Forrest Deters, Contributor
As students side-by-side on a quest for knowledge and a deeper understanding of the universe, all of us have at some point asked ourselves, “What is Blitz, and why is Blitz our mascot?” After hearing of Willamette’s mascot for the first time, some may be perplexed when their internet searches for “bearcat” turn up an adorable, black and gray, long-whiskered fuzzball, but searches for “Willamette bearcat” return an anthropomorphic red panda-mountain lion hybrid. Doubtlessly, their confusion deepens as another quick scroll down the image results page adds a rotund, unsettling, sweater-wearing bear to the mix.
The confusion has even prompted some to suggest that Willamette’s mascot should change entirely, from a bearcat to a nutria. However, nutria, a disruptive and invasive species, bear no long-term connection—symbolic or otherwise—to the University, and have apparently abandoned our campus because our grounds crew no longer provides them with meals.
Upon further inspection, onlookers who are confused by Willamette’s loose interpretation of the “bearcat” as a mascot will quickly realize that such vagueness is intentional.
According to an exhibit in the online Willamette Archives, the bearcat was officially enshrined as the mascot of the University in November 1915. The recently-appointed President Carl Doney regularly referred to the Willamette football team as “bearcats,” referencing their “tenacious, battling spirit.”
“A cornered cat will fight savagely and the bear is a symbol of strength; put the two together and you have a ferocious animal, a ‘Bearcat,’” Doney said in the exhibit.
While Doney’s words evoked a visceral understanding of the nature of a bearcat, they did little to describe the made-up animal’s appearance. With free rein over the visual aspect of the mascot, designers of the following decades would draw from features of bears, cats, bearcats (also known as binturongs) and red cat-bears (also known as red pandas) to construct their version of the Willamette Bearcat. Although the bearcat has always been strongly connected to Willamette athletics, the mascot played an important role in representing the spirit of the University and became a symbol of the community for the University’s many subcultures.
In 2001, ASWU coordinated the development of a new mascot, and the student body chose the name “Blitz” for their new friend. Embracing the ambiguity of the bearcat name, Blitz’s designers pulled from aspects of the red panda and included feline characteristics. It would be a handful of years before a team of dedicated Willamette students and staff became the first to fully realize Blitz’s true potential.
In 2004, the new Director of Campus Recreation Bryan Schmidt inherited the Blitz program. Although he had no prior experience in coordinating a mascot, Schmidt and a group of students quickly became excited by the prospect of a vibrant mascot team. “It became sort of like a secret society,” Schmidt said. “The meetings were in a secret place, where we’d practice the Blitz walk and high-fives and dances. If one person had made up a little dance between Blitz and someone else the day before, they’d teach the others the dance so Blitz could repeat it the next time, regardless of who was wearing the suit.”
With a team of dedicated spirit advocates, it quickly became clear that Blitz could be a valuable marketing asset for the University. Schmidt and a team of students worked with a national consultant on the subject, hoping to discover together how Blitz could connect with the student body and capture the essence of the University. The team ended up rejecting most of the consultant’s suggestions.
In particular, the committee rejected the suggestion that Blitz should be given a firm gender identity. The team felt that it didn’t make sense to confine Blitz to a particular gender identity when Blitz did not have (or need) a sexual orientation, ethnic identity, religious affiliation or any other constructed characteristic. The decision by Schmidt and the team of students was a significant shift from the mainstream conception of gender identity at the time, and an unprecedented move for a mascot. Schmidt went as far as to avoid using pronouns for Blitz entirely, even when it was verbally awkward. Eventually, Schmidt got the chance to speak about Blitz’s unique removal from traditional gender dynamics at a conference held by the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association. According to Schmidt, “we used Blitz almost as a way to study people’s expectations of gender and gender norms… it was very unique. There could have been research done on what we were doing.”
So, what is Blitz? Certainly, Blitz is the latest in a long line of members of the Willamette community expressing their vision for the spirit of the University through the fluidity of the bearcat mascot. The bearcat has been a point of shared identity for athletes, Glee participants and many more at Willamette. As members of a community that is still represented by the bearcat today, the core of the mascot’s origin persists: tenacity and a battling spirit. Willamette students are not known to give up, run away from a challenge, or give anything less than their all to the things they care about. As each of us embody prowess and persistence, we mark ourselves as bearcats and present a strength we could never find in a nutria.