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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | October 30, 2020

How Vermont got the nickname Catamounts

Vermont Athletics The Vermont Catamount.

NCAA.com has previously taken college sports fans down the rabbit hole behind how some of the country's most beloved college mascots came to be. I've found that Yale's living, breathing bulldog mascot Handsome Dan wasn't the first real-life bulldog the school had. Handsome Dan I started a lineage that now stretches to Handsome Dan XVIII.

As unlikely as it sounds, Youngstown State is nicknamed the Penguins because of a remark an opposing basketball coach reportedly made five years before there was a student poll to decide the school's mascot. The stories behind the mascots at Alabama, Arizona, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest are all compelling, too.

Next up is Vermont and how it adopted the nickname Catamounts. Here's everything we know about that story, which stretches back to 1926.

What is a catamount?

By definition, a catamount is "any of various wild cats," such as a cougar or a lynx.

It's alright if you didn't know that, though. In a story published in The Boston Globe in March 1990, the newspaper talked to the Vermont student who wore the mascot costume at an NCAA tournament game, then reported "yes, a catamount, we now know from Charlie Catamount himself, is a mountain cat."

Do any other schools have the nickname 'Catamounts'?

There's one other NCAA Division I school with the nickname "Catamounts." Can you name it?

It's Western Carolina.

When did Vermont get the nickname 'Catamounts'?

On Feb. 6, 1926, the Vermont Cynic (the school's independent newspaper) asked Vermont students in a poll not only what they wanted their school's mascot to be, but whether they wanted a mascot at all, according to Vermont Quarterly. As NCAA.com's series on mascot origin stories has shown, student polls to decide on a mascot were quite common in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

UC Irvine and Southern Illinois also had student votes before settling on Anteaters and Salukis, respectively.

Vermont's ballot reportedly featured options including:

  • Lynx
  • Wildcat
  • Other
  • No mascot

However, there was little student participation in the vote. That led to a second vote in 1926 — sometime in mid-May —  where students voted on four options: camel, catamount, cow and tomcat. "Catamounts" narrowly won, 138-126.

"By a vote of the students at the University recently, the catamount (whatever that is) was chosen as the mascot of the institution," wrote the Burlington Daily News' Louis Fenner Dow. "The lynx received a number of votes and was in fact the only other animal to give the catamount a run for its money. If the hare had been up for election or even a fleet footed gazelle, the catamount might have been forced to exert itself but as it was, its nearest competitor was the lynx who may or may not be a good runner."

Was there ever a living catamount mascot?

There was! Charles I, also known as "Rink," was the first and only living mascot in Vermont's history.

"The young puma summered with the Leggetts on their houseboat moored off of Burton Island State Park, developed a taste for corn on the cob, and got accustomed to travel in a specially fitted VW bus," according to Vermont Quarterly.

Robert "Tiny" Leggett, one of the two owners of "Rink," along with his wife Nancy, wrote that “as long as we called him a puma or a catamount, everything was fine. But refer to him as a mountain lion or cougar, and many of his ‘fans’ would head for the hills.”

Below is an excerpt from The Burlington Free Press on March 11, 1969, when Rink turned one-year-old. "He should reach at least 180 pounds when fully grown, which will be in a year and a half," the newspaper reported. By October 1970, he weighed 150 pounds, according to The Burlington Free Press.

In January 1969, The Burlington Free Press reported that the Leggetts planned to donate Rink to the Granby Zoo in Canada.

In March 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the catamount was extinct, according to a story published in The Burlington Free Press, "confirming a widely held belief among wildlife biologists that native populations of the big cat were wiped out by man a century ago."

The newspaper added, "Researchers believe the Eastern cougar subspecies has probably been extinct since the 1930s. The creature lives on in lore and in places such as the nickname for the University of Vermont sports teams — the Catamounts."

The Burlinton Free Press The Burlinton Free Press.

What does the 'Catamount' mascot look like?

The Catamount mascot used represented by Charlie and Kitty Catamount — personas embodied by students who wore catamount suits. Charlie Catamount was created in the 1950s, followed by Kitty Catamount in the 1970s, according to the Vermont Quarterly.

The couple was officially "married" at a Vermont hockey game and they were retired in 2003, replaced with Rally Cat, a mascot that features sharp teeth, claws and fierce-looking eyes.

The Burlington Free Press The Burlington Free Press.

When was 'Catamounts' first officially used in publications?

Using the newspapers.com database, NCAA.com found the oldest search result for "Vermont Catamounts" was from May 13, 1926, in the Burlington Daily News. The headline read, "Catamount For Mascot; Bum Choice, Says Headwriter."

One of the concerns about the nickname published at the time was that it was too long of a word. Seriously. On reflection though, that does make sense. It's harder to fit that word into a single-column headline on a newspaper, the dominant media of the day.

"When all the headwriters start trying to get 'catamount' or 'Vermont catamount' into one line of a head they'll get so blamed mad when they find it won't fit that they'll throw the publicity in the basket," wrote the Burlington Daily News' Louis Fenner Dow, reciting a conversation he had with another newspaper writer.

The other writer had told him, "If they were going to use a long named animal why didn't they pick out something like rhinoceros or caterpillar or angleworm? Those would make good mascots, particularly the angleworm or the caterpillar. They're both natives of Vermont and then there'd be something distinctive about the name because everybody knows what a caterpillar is. Now there'll be a lot of questions about what is a catamount and who ever saw one and have you a little catamount in your home and how's your catamount today and the like of that. That'll be nice won't it?"

In the first football season after Vermont voted on its nickname, a story published in The Vermont Cynic on Sept. 24, 1926 called the team "Vermont Catamounts," including the quotation marks.

"When the 'Vermont Catamounts' face Syracuse this year they will be facing an entire veteran line-up," reported The Vermont Cynic.

A story published six days later in The Barre Daily Times of Barre, Vermont, the newspaper called the team the "Vermont 'Catamounts,'" so initially, news outlets may not have been totally sure of how to handle the school's newfound nickname.

 

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