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All Over The Map: WSU mascots Squirt, Toodles, and Butch the Cougar

It’s been 100 years since what’s now Washington State University (then called “Washington State College”) in Pullman selected a cougar as the school’s official mascot.

WSU Cougar not welcome at Woodland Park Zoo

To mark this auspicious occasion, a new temporary exhibit about the history of the school’s previous mascots, as well as the various iterations of the Cougar over the past century, is on display at the Holland/Terrell Libraries on campus through Sunday, Nov. 3. The exhibit is called “Go Cougs!: The Evolution of the WSU Mascot.”

Mark O’English, an archivist with WSU’s Manuscripts, Archives & Special Collections, created the exhibit. In a wide-ranging phone conversation on Thursday, he demonstrated his mastery of Cougar mascot folklore, and that he’s a good sport.

Pullman Dogs (no, not those Dawgs)

“In the early days here at WSU, you generally see the teams called the ‘Farmers’ or the ‘Aggies,’ or one of my favorites is the ‘Potato Diggers.’ Not that we ever adopted those names officially; it was just what sportswriters used [informally]. As time went by, we did start getting mascots, but they’re more in the line of good luck charms. Again, the team wasn’t identified by them. There was a succession of small dogs here … Squirt, Billy and others. They would probably be just pets of players, quarterbacks, coaches — whatever that came along  — as good luck.”

Stealing Toodles the Bear

“Toodles is one of my favorite stories. In 1905, we went down to Oregon for a couple of games. It was a big deal to take a train ride back then, so we actually went down and we played a game at Willamette in Salem on Wednesday, and then another game on Saturday at Oregon State, and at the Saturday game we brought along one of our dogs, Squirt.”

“Friday night, someone at Oregon State stole our mascot. So our players were basically raiding the OSU campus trying to find our mascot, and somewhere on campus they found a small black bear named ‘Toodles’ that they stole. They dressed him up, apparently, in a crimson jacket, and paraded him on the field during the game. And then for some reason, on the train ride back to Pullman, they kept Toodles and they brought him back … and he stayed on campus for about three years as one of our mascots. We did get Squirt back. He came back with us on the train as well, which is what makes it seem strange to me. You’d think we should have given Toodles back in that case.”

Cougars maul the Golden Bears … and a mascot is born

By 1919 . . . [official] mascots were much more common, so there was kind of a push. They were holding contests on campus to decide ‘What mascot should we be?’ and I can actually find an article about two weeks before we became the Cougars listing a whole bunch of possible names which nobody really likes, which included the ‘Cougars.’”

“But on October 25, 1919 we went down to California. The team there already had an identity, the Golden Bears, and was very successful, and was expected to pretty much stomp us. And we managed to win fairly impressively. The story is that California sportswriters talked about [the upset victory] as a ‘cougar mauling the Golden Bears.’ [A few days later], there’s a student body meeting on October 28, and based on that story, pretty much, we became the ‘Cougars’ by acclamation of the student body.”

“At the following game on November 1, 1919 against the University of Idaho, we dragged out a big banner that says “Cougars” across it, and there were two little cougars on wheeled carts that are there as our first mascots. Two stuffed cougars, which I assume probably came from the science museum here on campus.”

Before ‘Butch’ the Cougar, ‘Roland’ the Cougar?

“In 1927, [Washington] Governor Roland Hartley gave a live cougar to campus, and the story is that the student body was so appreciative that they came together, whoever was making this decision, and said ‘Thank you, Governor Hartley, we really appreciate this, and in your honor, we’re going to name the cougar after you. We’re going to have ‘Roland the Cougar’ as our mascot.’”

“Governor Hartley was going to be up for re-election in a year or two, and I think he started seeing the problem with him being so strongly identified with Pullman and WSU, that the cougar is identified with him, and the election being about the same time as football season, it could probably cost him some Seattle votes. So he basically said, ‘Thank you. I really appreciate the honor, but wouldn’t it be better to name him after somebody closer to WSU?’”

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“And they went with Herbert ‘Butch’ Meeker, who was our quarterback at the time. Butch Meeker’s a guy who’s about five-foot-three, five-foot-two, somewhere in there, 135 pounds. He went off and played pro football after he graduated here, which kind of tells you of people were smaller then, but that kind of tells you how much of a tough son-of-a-gun guy he was. I’ve always loved that WSU, being the smaller school, is named after this really scrappy small quarterback who fought for everything he had to get. He was from Spokane and his father was a butcher, and he worked in the butcher shop. So that’s where he got the nickname ‘Butch.’”

When and where did the guy in a Cougar suit come from?

“The story was [that in 1978, after the final of several live cougar mascots named Butch died], the Rally Squad basically got together and built a handmade costume out of their own funds and that kind of showed up quietly. [The original costumed Butch] is effectively naked, so we kind of laugh at him a little bit today. He kind of looks funny compared to today’s costume, which is very professional looking, and which includes uniforms and other outfits.”

“But [the costumed Butch] actually shows up about two or three years before the final live cougar dies, and he gets no press, he’s just there. If he hadn’t shown up in a few photos in the Chinook [yearbook], I might have never known he existed. It takes until the final live cougar dies for [the costumed Butch] to really become the center of things. And, of course, he just grows over the years until today, he’s such a part of campus, it’s really hard to imagine our campus without the costumed ‘Butch’ mascot around.”

Where does the pejorative to ‘Coug It’ come from?

“It seems to have come from a Spokane sportswriter, a man named John Blanchette, and he’s still there today. There are arguments that this [phrase] existed before, and he just popularized it, but there was an October 26, 1985 game against Arizona State where we basically just controlled the game, demolished Arizona State, and then made a couple of really stupid errors that cost us the game.”

“The next day, Spokesman-Review sportswriter John Blanchette decided he was looking for ‘a word a phrase even to sum up this misbegotten football season at Washington State University.’ And ‘that word ‘to Coug, verb, intransitive,’ and a tradition was born.’ Yeah, I know. I kind of hate that myself. I’m actually of two minds, because at some level, this is us dealing with things with a sense of humor and claiming it a little bit as opposed to just suffering in silence. And to me, to ‘Coug’ something, you already have to have been doing great, and then something goes horribly awry at the end. So if you’re ‘Couging it,’ you’re already ahead of the game.”

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