Well, if you’ve got a minute, I think I may have found… “The Rest… of the Story” – by Steve Cummings
Like most graduates of Cullman High School (Class of ’82), I got used to hearing that question. But, since I’m one of those people who needs to know trivia like that, I had looked it up years before Google. That way, I could tell the curious.
Two animals are known as ‘Bearcats.’ The first is the Lesser Red Panda – who is about the size of a big house cat & lives near the Himalayas. Their face kind of has the markings of the bearcat logo we use. They’re also called a “Fire Fox.” The other Bearcat is the Binturong. Solid black and weighing in up to 50 lbs, they live in Southeast Asia. In captivity, they’re not ferocious – I actually got to play with one once – the Hutchens family had one as a pet. His name was “Dorito” because Binturongs have musk glands that secrete a smell exactly like corn chips.
Anyway, back to the story. So I always assumed that back in the day when Cullman County High School was picking a mascot for their first football team in 1916 – they were really up to date on little-known species of super cute Pandas and Civets. But it was always confusing to me why they were so vague about the mascot – especially when neither of the two choices is officially called a Bearcat. And without the internet, how would they have even known about them? Well, if you know me, you know I love marketing, logos, and branding…and great branding always tells a story. But until now, I never really asked the question WHY Bearcats.
Yesterday I got a call from CHS Assistant Principal Aaron Sparks (who I’ve known since he played ball at Cullman); he asked if I knew when Cullman started using Bearcats as their official mascot. He had been going through old yearbooks trying to find out but without success. He thought since we had Cummings for 35+ years, maybe I’d heard the story. I told him I didn’t know, but I’d think about it. I always assumed that story was known but not widely told. So now I’m a man on a mission.
I love to solve problems, and I’m a sucker for those old Paul Harvey – “The Rest of the Story” stories. His question bounced around in my head, then an hour later, it hit me. The only major college that uses a Bearcat is The University of Cincinnati… John G. Cullmann lived in Cincinnati for several years and practiced law there before he came here. So maybe there’s a connection. It turns out lots of German families that moved here to settle Cullman were from Cincinnati. They came straight down the L & N Railroad that ran from Cincinnati to New Orleans right through Cullman. After more research, I found a huge German population in Cincinnati, almost 60% in the 1870s. So we can assume that new Cullman residents may have kept up with the news from their old hometown where they had connections, maybe even their alma mater.
Well, believe it or not, even though the University of Cincinnati doesn’t have 17 National Titles, they did have a football team seven years before the Crimson Tide played their first game in 1892. However, this is where it gets interesting. Just like the Crimson Tide got their name from a random comment from a newspaper guy, the Cincinnati Bearcats also got theirs from a seminal moment in time. It was October 31, 1914, and the Cincinnati “Red and Black,” as they were known, were playing and getting shut out at home by the Kentucky Wildcats 7-0. Finally, late in the game, a frustrated Cincinnati fullback hollered loud enough for the whole mild-mannered crowd to hear, “Just Give Me the G.D. BALL!!” He got his wish, he was huge for that era at 6 foot and 200 pounds, and he ran the ball right down the throat of the Wildcat defense. His name was Leonard K. “Teddy” Baehr (a nickname right out of ESPN’s Chris Berman playbook).
It was at this point as Teddy was bringing his team back from the dead, a male cheerleader started a chant, “They may be Wildcats, but we have a Baehr-cat on our side.” (I know.. it doesn’t rhyme). Anyway, the crowd took over and cheered back something a lot less wordy and much catchier, “Come on, Baehr-Cat!” (which I imagine may have sounded like another popular chant going around these days). “Come On – Baehr-Cat!” Clap-Clap… Clap-Clap-Clap. Well, the cheers, along with the dominance of the big fullback Teddy Baehr, Cincinnati beat Kentucky 14-7 that afternoon. Three days later, the front page of the school newspaper showed a cartoon of a scrawny Wild Cat being chased by a big “Bear-Cat.”
Well, after that, the name just stuck, and they became the Cincinnati Bearcats from then on. So it turns out, there was no student focus group looking through the Encyclopedia Britannica for a cool animal to pick as a mascot. There was just an outspoken dude that wanted the ball in a tough situation. He put the team on his back and motivated them to pull out a win when it looked hopeless. Back in the day, he was kind of a big deal and made all the papers. Some of those newspapers, I’m sure, made their way right down the railroad tracks and were read by sports fans here in Cullman who followed their old hometown University of Cincinnati football team. So by that logic, it’s not a huge leap to assume that when Cullman fields their first football team two years later, the name Bearcats makes the shortlist of possible mascots.
There’s also an extra factor that may have made Bearcats a No-Brainer for the early citizens of Cullman. Going back to my three years of German at CHS with the late and beloved Herr Swofford, we learned that Baehr, also spelled Bayer translates to “Bavarian.” Which is exactly the part of southern Germany where John G. Cullman and many of Cullman’s original families had their roots. Today we hear Bear – we only think of the animal, but Baehr-Cats… in their German ears would have definitely reminded them of home. So is it possible that all this time, we’ve been asking the wrong question? Instead of which fuzzy animal is ours? Maybe we’ve overlooked the cool story of the “Baehr” that wanted the ball and the “Bayer” that reminded those new American citizens of the old country.
Now every time you hear Bearcats, you’ll hear it through the lens of this story. The genius of great branding is being able to tell the story behind the brand. Until now, we didn’t have a story – now maybe we do. “Let’s Go Baehr-Cats!” Clap-Clap.. Clap-Clap-Clap.