6 Historical Highlights and Traditions All Wildcats Should Know

Photograph of Rufus Arizona, 1915

The University of Arizona's first mascot was a live bobcat named Rufus Arizona.

University of Arizona Special Collections

Folklore surrounding how the University of Arizona came to call Tucson home abounds. As the story goes, the state’s land-grant university wasn’t Tucson's first choice at the 13th legislative meeting in 1885. Several territorial institutions were up for grabs, including a prison, a mental institution, a normal school and a university to teach agriculture, science and engineering.

Tucson instead had set its eyes on regaining the territorial capital from Prescott, but in what would go down in the history books as the "fighting thirteenth, the bloody thirteenth and the thieving thirteenth," the city lost that bid.

Tucson's representative, C.C. Stephens, claimed he was late to the meeting due to weather and had little hope in regaining the capital. His personal interests are the subject of debate, but to save face, he "set his aim on the university as an alternate way to benefit the Tucson community," said Jamie DeConcini, who teaches new Wildcats about the university's rich heritage and traditions every fall and spring semester.

"Tucson residents were infuriated with Stephens' failure to recapture the capital, and he returned to a slew of profanity and a shower of rotten vegetables," said DeConcini, an instructional specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Department of Agricultural Education, Technology and Innovation.

Despite the initial upset, the university would open its doors to an inaugural class of 32 students in 1891. From its humble, if not colorful, beginnings to its designation as a Tier 1  research institution, the University of Arizona has made plenty of history since its founding in 1885.

As the university welcomes its largest incoming first-year class on record, DeConcini breaks down some of the historical highlights and traditions all Wildcats ought to know:

Agriculture Building at the University of Arizona under construction, April 19, 1915.

The Agriculture Building on the University of Arizona campus under construction on April 19, 1915.

University of Arizona Special Collections

'Land-grant' is about more than you think.

In the early 1800s, higher education was largely private and reserved for the upper class. Vermont Sen. Justin Morrill envisioned a brighter future, both socially and economically, which he believed could be attained by making higher education accessible to the children of America's working families.

On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which granted states public lands to be sold or used for profits to establish at least one college that would teach agriculture and the mechanical arts. Subsequent legislation also informed the land-grant mission.

The Hatch Act, enacted in 1877, recognized the need for original research to support the teaching of agriculture and develop agricultural innovations. The act provided funding to establish agricultural experiment stations.

The Smith-Leaver Act, enacted May 8, 1914, established the Cooperative Extension Service at land-grant institutions to extend outreach programs and educate rural Americans about agricultural practices and technology.

The land-grant mission, informed by these acts, includes teaching, research and extension. While over 150 years have passed since the Morrill Act was enacted, land-grant institutions like the University of Arizona continue to carry out the three-part mission while  adapting to the changing needs of the local and global communities they serve.

1881 course schedule

The 1891 University of Arizona Course of instruction and General information.

The university's first students had a lot to learn.

Classes began at the University of Arizona on Oct. 1, 1891 with 32 students. At the time, there were no high schools in Arizona, so only six of the students were able to begin as freshmen, while the other 26 were enrolled in preparatory courses. The university continued to provide preparatory courses until 1913.

For students who qualified for preparatory courses in the early 19th century, courses included algebra, botany, English, drawing, French, composition, agriculture, chemistry, geometry, horticulture, Spanish, trigonometry, physics, surveying, hydraulics, soil science, German, zoology, irrigation, entomology, veterinary practice, anatomy, meteorology, agricultural law, constitutional history, astronomy, fruit preservation, military tactics, engineering, calculus and geology.

Robert H. Forbes stands next to a campus olive tree in 1958.

Robert H. Forbes stands next to a campus olive tree in 1958.

University of Arizona Special Collections

The olive trees and date palms that line campus streets were a research experiment.

The olive trees and date palms on campus are thanks to an early faculty member, Robert Forbes. Forbes wrote in 1895 that he had planted olive trees to determine if any varieties were suitable to grow in Arizona. This type of experiment was common at the University of Arizona at the time, as research was conducted to assist the territory in developing an agriculturally related economic base by determining what plants could be successfully grown. The olive trees not only served a research purpose but also contributed to the aesthetics of campus. Forbes combined the aesthetics of formal gardens he had experienced while traveling and lined the walkways with olive trees while also complying with the randomized design requirements of research.

Many of Forbes' olive trees remain on campus to this day.


Portrait photographs of standout University of Arizona Presidents.

From left: Frank Gulley, Millard Parker, Richard Harvill and Henry Koffler.

Early presidents shaped campus life.

The first University of Arizona president was not officially a president but oversaw all the same duties before the title was created. This was Frank Arthur Gulley, the university's first employee, who worked at the University of Arizona from 1890 to 1894. He was hired as the dean of the School of Agriculture and director of the Experiment Station. Gulley's responsibilities included hiring faculty and overseeing every operation leading up to the university's opening day.

Third president Millard Mayhew Parker encouraged athletics. It was during his presidency that the tradition of the Territorial Cup, a trophy exchanged between the University of Arizona and Arizona State University based on athletic performance, began. The cup was first battled for during a football game in 1899; Parker's son was captain of the University of Arizona team.

Other notable presidents include Richard Anderson Harvill, who has had the longest presidency to date, spanning 20 years (1951-1971). During his presidency, 45 new buildings were constructed.

Additionally, Henry Koffler, who served as president from 1982 to 1991 was the first University of Arizona graduate to hold the position. Koffler earned his bachelor's degree in 1943, 39 years prior to his appointment as president.

Two men, a woman, and a baby standing in front of a quonset hut in Polo Village.

Two men, a woman and a baby stand in front of a Quonset hut in Polo Village, where Banner University Medical Center - Tucson stands today.

University of Arizona Special Collections

The coronavirus pandemic is not the first global event to affect students.

The Great Depression caused a great deal of hardship on campus. President Homer LeRoy Schantz made a difference on campus with his leadership, humor and optimism, which helped retain faculty even though they faced pay cuts.  

While the university was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression and low enrollment in the late 1930s, Pearl Harbor changed campus life. Courses and training programs popped up to support the war effort. In 1942, during World War II, the U.S. Navy invested $89,000 to transform Old Main from an educational building to a Naval Training School. After World War II, the Navy paid $20,000 to transform Old Main back into a campus building. After the war, thousands of servicemen came to the University of Arizona. Without sufficient housing to accommodate the sudden influx, 114 huts were erected as temporary dwellings.

A photograph from the 1989 Desert Yearbook, showing the debut of Wilma Wildcat

Wilma Wildcat made her debut in 1989.

1989 Desert Yearbook

From live bobcats to lighting the 'A,' school pride runs wild. 

While Wilbur Wildcat has been with the University of Arizona since 1959 and Wilma debuted in 1986, they were not the university's first mascots. That distinction goes to a live bobcat named Rufus Arizona, purchased by the freshmen football team in 1915 for $9.41. The use of live mascots and costumed ones had some overlap, and the use of live animal mascots was discontinued in 1970.

There is conflicting information regarding how the "A" on "A" Mountain came about, but most agree that the idea arose after a football victory against Pomona College. The construction of the "A" began Nov. 13, 1915.  A site was selected and cleared of shrubbery, and 70-by-160-foot trenches were dug in the shape of an "A," then filled in with basalt rock. The final step of the project, painting the "A" white, was completed March 4, 1916.

To this day, to signal the beginning of Homecoming week, the "A" is lit up using flares.


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