Wildcat History Page


The origin of Northwestern's nickname, Wildcats, is well-known.  The name came from Wallace Abbey's famous 1924 Chicago Tribune article covering NU's close loss to the University of Chicago.  The team appreciated Abbey's description of Northwestern as having played like wildcats, and eventually made it their nickname and mascot.  Eventually, yes-- but when? 

Until recently, it was assumed that Northwestern became "The Wildcats" soon after Abbey's column appeared.  Northwestern, in its recent football media guides and programs, simply stated "from that day [the 1924 NU vs. Chicago game] on, all Northwestern athletic teams have borne the nickname of 'Wildcats.'"

However, at the end of 2011 the athletic department changed the story.  The copy provided for the 2011 Texas Bowl program included this new passage: "The football team didn't become the Wildcats until the 1930s, when they adopted that name from a newspaper article that ran a decade earlier."  This new version of the Wildcat history also appears on Northwestern's university website.

So, is this correct?  Just when did Northwestern (and others) begin calling its teams "Wildcats?" 

The answer, it turns out, is that NU began using Wildcats almost immediately after Abbey's original column, just as NU had claimed in its earlier programs and guides.  The Wildcat nickname was unoffical, but so was the Purple nickname that preceeded the Wildcats.

Starting in the 1890s, Northwestern's football team had been nicknamed "the Purple."   By the early 1920s students began looking for another nickname, one that would lend itself to a mascot for the team.  The university was also searching for a mascot, one that might bolster school spirit. 

In 1923, inspired by the new Chicago Bears football team, the school introduced a new bear mascot, called Furpaw.  Furpaw, a live bear cub from the Lincoln Park Zoo, made appearances at the team's games during the '23 season.  Unfortunately, NU had a losing season, the students wanted to find a different mascot, and Furpaw was returned to the zoo.

The Purple had been in a slump, but Coach Glen Thistlethwaite's efforts at rebuilding the team in 1923 were about to pay off.  Thistlethwaite was bringing in top-flight talent, including Ralph "Moon" Baker (a transfer halfback from Illinois).  Late in 1924, the team was 4-2, but faced Chicago and Notre Dame, the two best teams in the nation, to close the season.

Furpaw (wearing a Northwestern sweater) performs
at Northwestern Field   [Syllabus]

The Maroon was expected to trounce Northwestern, but the Purple held its own, keeping the game scoreless until Chicago made a late score.  Chicago won, 3-0, but NU's performance was stunning, and it led to Abbey's column:

Something more than ordinary wildcats are required to subdue wildcats gone completely vicious, entirely aroused, by the temptation of a great prize, a big, juicy piece of "meat."  Let us call that "meat" the Big Ten football championship and consider the following situation at Stagg Field yesterday afternoon, to which 32,000 hoarse fans will attest today:

It was the fourth quarter of the annual Chicago-Northwestern grid battle.  Football players had not come down from Evanston: wildcats would be a name better suited to Thistlethwaite's boys.  Baker was there, and he was the chief wildcat giving his supreme effort.

Stagg's boys, his pride, the eleven that had tied Illinois a week ago, were unable to score.  Once they had been on the 9 yard line and had been stopped stone dead by a Purple wall of wildcats. . . .
NU followed up that gritty performance by hanging close with Notre Dame, before bowing, 13 to 6.  NU hosted the game at "the Grant Park Bowl," the very first football game at Soldier Field.  Notre Dame had, perhaps, the most legendary team in the Irish's entire history, featuring the original Four Horsemen.  But the Purple gave Notre Dame the fight of the year.

Before the end of the 1924 season, the team was still called the Purple in the media, but the Wildcat description had already stuck: the very next edition of the school yearbook, The Syllabus, contained this mention of the '24 team:  "'Wildcats' was the name given to the Northwestern players by a newspaper writer for their great stand.  All of the Purple players showed high power on the offense, and wildcat determination on the defense."

The next edition of the Syllabus was even more explicit, dropping the "Purple" nickname from most references to the team, and describing how "70,000 spectators saw the Wildcats out-smart and out-play Michigan to a well-deserved 3-2 victory" in 1925.

The Chicago Tribune had also begun switching from Purple to Wildcats by the 1925 season, referring to NU captain Tim Lowry as "skipper of the Wildcats."

And Northwestern cheerleaders had begun, in 1925-- less than one year after Abbey's column appeared-- to use the "Wildcat Cheer" during football games:


There is also ample evidence that the school, by 1925, was using the Wildcats nickname for teams beside the football squad.  The 1925 Syllabus, referring to the men's basketball season in 1924-'25, stated, "In the closing half [of the NU - Chicago season finale] the Wildcats were determined not to lose this game by any fluke such as happened in the Chicago - N.U. football game.  They were bound to win, and win they did by a 17-16 count."

By the 1926 season, the transformation to Wildcats was complete.  Most references in the media were about the Wildcats, and NUMB was performing Donald Robertson's new NU fight song, "Wild Cats," on the field.  The 1926 Syllabus proclaimed, "The Wildcat Spirit of Northwestern is an Institution-- it's here to stay."  And NU was referring to its players as Wildcats in its game programs.

Even advertisers by 1926 were referring to the team as the Wildcats:

Print advertisement for Football! Game and Radio Board, 1926.
"Moon" refers to Ralph "Moon" Baker, "Tiny" to Leland "Tiny" Lewis

And the first graphic representations of the NU Wildcat began appearing around the same time...

...such as this 1927 program cover from the NU vs. Indiana game at Dyche Stadium.  It was also in 1927 that NU first gave the Wildcat a name: "Quacky" (referring to the university motto, "Quæcumque sunt vera"). 

The early depictions of the NU Wildcat, such as the one NU used in 1927, were more realistic than cartoonish, and that continued with the Wildcat version that was being used by 1933:

Also in 1933, Northwestern joined up with an ad firm to come up with a standard image to represent the Wildcat, and NU also settled on "Willie" as the Wildcat's name.  Starting in 1937, the NU Wildcat, Willie, was drawn in the more familiar cartoon fashion shown at the top of this page.

Willie the costumed mascot did not prowl the NU sidelines until 1947, but it is clear that the Northwestern sports teams, and the rest of the school, were actively (if unofficially) using the Wildcat nickname just weeks-- not years-- after 1924 and the fateful season that Wallace Abbey first bestowed it on the Purple.