Our Mascot, the Nittany Lion
Historical Notes about the Nittany Lion
Penn State is located in the Nittany Valley in the shadow of Mount
Nittany. The mascot is a mountain lion, an animal that became extinct
in that area about a quarter century after the university was founded
The name "Nittany" is said to be derived from Indian words
meaning "protective barrier against the elements". The
name is also attributed to a mythical Indian princess, "Nita-Nee",
who is said to have led her people into the safety of this central
Pennsylvania valley. When she died, the story goes, the mountain
arose overnight above her grave.
The Penn State Nittany Lions owe their name to Harrison D. "Joe" Mason,
a varsity baseball player of the Class of 1907. While at Princeton
for a game in 1904, he and his teammates were shown a statue of
a Bengal tiger as an indication of the fierce treatment they could
expect from the Princeton team. Mason is said to have replied that
the Penn State Nittany mountain lion was the "fiercest beast
of them all." Penn State won the game that day, and Mason
campaigned for adoption of the mascot back home, writing in the
student publication The Lemon,
"Every college the world over of any consequence has
a college emblem of some kind—all but The Pennsylvania State
College…Why not select for ours the king of beasts—the
Lion!! Dignified, courageous, magnificent, the Lion allegorically
represents all that our College Spirit should be, so why not 'the
Nittany Mountain Lion?' Why cannot State have a kingly, all-conquering
Lion as the eternal sentinel?"
The student body liked Mason's idea.
No official vote was ever taken on the adoption of the mascot, which
was almost universally agreed by students, faculty, and townspeople
to be an appropriate symbol. Two alabaster African lion statues, left
over from the Pennsylvania exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition,
were placed atop the columns at the main campus entrance on College
and Allen Streets in 1907. These were the first lion symbols—albeit
the wrong species—and students affectionately named them "Ma" and "Pa." In
the 1920s, a pair of stuffed mountain lions was placed in the Recreation
Building to watch over athletic events. About the same time came the
tradition of having a student dressed in a furry lion outfit appear
at football games.
About the Nittany Lion Shrine
the 1930s, students launched a campaign for a lion shrine, a place
where they could gather to hold pep rallies and celebrate sports victories
(and have their picture taken with Mom and Dad). The Class of 1940
voted to give as its gift to their alma mater the sum of $5,430 to
pay for the construction of such a shrine. A committee was formed and
after much deliberation chose a location between the Recreation Building
and Beaver Field, where the lion could be framed against a natural
setting of trees, grass, and shrubs. Sculptor Heinze Warnecke was retained
to carve the lion at the site, from a thirteen-ton block of limestone.
Warnecke worked through the summer of 1942 and finished the statue
in time for it to be dedicated at homecoming ceremonies on October
Since then, the Nittany Lion shrine has come to be one of the most visited,
photographed, and talked about places on the University Park Campus.
Moreover, the image of the Nittany Lion has been etched not only in
stone, but also in the memories of tens of thousands of Penn Staters.
Information courtesy of PSU Libraries.