Wildcat Willy: A Furry History in Green and Gold

Mary Wardell

If NMU mascot Wildcat Willy could speak, he’d have quite the story to share.

Long before his time, at NMU’s first football game in 1904 against Hancock High School, Northern’s team was known as the “Teachers.” In 1923, we were known as the “Normalites,” then the “Northerners” and finally the “Upstaters.”

Wildlcat Willy has been cheering on his fellow 'Cats and marching in NMU parades for over 30 years. Five secret students bring Willy to life at events. (Photo: Anthony Viola)
Wildlcat Willy has been cheering on his fellow ‘Cats and marching in NMU parades for over 30 years. Five secret students bring Willy to life at events. (Photo: Anthony Viola)

The first mention of the name “Wildcats” dates back to basketball coach C.B. Hedgcock in 1935, when he dubbed his man-to-man defense the “Cubs” and his zone defense the “Cats.”

He explained his decision in a letter in 1937.

“In man-to-man, you have to be quicker and because the cubs are the natural offspring of wildcats, bobcats, any kind of cat when they’re younger, the man-to-man unit will be known as a Cub, while members of the older, more methodical zone defense groups will be known as the Cats… the Wildcats.”

Wildcat Willy himself first appeared in the ’60s at basketball and football games, an innovation of the Chi Sigma Nu Fraternity. His presence evidently continued into the ’70s, though there was no uniting concept or costume throughout that time.

In October 1970, a live female bobcat, named Bobby, was purchased as a mascot for $500 with funds donated by Student Activities and the Area Training Center in Marquette. She lived in a cage attached to the power plant behind Spooner Hall, and was provided by food services with 1 pound of raw meat per day.

An article by Elizabeth Kramer in NMU’s tri-annual magazine, “Horizons,” describes one account of what became of Bobby, whose actual story is hazy, having become the stuff of legend.

Kramer described how Bobby escaped from her cage and was discovered by ore boat workers, who reported to a radio station hotline that a bobcat was on the dock.

The bobcat was captured by NMU faculty and put in a gunny sack, but it was covered in porcupine quills.

Upon taking the cat to a veterinarian, explaining that the bobcat was their declawed mascot, the vet informed them that this cat had all its claws. They had captured a real wildcat. They set it free in the woods, but the real Bobby was never found.

“And that was the end of NMU’s live mascot era,” Kramer said.

Present day Wildcat Willy was conceived between 1984 and 1989, when student Jay McQuillan was selected by hockey coach Rick Comley to use Willy as a way to enliven hockey games and bring spirit to NMU fans.

McQuillan proved very dedicated to the mascot, detailing his experience in a 2007 “Horizons” article. He was responsible for giving Willy pants, his own jersey, the number double zero and for uniting Willy into one figure for all hockey, basketball and football games. He developed a prop bag, throwing nerf balls into the stands, spraying pictures on the glass with bathroom cleaner at hockey games, and sitting on the lap of the English secretary, among other beloved traditions of the time. Joking that he majored in “Halloween,” McQuillan went on to become mascots for the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning and the IHL Orlando Solar Bears.

Wildcat Willy lives on today through five NMU students whose identity must remain a secret, as they bring team spirit and humor to every NMU game.

“Everyone knows that familiar sight of Wildcat Willie,” NMU football Head Coach Chris Ostrowsky said. “In fact, Willy and NMU sports are almost synonymous. What many people do not know is how much of an integral part of Wildcat athletics Willy really is. He is an awesome part of the college game day experience and is much appreciated.”

Wildcat Willy even has his own children’s books, as he is after all an excellent role model. Courageous, spirited and full of surprises, Wildcat Willy continues to be a point of pride in NMU culture and history.

All unattributed historical information comes from “A Sense of Time: The Encyclopedia of Northern Michigan University” (1999), by Russell Magnaghi.