Campus Life

'Fiercest beast of them all': The Nittany Lion

Penn State students in 1910 posing with an early, papier-mâché version of the Nittany Lion. Credit: Penn State University Archives / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Not much is known about this historic Penn State photo except that it seems to feature one of the earliest renditions of the Nittany Lion, created in papier-mâché, in 1910. It would have been only a few years after the school unofficially adopted the lion as its college symbol.

At a baseball game against Princeton in 1904, Harrison D. "Joe" Mason, class of 1907, and other members of Penn State’s team were shown a statue of Princeton's famous Bengal tiger as an indication of the merciless treatment they could expect to encounter on the field. Since Penn State lacked a mascot, Mason replied with an instant fabrication of the “dignified, courageous, magnificent … Nittany Mountain Lion ... fiercest beast of them all," who could overcome even the tiger.

Penn State went on to defeat Princeton that day. Over the next few years, Mason's "Nittany Lion" won such widespread support among students, alumni, and fans that there was never any official vote on its adoption.

The Nittany Lion is essentially an ordinary mountain lion -- also known as a cougar, puma or panther -- a creature that roamed central Pennsylvania until the 1880s (although unconfirmed sightings continued long after that time). By attaching the prefix "Nittany" to this beast, Mason gave Penn State a unique symbol that no other college or university could claim.

To this day, the lion endures -- as immortalized in the words of "The Nittany Lion," composed by Penn State Glee Club student James Leyden in the mid-1920s --

"Every college has a legend, passed on from year to year,To which they pledge allegiance, and always cherish dear.But of all the honored idols, there’s but one that stands the test,It’s the stately Nittany Lion, the symbol of our best."

Harrison D. "Joe" Mason, Penn State Class of 1907 Credit: Penn State University Archives / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated September 10, 2015