Our Mascot. Our Cougar. Our Legend.
By Sherri Fossati (COOG ‘15)
and Heath Duran (COOG ‘09)
One of the many things we absolutely love about our university is the story of our mascot and how, through the years, our hand sign became a part of her history. We wanted to find out as much as possible about Shasta to share more details of this story with you. You’ve probably read brief paragraphs about how Shasta I lost a toe in a cage accident, how UT mocked UH at a game by “modifying” our ‘V for Victory’ hand sign, and have wondered why we now have a male Shasta and a female Sasha. These were all things we wanted to learn more about, so we spent several days at the UH archives hoping to put to rest some questions and help solidify legends. We found some interesting facts confirming things already known as well as details leading us to make inferences based on what was found; we’re also excited to share other tidbits we learned while conducting this research. This is what we discovered.
Shasta’s story has to start from the beginning, which is the founding of Houston Junior College. In 1926, HJC was formed when a group of high school students met with E.E. Oberholtzer, then head of HISD, and asked him to assist with creating an institution where they could continue their education after graduation. The first classes were held for a handful of students in the summer of ‘26. By 1933, HJC had grown so much the Houston Board of Education realized a need to offer additional courses, and unanimously adopted a resolution to include two additional years of college level work. The next year, on April 30, 1943, the formal charter of the University of Houston was passed and we became what we are today.
It took HJC longer to become a university than it did to become cougars. When HJC was formed, they needed a football coach and hired John R. Bender, who at one time coached for Washington State. When asked what HJC’s mascot should be, he said his pride and joy had been his Washington State Cougars; he saw this magnificent animal as a symbol of courage and tenacity. He felt this was a perfect representation of what he wanted to build in his team and what he saw at HJC.
“Yale has its bulldog, Army has it mule, and the University of Houston will soon have a cougar” exclaimed an October 10, 1947 article in The Cougar. By 1945, the university community rallied to adopt a live mascot. Although the search took two years in total, it was the Alpha Phi Omega (APO) fraternity who found a cub, and students raised the necessary $250 to purchase her. Both the city and zoo directors approved the plan to house her at the City zoo, but required $750 be raised to construct a portable cage. Students were asked about the news of getting a live mascot. Head Cheerleader Gene Brock commented, “We have needed a mascot for a long time. The spirit of the students will be symbolized in the cougar.”
A week later, on October 17, 1947, UH’s first mascot, a 75 pound, fourteen month old cub from Northern Mexico, was transported from Brownsville to South Main Airport in Houston. She was welcomed with great fanfare - the Cougar band, cheerleaders, students, and the president of UH were at the airport to greet her. She was even given a parade through downtown Houston and was officially presented at the East Texas pre-game bonfire, sponsored by APO.
She was known as the ‘Red and White mascot’ until she was given a formal name. Denton Priest, president of APO pledges said, “We want the student body to name the cougar.” Upon her arrival, The Cougar and APO sponsored a contest to give her the perfect name. Ballot boxes were placed in several locations around campus.
There were 225 entries in all with the top three being Shasta, Spiritina, and Raguoc (cougar spelled backwards, or “Rags” for short) with honorable mentions Cully, Salty, Amber, and Sandy. The winning entry, and her name, were announced at the November 21, 1947 bonfire and pep rally.
“Yale has its bulldog, Army has it mule, and the University of Houston will soon have a cougar”
October 10, 1947 article in The Cougar, University of Houston Special Collections
A month after her arrival, our mascot finally had her name. Student Joe Randol’s entry, “Shasta,” won the contest. A November 1947 article in The Cougar stated she was “Shasta satisfied” with her name. In later years, Randol was asked how he came up with the name, to which he proudly explained “One day on campus I saw this small cage with a beautiful cougar in it. … I was just standing around listening to everyone mumble possible names like Amber, Goldie, and Ruguac. At the same time a bunch of girls kept saying things like “She has to have a name.’ ‘She has to have a home.’ ‘She has to have keepers.’ Suddenly, I came up with ‘Shasta - She has to!’ And I won.
