Viva la bearcat! The most wonderfully bizarre mascots of the NCAA

Mar 21, 2014

The Madness of March has officially commenced, bringing along its usual mix of bracket trash talk, early upsets, and billion-dollar promises.

And, of course, mascots.

For Michigan fans, March Madness has brought out our usual suspects: the Wolverines, the Spartans, and, for a fleeting moment, the Broncos.

And while many (including the president) think that the Great Lakes State has some winning teams, on a mascot level, we sure don’t compete.

The St. Louis Billikens? The Tulsa Golden Hurricane? And what in the name of all things sports is a Bearcat?

So here it is, in all its glory — a glimpse of some of the mascot heroes of this year’s  March Madness.

How a vaguely scary good-luck charm became a fifth-seeded mascot

Last night, the St. Louis Billikens beat out the the North Carolina Wolfpack.

And while the Wolfpack may be one awesome team name, the Billikens might just have them beat mascot-wise too.

So what exactly is a Billiken? Even SLU students don’t always know the answer:

Well, for one thing, it looks like this:

A billiken statue on the St. Louis University campus.
A billiken statue on the St. Louis University campus.
Credit Wikipedia / Wikipedia

Here’s the story: Back in 1908, an art teacher in Kansas City woke up from a dream (read: nightmare) starring an “elflike creature with pixie ears, a mischievous smile and a tuft of hair on his pointed head.”

Not long after, the teacher patented her (kind of terrifying?) creature, who soon became a short-lived symbol for good luck.

According to the St. Louis Athletic Department, Billikenmania led to international fame: “Artisans in Alaska began carving his image into ivory, and in Japan, he appeared in shrines, amusement parks and even a movie.”

And according to SLU campus folklore, the Billiken looked a whole lot like John Bender, the coach of the football team (poor Bender).

Soon after, the team became known as “Bender’s Billikens.”

And the name stuck.

The Bearcat is a real animal. And it smells like popcorn.

On Thursday, the 12th-seeded Harvard Crimson knocked out fifth-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats.

And when you consider the story of the Bearcats, that’s kind of a shame.

First things first — the bearcat is no zoological, sci-fi concoction. It’s a real animal.  

But when the bearcat became the mascot for the the University of Cincinnati, it had nothing to do with the real bearcat (we’ll get back to what the bearcat looks like — and smells like — in a minute).

On Halloween 1914, Cincinnati was pitted against the University of Kentucky Wildcats in a football game.

Back then, Cincinnati had no mascot. In fact, having a mascot at all back then was uncommon.

But according to UC, that changed when the Wildcats came to town.

The Wildcats were a formidable team and UC was struggling. During the second half of the game, cheerleader Norman "Pat" Lyon, building on the efforts of fullback Leonard K. "Teddy" Baehr, created a new chant: "They may be Wildcats, but we have a Baehr-cat on our side."

The Baehr-cats won, and the name stuck for a few years. But after Baehr graduated, the moniker fell out of use.

Until a few years later, when the Cincinnati Enquirer covered a UC game and called the team “the Bearcats.”

So what about the real animal? A native to Southeast Asia, the bearcat — also known as the binturon — is a six-foot-long cat that’s “half body, half tail.” And according to Northwest Missouri State University — who also uses the bearcat as its mascot —  they smell like popcorn.

“One amazing feature of the binturong is a popcorn-like aroma, which comes from a scent gland near its tail.”

In 2008, the Cincinnati Zoo adopted Lucy the Bearcat. Now Lucy makes regular appearances at UC games.

And it is adorable.

Look closely and you'll see Lucy the Bearcat saying hello to Monica Rimai, UC's interim president.
Look closely and you'll see Lucy the Bearcat saying hello to Monica Rimai, UC's interim president.
Credit University of Cincinnati

Brother Jasper FTW!

So there are teams named after cats that aren’t bears and good-luck charms.

But what about men of the cloth?

Enter Brother Jasper, the inspiration for Manhattan College’s Jaspers.

According to the college’s website, Brother Jasper kept pretty busy back when he was on campus in the late 19th-century.

“During years at Manhattan, he founded the school's first band, orchestra, glee club, various literary clubs, and became the school's first athletic director.”

His involvement at the school inspired a new team name. From the Wall Street Journal:

The nickname apparently originated with the college's baseball team in the late 1800s, which O'Donnell understands first came to be called "Brother Jasper's Boys," a nod to the team's first coach.

As if being the origin for a team name wasn’t enough, Brother Jasper may have also coined “seventh-inning stretch.”

From Manhattan College’s website:

During one particularly hot day, Br. Jasper noticed the students were becoming restless during the seventh inning of a close game. To relieve the tension, Br. Jasper called time-out and told the students to stand up and stretch for a few minutes until the game resumed.

Since Manhattan College annually played the New York Giants baseball team in the late 1880s and into the 1890s at the Polo Grounds, the Manhattan College practice of the “seventh inning stretch” spread into the major leagues.

Of course, depending on who you ask, the origins of the “seventh-inning stretch” are disputed. But any guy who knows the value of mid-game break is a-OK in our book.

Of course, there's still more mascot oddities out there. Let us know what your favorites are!

- Melanie Kruvelis, Michigan Radio Newsroom