A school's mascot often speaks to both its history and identity, though by definition mascots were historically created simply as a good luck charm in athletic competition. From aggie to bronco to thunderbird, and even marking a brief foray as the prairie dogs, the Southern Utah University that alumni, students and friends come together this weekend to celebrate has gone by many a mascot in its 116 years, an evolving face befitting the school's own evolution from an agricultural branch school to a distinct educational experience across the southwestern United States. With a rich history of bitter rivals and hard fought debates over identity, the University now stands out in both name and manner, its rise befitting the certain charms of a mythical mascot capable of producing thunder, lightning and rain — the one, the only Thunderbird.
In the earliest years of the institution, the University of Utah's Branch Normal School in Cedar City was like many such schools in the nation and did not have a nickname, but by the time the school had evolved to the Branch Agricultural School under the auspices of the Utah Agricultural College in Logan (the Aggies), Utah, the school's Cedar City teams became known as the Branch Aggies. However, the school needed it own unique mascot to usher in the college's inaugural 1946 football season, and the Branch Agricultural College became known as the Broncos.
The BAC Broncos grew in number and notoriety across the college's early years of athletic competition in the Mountain West region. Unfortunately, many other schools of similar agricultural roots found the bronco a befitting mascot, and the strength of its good luck charms felt muddled when pitted against a fellow bronco herd. So, in 1961, just a few years after the Branch Agricultural College became the College of Southern Utah, the broncos became thunderbirds and, with the exception of a 2008 April Fools stunt in which the University purportedly became the SUU Prairie Dogs, the Thunderbirds have flown high and proud.
There are some 1,200 member schools in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and each one has a nickname, with birds and cats dominating the list of teams. There are no fewer than 176 genera of cats, from lions and tigers and wildcats to tomcats. And, there are 152 birds represented, including the 44 variants of eagles, the most popular name in the NCAA. However, there is but one school that can boast of its thunderbird.