From the Archives: Floating Lion
Artist Larry Krezo ’67 A&A illustrated the magic of our mascot for this September/October 1977 cover story on those who’ve donned the Nittany Lion suit, which we’re sharing from our archives.
Penn State’s Nittany Lion, most ferocious and loveable of college beasts, is approaching 70 but showing no signs of the infirmities of age. In fact, he’s not just getting older, he’s getting better.
When Richards Hoffman ’23 Sci was the first to personify this symbol of athletic superiority, crowds didn’t demand a pushup for every point scored, nor did they expect to see their mascot tossed into the atmosphere by exuberant cheerleaders snapping a blanket. Hoffman did, however, exhibit a talent no mascot since has accomplished: He had a spectacular voice and actually roared at ball games. In fact, it was his roaring success as the feline in the Players’ production Androcles and the Lion that inspired an athletic official to offer him the job as Penn State’s first Nittany Lion.
Nineteen years earlier the Nittany Lion had been invented—in pique and on the spur of the moment—by third baseman H.D. “Joe” Mason 1907, 1913 MS EMS on a trip to play baseball at Princeton. Not to be outdone by sophomore tour guides boasting of their emblem, the Princeton Tiger, “fiercest beast of them all,” Mason quipped, “Well, up at Penn State we have Mount Nittany right on our campus, where rules the Nittany Mountain Lion, who has never been beaten in a fair fight. So, Princeton Tiger, look out!”
Mason didn’t take his own declaration seriously enough to campaign for it until he was a senior in 1907 and editing the satirical pamphlet The Lemon, which aimed “streams of astringent juice at those things in and about the college that, in the eyes of undergraduates, need betterment or abolishment.” Mason’s editorial advocating a mascot asked, “Why not for State College, our college, the best in all the menagerie of college pets? Our college is the best of all. Then why not select for ours, the King of Beasts, the Lion!” His proposal stirred enthusiasm, and in 1908 the name was attached to all Penn State athletic teams.
Mason had also suggested erecting a statue of State’s “guardian spirit,” and predicted that by 1937 one would stand in the center of a fountain on front campus. He was only five years and about a quarter of a mile off target. In 1942 he was invited to campus for the dedication of the Nittany Lion Shrine, commissioned by the Class of 1940, sculpted by the famed Heinz Warneke, and located between Rec Hall and the then New Beaver Field.
Although Mason had not suggested that a student stuff himself into a furry suit and cavort as the Lion personified, that’s what Dick Hoffman did for the Penn State-Syracuse football game at the Polo Grounds in New York on Oct. 28, 1922. But Hoffman’s costume was of the maned African variety, also used by his successor, Leon Skinner ’27 Agr, ’33 MA Lib, until head coach Hugo Bezdek, outraged over four consecutive losses, ordered the fierce beast banished, charging, “Every time that goddamned Lion was on the field, State lost!”
The African vs. Mountain species controversy has been waged off and on, ignited most recently when the furrier created a maned jungle head for Lion Andy Bailey ’77 Sci. Bailey said of the ferocious face, beady eyes and sharp teeth: “I hated it! The Lion is supposed to be comical and this wasn’t. I mean, you can do all sorts of crazy things, but it won’t come across with people looking at that face. The alumni didn’t like it, and I felt it was my responsibility to have it changed to what it should be.”
Through the years, the Nittany Lion has come to be something more than an athletic symbol. With a few exceptions, Lion lore was fairly skimpy in Penn State’s archives until recent years. There are clippings of numerous fund drives to replace tattered Lion suits—with price tags exceeding $500. There also is notice of Alex Gregal ’54 Agr receiving a special ‘S’ for three years’ service as mascot, followed by Al Klimcke ’57 Lib, who did equal time in the suit. And The Collegian carried a front-page story in its Dec. 3, 1958, edition telling of John Behler ’60 Edu, soon to be released from the University’s hospital after lying face-down for several days to mend damage inflicted in a “vicious bout” with Pitt’s Panther on Thanksgiving day (complicated by a posterior landing on an icy pavement a few days later). Collegian also revealed the identity of Lion Marty Serota ’67 Lib, who had served anonymously for two years because he didn’t think the Lion should ever be caught without his head.
Today’s enthusiasts credit Bob Welsh ’75 Bus with developing the mascot into a personality many consider to be the country’s best-loved college pet. Bailey increased the Lion’s public appearances both on and off campus, and the newest Lion, Cliff Fiscus ’78 Eng, plans to add dimension by developing more stunts and finding new places to go.
When junior Jacquelyn Bonomo ’79 Lib interviewed Fiscus for an English writing assignment last spring, he told her that during winter term his interest in the Lion had become an obsession, and after tryouts he said, “I was so nervous I started hearing things. I actually heard the phone ringing when it wasn’t.”
The phone finally did ring—while he was at home in the Northeast for the weekend. Fiscus said, “I was speechless. I told my mom; she started to cry. I told my aunt; she started to cry.” Mother’s not crying now. She’s too busy stitching a lion suit for his little brother, who may make it into some of this fall’s pre-game skits.
How does Fiscus feel about being an ambassador of goodwill?
“I love putting on the suit and going out to just make people laugh,” he told Bonomo, adding that at the Special Olympics for handicapped children “the looks on some of those kids’ faces were so loving and excited. They all wanted to shake my hand or get my autograph. I thought I would cry during the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’”
In the few weeks between his selection and spring term’s end, he not only attended athletic events but also took part in a charity regatta, a bikeathon, Gentle Thursday, Delta Chi’s ice-cream eating contest, Picture Day and banquets, and then offered his services to both the American Cancer Society and the Easter Seals Society. One day he donned the Lion suit and went to the HUB lawn just to talk to sunbathing students, because he believes the Lion should talk to people.
Fiscus admits to being nervous before most events, so he dresses a little early and loosens up by mingling with the crowd to talk and shake hands. He calls spontaneity the key to success while performing, explaining:
“I always have to be thinking about what the crowd is going to want to see. Most don’t want to see the Lion just standing around clapping his hands. At a fencing match, I challenged one of the guys to a duel. I started chasing him around the gym and it got to be pretty funny. At the ice-cream eating contest—I really hadn’t planned on participating because I honestly don’t like ice cream—I sat down and ate seven scoops because I thought the kids would like it. I almost won!”
Like Bailey before him, Fiscus feels a definite distinction “between Fiscus and the Lion,” but says he doesn’t feel any loss of identity in managing two personalities.
He may be a celebrity under the suit, but he has the same problems and desires as the average student: He wasn’t certain he could get football tickets for his parents to watch him perform; and he confides, “I had to sneak away for a second on Picture Day because I wanted to have my picture taken with Joe Paterno.”