persona, complete with sunglasses and sandals.

“You can see that Athletics has changed the way that Peter looks to be more of a muscular kind of creature,” Yun said.  “I would say some of the early ones, it was like a lanky,  almost like a horse standing up kind of thing, and now it’s a very buff guy. I think it has to do with the marketing of the basketball team. I think as their standing has risen, you want a mascot that is keeping up with the stature and visual cues of someone who’s going to fight.

“I will say that does come up in the early years of the students – Schuyler, Bob and Bill, and Pat – they were saying, ‘An anteater won’t fight unless someone brings  a fight to it,’ you know, if it’s in a corner.”

In 2015, Peter the Anteater won Mashable’s Mascot March Madness bracket, beating Maryland’s Testudo the Turtle in the championship.

Hart, the creator of the “B.C.” comic, never visited UC Irvine’s campus, according to the school, whose website says, “he was thrilled when asked if the university could use his anteater as a mascot model, says his daughter Patti Pomeroy.”

“I was only about 10 at the time, but I remember it was kind of a big deal,” Pomeroy told UCI. “My mother cut out all the newspaper articles about the mascot and put them in a scrapbook. Dad was always really proud of it.”

Today, Hart’s grandson Mason Mastroianni, who’s the son of Pomeroy, is the artist behind the “B.C.” comic. “Peter’s gotten pretty buff, compared to the anteater that my father drew,” Pomeroy told the school. “It’s been quite a progression.”

“My favorite story is knowing that Johnny Hart  loved that we loved his anteater,” Yun said. “The fact that this artist who never came to UCI knew that the students stole his work and was like, ‘That’s great.’ And that later, much later, this was just a couple years ago, we officially asked, ‘Do we have your permission to use your artwork?’ and his family – his grandson now does his artwork for “B.C.,” it’s continued to this day – and the family was just honored.

“That’s just one of my favorite stories, the fact that bridge between Johnny Hart as an artist, seeing that the students grabbed onto his work in this really awkward, weird thing, and then he  sent a piece of artwork to UCI and said, ‘Zot, zot.'”

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