Football began at The University of Arizona in 1899 under the nickname “Varsity.” This name lasted until the 1914 season when the team was re-named the “Wildcats.” For several years, from 1915 into the 1950s, the team had real live bobcats (!) as their mascot. In 1959 the real bobcats were out and in came humans in Wildcat costumes.
First U of A football team, 1899
Now, the Wildcats is a great name for a sports team, and the wildcat mascot is certainly appropriate. But a wildcat is not a bear and a bear is not a wildcat so why the U of A slogan, “Bear Down?”
Early U of A football practice
In 1926, John “Button” Salmon was the student body president as well as the starting quarterback for the wildcat football team. An all-around athlete, Salmon was also the catcher for the university baseball team. The day after the first game of the 1926 football season, Salmon and two of his friends were in a car which ran off the highway and flipped over in a ravine near Florence, Arizona. Salmon’s friends escaped without injury, but Salmon suffered a severe spinal cord injury. After the accident, U of A football coach Pop McKale visited him in the hospital every day. During McKale’s last visit, Salmon’s last message to his teammates was, “Tell them.. tell the team to bear down.” John Salmon soon died on October 18, 1926. Before the next football game against the Aggies of New Mexico State, McKale told the team what their quarterback had said. The U of A won that game in a hard-fought victory, 7-0.
Bear Down Arizona!
The following year, in 1927, the University of Arizona student body adopted the slogan for use with all Wildcat athletic teams. That year, the Chain Gang, a junior honorary organization at the UA, held a dance in the newly constructed university gymnasium to raise funds to paint the slogan on the roof of the gymnasium. The words are still featured on the roof, now known as Bear Down Gym. On the U of A Lowell-Stevens football facility a bust of Salmon was erected. It is said that Arizona football players pass and touch the bust as a show of tribute before every home game.
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John Salmon bust on the University campus
Carol Fenn 9-2017