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Andy Wittry | | July 10, 2022

Here's the true story about how Youngstown State got the nickname 'Penguins'

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All wild penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere of Earth and they spend up to 80 percent of their lives in the ocean, according to Live Science, which begs the question: How in the world did Youngstown State University, located in Youngstown, Ohio, adopt the moniker as its mascot and nickname?

Here's the complete, (we think) true story behind the nickname of the Youngstown State Penguins.

Do any other schools have the nickname 'Penguins'?

Just like how the idea of a penguin in the Northern Hemisphere is unique, so is Youngstown State's nickname. The university is the only NCAA Division I school with a penguin mascot and the nickname of "Penguins."

What was Youngstown State called before the 'Penguins'?

Youngstown State's previous nickname wasn't nearly as cool-sounding. The school's sports teams were informally referred to as the "Locals," according to the school. Other nicknames for the university included "Y" College, YoCo and Wye Collegians.

When did Youngstown State get the nickname 'Penguins'?

There are reportedly two competing stories for how the university adopted the nickname and they both reportedly started on the same night, according to Youngstown State Athletics' website: Jan. 30, 1933.

The first and most widely accepted origin story says that when Youngstown State was playing on the road against West Liberty State Teachers College in men's basketball on a cold night in West Liberty, West Virginia, where either the opposing head coach or a fan in attendance (there are conflicting stories) saw the way players "stomp(ed) on the floor and swing their arms" in a manner similar to penguins. The Jambar, Youngstown State's students newspaper, reported in a story published in 2017 that the bus used to transport the team to the game wasn't heated and "by the time that they got there, they were frozen stiff."

“They got into the locker room and it was unheated,” Youngstown State alum and Library Operations Supervisor Brian Brennan told The Jambar. “They suited up and went out to the court and they were jumping around trying to keep warm.”

The school didn't have an official nickname at that point in time and the nickname "Penguins" reportedly gained popularity among the fan base.

Here's the other origin story for the school's nickname, which once again, reportedly happened on the same night. The town of West Liberty, West Virginia, reportedly received between one and two feet of snow on Jan. 30, 1933, and during the snowy drive to the game, some fans were discussing potential nicknames for the team. Someone suggested "Penguins" and it was reportedly well-received and once the car arrived at West Liberty, its occupants suggested it to others in the gym, where it also received support.

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However, neither of those stories are true. Well, not completely true, because at the very least, they didn't happen on the day that some Youngstown State lore says they happened — Jan. 30, 1933.

Youngstown State didn't play at West Liberty State on Jan. 30, 1933. In fact, the school didn't even have a game that night, according to its men's basketball record book.

However, Youngstown State did play at West Liberty State on Feb. 9, 1933. There's even newspaper archives to back it up. Youngstown State's William F. Maag, Jr. Library cites Feb. 8, 1933 as the day of the game when the penguin nickname started.

"We went back because one of the committees on campus asked us what was Pete's birthday," said Cassie Nespor, a curator at the Melnick Medical Museum and University Archives at Youngstown State. "Pete's the name of the penguin and we were like, 'I don't even know what that question is,' you know? Pete's not a real thing. He's just, you know, a mascot and when was he born was like a crazy question, so we in the archives went back and looked at the basketball team's schedule using the student newspaper about the report of when they were playing, where they were going."

The following AP recap was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after West Liberty State's 33-28 win in Feb. 1933.

Could the rest of the story around how Youngstown State adopted the "Penguins" nickname be true, just that over time, the wrong date has been used?

Well, maybe.

"It's very possible — we didn't actually go back and check the weather reports for that day — that it was very cold and the locker room was unheated and so when they got into the gym they were very cold," Nespor said. "We've seen pictures of their uniforms, you know they're sleeveless with shorts and their little, like, canvas Converse shoes that they played in. I don't think they gave them warmups or anything. They barely had uniforms."

An Associated Press story published Feb. 9, 1933, the actual date of Youngstown State's road game at West Liberty State, reads, "Points in West Virginia reported heavy snow and temperatures as low as six above zero. At Morgantown, West Virginia, more than an inch of snow fell in a single hour this afternoon. Roads in that section were reported open but very slippery."

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So that part of the story potentially holds up.

"By the end of that school year, the nickname was unanimously accepted by the student body without the necessity of a formal polling vote," according to Youngstown State's website. "Plans were then made to introduce the new name during the 1933-34 basketball season."

"The name stuck," according to Youngstown State's William F. Maag, Jr. Library, "but would not become official until the first football team was formed in 1938."

"It seems like the students didn't really care about having an official mascot until they got a football team," Nespor said. "Football didn't start until 1938 here. The students were petitioning for a football team for a long time but football teams are way more expensive than a little basketball team and so it was a while before the school allowed them to have a football team and it was only when the football team was approved that they really cared about having a mascot. They did a student poll to see what they wanted to call the football team and that's when it became apparent that the students were actually pretty set on this penguin remark that had happened five years ago for the basketball team."

The year after that, in 1939, Youngstown State introduced the first of three live penguin mascots. The original penguin was brought to the country by Antarctic explorer  Richard Byrd, according to the Maag Library, and the Mahoning County Natural Resources Board spent $150 to buy the penguin, named Pete, for the school.

After Pete's untimely death, "Students donated $200 to purchase Youngstown College’s second live mascot," according to the Maag Library. "Pete II came with a mate, which students named Patricia. They lived in the basement of Jones Hall and stayed at the Cleveland Zoo during the summer."

There's a mystery surrounding Pete I.

"The first Pete, he died in 1941," Nespor said. "He wasn't around but two years, 1939 to 1941, and somebody supposedly retrieved him from the pond where he drowned and they stuffed him and then he was sitting on the President's desk, taxidermied Pete for a while and then he disappeared. The rumor is that he was stolen by some students and never returned, and so we're not sure what happened to that taxidermied first Pete. We'd really like to have him in the Archives, but I feel like he's still out there somewhere. You know, some alumnus just has him in his dining room or something, and we would like him back."

Youngstown State's costumed mascot wasn't introduced until 1965, when Vic Rubenstein wore a tuxedo with a penguin mascot. The athletic department bought a full penguin costume two decades later, and in 1986 Pete Penguin was married to Penny Penguin — the school's female penguin mascot that it added.

"Pete is married, which I think is unusual," said Nespor, when asked for her favorite Youngstown State mascot story or legend. "That's kind of, um, weird. ... The original cheerleaders that were inside the mascot costumes in 1986 were talking and they said that they just got the idea for Pete getting married out of the blue. They needed something to do for the homecoming game and they had this crazy idea and so that's how we got Penny, out of this little idea the cheerleaders had for a homecoming game."

"Another mascot from Akron University, Zippy — I believe he's a kangaroo — came to the wedding in 1986," Nespor said.

When was "Penguins" first officially used in publications?

The first use of "Penguins" in The Jambar, the student newspaper on Youngstown State's campus, was on Dec. 15, 1933 after the school had played Slippery Rock in men's basketball, according to the school. The local Youngstown Telegram first used it in a headline on Dec. 29, 1933 and The Vindicator's first use was the next month, on  Jan. 27, 1934.

Using the database, the earliest printed reference to "Youngstown State Penguins" that was able to find was on Sept. 23, 1967 in an Associated Press story following a football game against Central Michigan.

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