Shasta I Arrives
October 17, 1947 article in The Cougar, University of Houston Special Collections
In our research, we found many surprising details we never knew about Shasta and our hand sign, and how the two stories are intricately linked. It is well known we had Shastas I - V, but do you know much about each of them? Did you know that our hand sign started as a 'V for Victory'?
Joe Randol dancing with Sasha in 2000
Our Time, University of Houston Special Collections
The story of Shasta’s injury is where the story of our current hand-sign originates. At this game, several UT students caught wind of the injury to Shasta’s toe and began to mock UH fans with a new hand-sign. They changed UH’s ‘V for Victory’ by bending their right hand ring finger down with their thumb and raising their little finger to replicate a missing third toe on Shasta’s paw. Not surprisingly, UH students took umbrage at this insult, and did not forget this slight. Although UH was defeated in its first game with UT 28-7, not all was a loss.
Legend has it that on October 3, 1953, the first time UH played University of Texas at Memorial Stadium in Austin, Shasta I was being loaded into her cage when the door dropped and caught her front right paw’s third digit. At the time, Shasta was transported to the games by a portable cage built by students of the machine shop.
Her cage was 7’ long, 6.5’ tall, and 44” wide. It was made with an all-steel welded frame covered in welded wire, and mounted on standard automobile wheels; although the weight of the gate is unknown, it was likely to have been extremely heavy which is why Shasta’s toe would have been injured so severely.
The week after the game, The Cougar published two articles we found to be very informative. The first article, “After Seven Years at UH Shasta Is Still Campus Pet” was about how Shasta was transported from her residence at the Houston Zoo to the games. In it, Joe Nezbal, the leader of the then eight-man Cougar Guard (a committee of APO), spoke about how he loaded Shasta into her cage by ‘wrapping his arms around her body and boosting her up’ (into her cage).
Circa early 50’s Parade showing Shasta in her cage
Our Time, University of Houston Special Collections
The second article, “A Loss or a Gain? The UH - Texas Game,” discussed how until the UH v. UT game, something was missing at the university; school spirit was lacking, the university students were divided into cliques, and there was no organized group of students to represent UH.
We were unable to locate a story specifically addressing Shasta’s accident, but we believe we have found all the evidence needed to conclude the accident is not merely legend, but indeed fact. Having been presented with various other articles of this time, it appears Nezbal, and APO, were a little nervous about the incident and were doing some damage control by addressing how much care and attention Shasta received. Additionally, something happened at this game that gave the student body an energy like it did not have before. You couldn’t ask for a better way to bring students together than to have your rival university mock you. UH students rose in solidarity. As you will see, this rivalry comes full circle and will never be forgotten. Shasta I’s legacy lives on through us all who use our hand-sign showing our support of UH. She was retired at the Albuquerque Zoo in the early 60’s and lived to be 17 years old.
Shasta II Makes Debut
October 13, 1960 article in The Cougar, University of Houston Special Collections
Now, here’s a stinker of a cat! Shasta II was a handful to say the least. Her debut was at a pep rally in October, 1960. She was only five weeks old at the time and was purchased from the Albuquerque Zoo - the same zoo where Shasta I was retired.
Shortly after Shasta II was acquired, APO was notified the zoo could no longer accommodate UH’s mascot due to an overflow of cats, so APO began making preparations to house her on campus. In 1962, the plan for the “zoo-type” housing was designed, with the glass-enclosed, climatized 10’ x 22’ facility containing shatter-proof, half inch thick plate glass walls. After several delays (and some serious controversy), construction was completed in mid-1963. Funds for Shasta’s housing were donated by the student government.
During Shasta II’s time at UH, she received plenty of attention due to her reputation for having a bad disposition. We found headlines such as “Sandy-Haired Cat Shows Ill Temper,” “Shasta Might Go; Too Hot To Handle,” and “Cat Gets Help.” In March 1965, in an attempt to replace her, Shasta II was taken to the Houston Zoo for a ‘five-day honeymoon’ to mate with the zoo’s male cougar in hopes she’d produce an offspring the university could raise from birth. Shasta did not cooperate, and no kitten was conceived.
