Filed Under SHSU Mascots

The Faces of Sam Houston

The History of the Mascots of Sam Houston State University

As we all know, a mascot is used to represent a group. It can be an animal, a person, or even an object. A mascot is also a sign of good luck for teams. The term is derived from the French term ‘mascotte’. [1] Their name is usually like the group in which they are the face of, but some are a little more farfetched. In the beginning, mascots were live animals. Unlike today, the crowd could not interact with the mascot. Now, mascots tend to be involved, get the crowd engaged, and keep the spirit up.

In 1923, Sam Houston Normal Institute was changed to Sam Houston State Teachers College by the Texas State Legislature. This created the nickname “Bearkats” for university athletics. The name “bearcat” is sometimes applied to several real-life animals. One of these is the binturong, an Asiatic civet with a prehensile tail. The binturong is often called “bearcat” in English, though it is not, in fact, a bear or a cat. Another animal which is sometimes called a “bearcat” is the kinkajou, a small South American mammal in the raccoon family which is also referred to as a “honey bear.” [2] The kinkajou is one of two carnivores with a prehensile tail, the other being the binturong. “Tough as a Bearkat” was a common saying around the time that the school’s athletic nickname changed, and this is probably what the Bearkat name was intended to reference, rather than an actual animal. The name conveyed the toughest qualities of both wild cats and bears. The spelling originally varied, appearing as either one or two words, with “cat” using either a C or a K. Eventually the spelling was standardized as one word spelled with a “k”, to help distance the mythical cat/bear hybrid from any association with a real animal. However, from the 1950s through the 1970s, the school occasionally (and not very successfully) kept a live kinkajou as a mascot, which students would help to care for. The presence of this animal on campus probably contributed to confusion concerning the meaning of the Bearkat name. [3]

Once, SHSU President Harmon Lowman tried changing the mascot to the Raven, because of the connection to General Sam Houston, who was nicknamed “the Raven” among the Cherokee. However, the alumni attachment to the Bearkat was too strong by this time, and the raven was defeated. Years later, a similar incident happened when a dance instructor wrote in also trying to change the mascot. These ideas were quickly shut down, as a majority of fans and students saw the bearkat as fierce and unique. Who else has a bearkat as a mascot? Though not official, there has also been a goat named Kooter who served as a live mascot and a honey bear named Hannah featured at the zoo. [4]

In the 1940’s, a stray dog appeared on campus. He was a yellow mutt with a crippled front leg. Tripod, as they named his, quickly became a friend of the students and staff. No one knew his background or why he was without an owner, they just knew that they loved him. Tripod attended all the games and parades. Students game him a food, a place to sleep, affection, and medical care. He became the unofficial mascot for Sam Houston State for over fifteen years. Tripod died January 6th, 1962, due to old age and freezing weather conditions. He was buried near Old Main in a casket provided by Huntsville Funeral Home. President Lowman delivered the eulogy and hundreds of students attended to pay their respects. The ROTC gave a three-gun salute and the band was there to play. Later, a headstone was added, reading: “TRIPOD, 1941-1962, Beloved mascot, loyal supporter, friend of students.” Over twenty years later, a new dog appeared on campus. Just like Tripod, he was a mutt with no owner. This stray was named Tripod Jr. He had a similar face and the same personality as his predecessor. TJ and Quadpod were some of the various nicknames given to him. He wandered the campus, just as Tripod did, getting food and shelter from students. One difference is that Tripod Jr. was able to cover more ground, given that he had four legs and the campus was larger. He would come and go, wandering and being welcomed. Tripod Jr. served as a friendly reminder that loved ones live on. [5]

The Sammy Bearkat that we all know and love went through several changes to get to where he is today. Appearing in 1959, Sammy was nothing more than a head of paper mache. This design was carried out with the creative help of assistant dean Dorothy Meek, art instructor Mabel Taylor, art students, and the cheer team. Sammy went through numerous changes along the way, including looking somewhat like a fox or dog, rather than a bear or cat. In 1997, the cartoon-like Sammy of today was unveiled by James Pharon. He had physical traits of a cat, a bear, and appeared tough yet friendly. Two years later, Sammy underwent some minor cosmetic surgery to his paws so he could be more active at events. For a few years, Samantha Bearkat, his girlfriend, appeared alongside Sammy. She has since been retired. [6]

At Sam Houston, Sammy is housed under the Mascot Program. This program consists of several individuals known as the mascot team or Sammy Squad. This group is responsible for making Sammy a character. They develop skits, create costumes, and continue traditions. Sammy Squad also serves as a form of security for the mascot and person in uniform in potentially dangerous situations. The mascot program is part of a larger group, Spirit Programs. This program also houses All-Girl Cheerleading Squad, Co-Ed Cheerleading Squad, and Orange Pride Dance Team.

