You’ve seen him on the field or in the stadium, getting the crowd pumped up. You’ve watched him appear at THON and at other Penn State events.
He represents an image that is iconic to the university — but one thing you’ve probably never seen is his face.
The Nittany Lion mascot is a fixture at Penn State football games and a variety of other events. Behind the mask is a student, just like the rest of Penn State’s 40,000.
However, a traditional agreement between the Cheerleading and Mascot Program and the mascot aims to protect the identity of the Nittany Lion.
“We don’t allow the lion to do interviews until his tenure is complete,” said Curt White, head of the Cheerleading and Mascot program. “It’s trying to keep some of the tradition that’s attached to the mascot program alive and strong.”
While the mascot’s name is available on GoPSUSports.com, White said the lion does not speak to media.
When contacted for an interview, new Nittany Lion mascot Michael Valania (sophomore-history) declined to comment.
White said the reason the mascot’s name is available is simply one of convenience.
“Years ago, it was just an issue of the Internet coming into existence,” he said. “To make our lives easier, we just put out the name because people were probably going to be able to find it anyway.”
However, White and the others in the cheerleading department do not want the lion to be recognized when he goes to classes or walks down the street, as it would take away from the “mystique” surrounding the mascot.
At the last home football game and the last home basketball game of a mascot’s tenure, the student is allowed to take off the furry lion head and show the crowd his face.
However, photographers were once allowed to take photos of the mascot without the lion head on. His face used to appear in football and basketball programs.
White said that about 15 years ago, before he worked for the program, the mascot was regularly allowed to take the lion head off and allow fans to know his identity. Football and basketball staff held meetings in the 1990s and decided to stop allowing photos of the mascot’s face to be included in sports programs.
White added that the new agreement between the mascot and the cheerleading program adds to the mascot position’s mystique.
“I think it’s something the fans really appreciate,” White said.
While the athletic department has tightened restrictions on photographing the mascot, those who have served as the Nittany Lion have traditionally took it upon themselves to maintain anonymity.
Jackie Esposito, co-author of “The Nittany Lion: An Illustrated Tale,” said the tradition of maintaining anonymity has existed almost from the moment the Nittany Lion mascot was created.
“The tradition was so ingrained that when we were writing the book, we couldn’t find out who the man in the suit was for a year or two in the 1960s,” Esposito, a university archivist, said.
In recent years, she said the tradition has been handled a little differently. After auditions are complete, the new lion is announced, but from that point on, no more information is released on the mascot’s identity.
“People understand that it’s a person in a suit if they think about it,” Esposito said. “But when the lion is performing, you want to keep that belief that it’s the lion, that it’s the mascot, not just a person.”
Dave Johnson, who served as the Nittany Lion mascot from 2005 to 2007, said via email he wanted to maintain as much anonymity as possible during his tenure.
“When I took over for Stephen Soung back in 2005, he told me that he took great pride in remaining almost completely anonymous and that was something I wanted to emulate,” Johnson said. “The biggest issue for me was that I was in the Blue Band for three years prior to becoming the lion, so my cover was pretty much blown off the bat.”
Facebook was another obstacle to keeping his identity a secret, Johnson said. He decided never to post any pictures of himself on Facebook during his tenure.
“One of the funniest memories I have about Facebook is the day I took my mask off at Senior Day in Beaver Stadium,” he said. “When I opened my email, I had over 300 friend requests waiting for me.”
Even so, he tried to maintain as anonymous as possible, sometimes going to interesting lengths to do so.
He said he even taught all his roommates how to do one-armed pushups, just like the mascot did, in case he was ever approached at a social event and asked if he was the Nittany Lion.
If that situation ever occurred, one of his roommates would come to the rescue, claim to be the mascot, and start doing pushups.
“Whether or not people believed it, I don't know, but it was pretty hysterical to watch,” Johnson said.
Rob Nellis, who just ended his tenure as the Nittany Lion this year, said via email that maintaining anonymity isn’t as hard to do as one would expect.
“One of the most important things to consider when selecting the next person to wear the suit is their attitude,” Nellis (senior-mechanical and nuclear engineering) said. “You need someone who is willing to respect and maintain the anonymity for the good of the position.”
A few people, such as roommates and family, were told that Nellis was serving as the lion, but other than that, no one else had to know.
Nellis likes the tradition of anonymity that exists for the mascots.
“By not having a person to associate with the lion, you remove all of the limitations and imperfections that come with being human,” Nellis said. “It allows the lion to exist in and of itself as a symbol of the university, rather than just being a student in a costume.”