Construction Begins This Week
September 18, 1962 article in The Cougar, University of Houston Special Collections
The same year plans were drawn up for Shasta’s on-campus facilities (1962), “Shasta’s Aid”, the first costumed Shasta, appeared. Worn by an electrical engineering sophomore, Steve Benson was our first “human” Shasta. The idea for a costumed mascot to appear at games and school events was made a year prior and was inspired by the Florida State Seminoles; the hope was that by following in the footsteps of these other programs, having a costumed Shasta would aid us in “having that big college look”.
Concerns about Shasta II’s attitude seemed warranted given the additional care provided to her by a particularly brave Cougar Guard pledge; the psychology senior, who didn’t want the university to give up so quickly on her, tried working with her by using various training techniques.
Although she initially appeared to have improved, things ultimately did not work out and a replacement cub was purchased. Shasta II represented UH for the last time at the November 1965 game in Tallahassee.
November 20, 1962 article in The Cougar, University of Houston Special Collections
While Shasta II’s story tells us she was more difficult to manage than her predecessor, her value was not overlooked. For instance, a November 1964 article in The Cougar stated, “Although Shasta is bad-tempered, she is appreciated by the students. Besides, cougars are supposed to be mean. The students would like to see the meanness rub off on the UH football team.” Trust me, we are not making that up - and couldn’t leave it out!
All of this attention - housing, food, transportation - started to hit the pocket book. We found a cry for help that was made in The Cougar asking readers to contact APO if they were able to provide assistance towards supplying Shasta’s food; her expensive diet was mainly comprised of horse meat, liver and kidneys. She ate five pounds a day, six days a week. By the time the story printed, funds for feeding her had already been depleted, and members of APO and the Cougar Guard committee were paying for her food out of their own pockets. According to The Cougar, her monthly food bill amounted to $52. APO sold “Victory Ribbons” as a means of fundraising.
While reviewing the archives, we found it was during this time period when people seriously began debating whether or not UH should continue having a live animal on campus. Concerned students, faculty, and staff expressed their doubts based not only on the cost of maintaining her housing and feeding her, but also because some saw keeping a live animal in captivity as inhumane. This was a very interesting time for our mascot, but APO did not let this deter them from the purchase of Shasta III. Fortunately, she was a real sweetheart.
At three months old, Shasta III was adopted from the Dallas Zoo and brought to campus. She struggled a little initially due to having come down with a “bout of virus.” She recuperated at a guard member’s home until her debut at the November 6, 1965 homecoming game.
Shasta Gets Help
September 8, 1965 article in The Cougar, University of Houston Special Collections
Shasta III was a darling in both looks and personality. Her physical beauty became known nationally through her modeling for American Motors. She was also known to be gentle and affectionate, and was loved across campus.
It is Shasta III who represented us in our second game against UT on September 21, 1968. UH students had not forgotten the 1953 loss and how UT mocked Shasta! This game was huge with over 1,500 UH students starting an all-night vigil outside the Memorial Stadium ticket office - some lining up as early as 56 hours before game time to get tickets! By the time the office doors opened, over 3,000 students were in line. We think there was a little something going on here.
Thank goodness this game went injury free for Shasta III; however, the story of Shasta I’s incident and how UT mocked UH persisted. It is said UH students used the ‘missing toe’ hand-sign instead of the “V” during this game; very befitting of UH fans to remind UT how they “mocked” them in the previous game -- the teams tied, with the final score ending in a 20-20 deadlock. Seems the new hand sign, as well as Shasta III’s presence at the stadium that day, brought the Coogs some luck!
In 1972, the Cougar Guard assumed complete responsibility from APO of Shasta’s care and cost for maintenance. As usual, they made sure Shasta was taken out of her facilities daily; her house was cleaned, she was bathed, brushed and fed, and taken on walks around campus.
