By Brian Brennan
On Feb. 9, 1933, the Youngstown College basketball team traveled to West Liberty State Teacher’s College in West Virginia. In the freezing cold, the YoCo cagers made the long trip in an unheated bus. Upon arrival, the players entered a frigid locker room and changed into their uniforms.
As they made their way to the court, hopping, jumping and flapping their arms in order to warm up, West Liberty’s coach quipped that the Youngstown players looked like a “bunch of penguins.” The name stuck — and a mascot was born.
It was not long before the sobriquet fell into common use in Youngstown. By the end of 1933, The Jambar was referring to the basketball team as “Penguins,” and continues to do so to the present day. However, as the College made plans to field a football team in 1938, some voiced doubts about the suitability of a penguin mascot.
In his sports column appearing in the Youngstown Vindicator, Frank Ward cites the preference of some fans for a team name that evokes a fighting spirit. In lieu of the Antarctic bird, Ward offers up such team name possibilities as Tigers, Polar Bears, Jaguars, Roosters and (oddly) Rhesus Monkeys. To Ward, the penguin is an unsatisfactory choice for a mascot because it is not native to northeastern Ohio.
He further writes that “penguin” fails to pack a psychological punch — and is difficult to pronounce. With its mascot under attack, The Jambar returned fire. In his February 9, 1938 column, Frank Jaczko shoots down each of Ward’s fatuous points with great aplomb, while also stating that the use of the penguin moniker is unique to Youngstown in terms of collegiate identity. YoCo remained Penguin Country.
The first in a series of live penguins arrived at YoCo in 1939, making its debut at homecoming. He was called Pete. When an egg was discovered in his nest, Pete’s actual gender came into question. It turned out to be a duck’s egg, so Pete remained Pete, but his relationship with the duck is still a mystery. In 1941, Pete drowned after losing his way while diving for a fish in ice-covered water. Three more live penguins served as mascots, with the last dying in 1972 from bird gout.
Today’s official artistic rendering of Pete Penguin was designed in 1979 by Bill Oakley, a member of the YSU varsity soccer team. Soon thereafter, a Pete Penguin mascot costume based upon the Oakley concept was fashioned. In the mid-1980s, Penny Penguin arrived on the scene and eventually married Pete (Zippy, the University of Akron’s kangaroo mascot, officiated). Penny’s printed image was briefly modified in the 1990s; her headscarf was replaced with a red brimmed hat styled after the one worn by Lynn Cochran, the spouse of former YSU President Leslie Cochran. In 2000, Penny once again donned her red scarf.
Frank Jaczko’s column in The Jambar can be read online at http://hdl.handle.net/1989/3794.
Alvin Skardon also addresses the mascot issue on page 144-145 of his 1982 book, “Steel Valley University: the Origins of Youngstown State,” available in Maag Library.