To become Sammy, one must first tryout. An application consisting of contact information, performance background, and motivation to tryout is completed. Once the $40 application fee is paid and proof of enrollment is verified, potential Sammies move on to the real tryout. Candidates perform a skit, showcase prop work, and carry out game-day scenarios to show off their spirit. Sammy must be confident, energetic, and fierce. Though there is no specific requirement, the taller the better for a more intimidating appearance. Following, an interview with the coaches and captain is conducted. Tryouts are especially important when a former Sammy is graduating. Sammy is the face of the university, so it is important for members to take pride in what they do. Back in the day, the identity of Sammy was always known. [7] Now it is safer to keep their identity a secret. This avoids many issues with the privacy of the individuals as Sammy is truly a celebrity. It also helps Sammy to come more out of his shell, knowing that people can’t even guess who he is. Sammy becomes his own character, rather than a person in a uniform.

Today, we still celebrate the 60-year tradition of Sammy. [8] Sammy in an integral part of the community, showing love to children and being an inspiration to all. The individuals acting as Sammy have won numerous NCA National titles alongside All-Girl and Co-ed. Mascots have gone on to continue their role in the WNBA, MLB, and various other organizations. [9] Sammy has now had 60 years of crowd-pleasing, competing, and being the spirit symbol of SHSU.

Eat 'Em Up Kats!

Audio

Interview with Brien McColpin Brien has served as Assistant Director of Student Activities at SHSU for 11 years. He also oversees all Spirit Programs, including Orange Pride Dance Team, Co-Ed Cheer, All-Girl Cheer, and mascot Sammy the Bearkat.

Images

BOTPW Sammy the Bearkat pictured at Battle of the Piney Woods 2019. BOTPW is a 96-year-old tradition in which Sam Houston play their biggest rival, Stephen F. Austin. This game is held annually at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX, a neutral site. Sam holds the longest winning streak in the game's history from 2011-present. Source: https://www.facebook.com/samhoustonstate/photos/a.84460031618/10156097026241619/?type=3 Date: October 5th, 2019
The Field Sammy is shown here featured in a Bearkat Athletics Ad. Athletes from all sports gathered at Bowers Stadium to be pictured on their home field with the mascot. This ad encouraged students to get involved in representing Sam Houston sports. Source: SHSU Archives Date: 2009
Kinkajou A live Kinkajou is shown here. This animal portrayed the living representation of a Bearkat at Sam Houston. Students looked after the animal while in captivity. Source: SHSU Archives Date: September 17th, 1971
Alcalde This is one of the first mascot portrayals from 80 years ago. This early Sammy looks more like a loving teddy bear rather than a fierce bearkat. This depiction did not last long. Source: SHSU Archives Date: 1941
Lowman The "new" Sammy mascot of 1959 is shown here. Sammy is being Inducted by President Lowman, making him an official student of Sam Houston State Teachers College. Source: SHSU Archives Date: 1959
Tripod "Tripod", the campus mascot stray is shown seated in the grass like a good boy. Tripod was a loyal fan and friend for his many years on campus. His death saddened the staff and students who loved him dearly. Source: SHSU Archives Date: 1961
Welcome Week Sammy Bearkat is shown engaging the crowd with the cheer squad at Welcome Week of 1995. This tradition is an event that invites new students to interact when they arrive on campus. New students attend convocation, get help moving in, find their way to classes, and participate in many fun activities. Source: SHSU Archives Date: 1995

Location

1922 Avenue J, Huntsville, TX 77340

Metadata

Kaislyn R. Lyons, “The Faces of Sam Houston,” East Texas History, accessed September 30, 2022, https://easttexashistory.org/items/show/298.