They also enjoyed taking her to away games. We found an article describing some of her antics while staying overnight in a hotel room. She would stay with Cougar Guard members, but sleep in the restroom. While this arrangement worked out most of the time, hiccups did occur, such as the time members of the Guard forgot to put the shower curtain out of her reach, and had to explain to an angry hotel manager why their curtain was shredded. Oops!
Shasta III’s first year on campus
Houstonian 1965, University of Houston Special Collections
By the mid-70s, serious concern was again being expressed by many of the student body about Shasta’s well-being. A September 1975 article appeared in The Cougar addressing this apprehension, easing worries by discussing how Shasta was in good hands. The author, Bill Smolensky, stated, “Shasta is not just the mascot of the UH football team. She is the University of Houston mascot.” The Cougar Guard was hopeful this article would clear up some of the issues while also addressing the need to update Shasta’s quarters; they had already made multiple attempts to receive additional funding from the university to expand Shasta’s existing facilities.
Unfortunately, the money had to come from private sources because by this time, state funds could not be used to build a facility for a mascot. Fortunately an anonymous donor bequeathed $7,000 to “re-vamp” Shasta’s home, which was remodeled to house an additional cub.
UH Fans Greet Longhorns With Gusto
Houstonian 1969, University of Houston Special Collections
In 1976, twelve year old Shasta III was declining in health due to having arthritis. Cougar Guard members felt it was too difficult for her to continue traveling. Shasta III’s final game was the UH Homecoming game in October 1976, almost 11 years to the day after she was introduced. She was presented with a plaque for her cage, and was named an honorary alumna. She was retired after one final “trek” in her red wagon around the Astrodome.
That next month, November 1976, UH played THE game - this was the year UH let UT know the Coogs meant business. We previously mentioned that when the two teams played in '53, UT students teased the UH crowd because of the accident. Then in '68, the Coogs tied up the game and reclaimed their 'mocking' hand-sign as a symbol of pride. Well, '76 was the year the "Missing Toe" hand-sign was completely adopted by the University of Houston community. The Cougar crowd rolled into Austin with their right hands waving that "Missing Toe" hand-sign and lassoed those horns 30-0. This win broke UT's 42-game winning streak in Memorial Stadium! From that point forward, we have celebrated the luck our hand sign gave us. Even though Shasta III was unable to be physically present at that game, she obviously was there in spirit!
Shasta’s Final “Trek” Before Retirement
Houstonian 1977, University of Houston Special Collections
Coogs Eat ‘Bevo’ Steak
November 9, 1976 article in The Cougar, University of Houston Special Collections
Now, when you flash your hand sign, you'll know it was both Shasta I and III who brought us this tradition!
On December 8, 1976, The Daily Cougar announced the Cougar Guard was in the process of searching for a new cub. Funny enough, our Shasta IV was born on that very day in Centerville, Florida. On January 29, 1977, when Shasta IV was two months old and weighed four pounds, she made her entrance into the UH cougar scene. She remained in the custody of a Cougar Guard member until the addition to the cage was built, but enjoyed many fun days with retired Shasta III. However, much like Shasta II, Shasta IV proved herself to have a little bit of a temper, so she was retired to a ranch in Sulphur Springs, Texas in 1980.
Shasta V was purchased from an Angleton breeder in 1980. Although she was still in the process of being crowd trained, she made her football debut at the all-university pep rally held in the Hofheinz Pavilion on Thursday, September 4, 1980. Unfortunately, our research did not yield much information regarding Shasta V’s adventures; rather, we found this time presented increased concern for Shasta’s well-being and living arrangements.
Shasta III Bored With Her New Roommate
Houstonian 1977, University of Houston Special Collections
The '80's saw students, faculty, and staff becoming even more vocal over her care and well-being. The Cougar was flooded with op-eds debating whether or not it was best to keep a live animal on campus as opposed to a zoo; some questioned whether or not it was best to have a live mascot at all. The university community became increasingly divided over whether or not to get a would-be Shasta VI once Shasta V retired.
