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How Nevada became known as the 'Wolf Pack' and not 'Sagebrushers'

Wolfie welcomes you to Nevada. (UNR photo)

As the Silver State's southern school, UNLV, eyes a potential mascot and nickname change (we have some suggestions if it does), it's worth taking a look at how the state's northern school, Nevada, got its nickname: the Wolf Pack.

It's an odd choice for one obvious reason. Nevada isn't home to wolves. But that was the mascot chosen in 1922 after the school distanced itself from its original nickname, the Sagebrushers (or sometimes Sagehens, or in print the Sage Warriors). Sagebrush is Nevada's state flower, and the university was originally located in Elko, where sagebrush is aplenty.

The Sagebrusher name dates to the late 1890s when Nevada had few athletic teams. The school moved to Reno in 1885 and began adding more sports programs in the early 1900s, following the lead of Ivy League and California schools. That prompted the need for an official mascot, whereas Sagebrushers was an unofficial name.

In the 1921-22 season, a local writer described the spirited play of Nevada as "a pack of wild wolves." This article inspired Leslie Bruce, a student and editor of the Nevada Sagebrush, to publish a poll in an issue of the school paper asking students to vote on a new name for the school's athletic teams.

Unfortunately, Bruce died in a tragic accident before the votes were tallied. In honor of Bruce, the school rallied to officially change the team's nickname to Wolf Pack.

"They rallied around this deceased student and chose the name partly because of him," Amy Hunsaker, a librarian and Wolf Pack historian with UNR Libraries, said in 2018. "Now, we do not have wolves in the state of Nevada, but the student population felt like wolves embodied the spirit of Nevada."

The school attempted to raise a live mascot called "Willie the Wolf," although he was really a coyote puppy and was deemed a safety hazard by school administrators. That inspired students to dawn wolf costumes made of paper, plastic and carpet starting in the 1950s. In the 1970s, students started calling the human wolves "Wolfie," the name of the school's original mascot. Alphie took over for Wolfie in 1999. In 2007, Wolfie Jr. was added to the mix, and finally a female mascot, Luna, joined the crew in 2013.

"We are a family, we work together, we support each other, yet we are a force to be reckoned with," Hunsaker said of the Wolf Pack mascot fitting the school.

Nevada is one of two Division I athletic departments to be called the Wolf Pack, the other being the North Carolina Wolfpack. There are 12 known wolves, all red wolves, in North Carolina, so that nickname makes a little more geographical sense. (Worth noting: In 2012, a UNLV research team found unearthed fossil remains from an extinct wolf species north of Las Vegas, providing the first evidence the animal lived in Nevada at one point).

You can watch Miles Buergin's full video report on Nevada's nickname in Knowing Nevada feature originally published in 2018.

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