The decision to not get another live mascot was decided in 1989, when Shasta V passed away from kidney disease. Later that month, an informal vote was cast by the Faculty Senate, where senators unanimously voted against replacing Shasta V largely due to the liability and expenses incurred for taking care of the live animal. The University agreed, and from 1989 until 2011, only humans in cougar costumes were presented as our mascot.
In 1995, after 31 years of Cougar football in the Astrodome, UH football returned to campus at the newly constructed Robertson Stadium. This was a very exciting time for our university and much fanfare was made. While the university no longer had a live cougar to represent the Coog crowd at games, a new mascot was introduced - Sasha, bride of Shasta! Male Shasta was very happy to have a companion.
But wait - why does the university have a male costumed Shasta and a female costumed Sasha, when Shasta's I - V were all female? Our research found, through the years the "human" mascot Shasta was always presented as male (and the costume worn by a male student), even though the live cougar mascot was female. We knew there had to be more to the story, so we tracked down our first female mascot, Mandi Webb Scott. When asked how this came about, Mandi told us that during tryouts for the 1995 season, it was decided UH would have a female costumed mascot and Sasha was thus introduced. Sasha's name was created by Mandi and the student wearing the Shasta costume. The two students got together and, wanting the new mascot's name to come from "Shasta", placed wooden blocks spelling out our mascot's name and rearranged them until it was clear that "Sasha" was the perfect choice.
Sasha and Shasta
Houstonian 1997, University of Houston Special Collections
The university did not have another live mascot until Shasta VI was adopted by UHAA in December 2011; the five week old cub had little chance of survival in the wild after his mother was illegally shot and killed by a hunter in Washington State. As well as being the first male Shasta, Shasta VI is the first cougar in partnership with UH and the Houston Zoo. As the saying goes, “all things happen for a reason,” and looking backwards, it seems fortuitous that having the costumed mascots designated as male for Shasta and female for Sasha resulted in being a preview of good things to come; who would have known that Shasta VI was going to be a boy?
Today, Shasta is living a healthy and active life at the Zoo, alongside his female cougar companion Haley. With his introduction to the zoo, so was a new tradition. During an overnight stay, Shasta jumps on top of the specially made box filled with UH class rings and "blesses" them before students receive them at a ring ceremony. You can visit Shasta anytime at the Houston Zoo. Be sure to put your paws up to let him know you're a COOG!
As we come to the close of our story, we are wondering if you've put together what we noticed. In a serendipitous way, our current Shasta brings our cougar story full circle. Remember Coach Bender suggesting our university mascot be a cougar due to his affinity for the animal and his previous beloved university, the Washington State Cougars?
Live Mascot After 20 Year Absence
March 21, 2012 article in The Cougar, University of Houston Special Collections
Yes, Washington State, the same state in which our current Shasta VI was born. Now, when we have a game against the Washington State Cougars, you'll have a tid-bit of information about our university you can share. But remember, it's always better to be a COOG, than a COUG! Eat 'em Up!
While writing this story and reading the numerous articles written about Shasta, we couldn't help but notice how much she was loved by the Cougar Guard. We - as students, alumni, and fans - should really give a big shout-out and say thank you to those who served to support and care for our mascot through the years. THANK YOU COUGAR GUARD! WE HONOR YOU!
We encourage you to read more about Shasta VI and/or donate to his care at the following link: https://www.houstonzoo.org/support/adopt-an-animal/adopt-shasta/
THANK YOU University of Houston archives/special collections staff. You all put up with us for several days and we are so grateful. You ROCK!
Adair, Wendy, and Oscar Gutierrez. The University of Houston: Our Time: Celebrating 75 Years of Learning and Leading. Donning Co. Publishers, 2001.
Houstonian Yearbook, University of Houston Special Collections
The Cougar, University of Houston Special Collections
Scott, Mandi Webb