Wildcat Willy: the hero we deserve

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A brief history of Wildcat Willy can be found along the perimeter track inside the Superior Dome. This edition of Willy was worn in the 1990s and is one of many iterations worn in Wildcat Willy history.

Alex Skinner

Fans of NMU athletics have enjoyed a long tradition of successful winning programs. The Nordic Ski team has consistently produced a string of national championship winners, and the relatively new Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving program has emerged as a perennial powerhouse.

The football program has seen its fair share of ups and downs, but earned the NCAA Division II National Championship title in 1975 and has produced notable alumni, such as former Michigan football head coach Lloyd Carr, NFL coach Steve Mariucci and former quarterback Phil Kessel, father of current NHL star Phil Kessel.

One local celebrity that can be seen at every major sporting event on campus, however, towers above the list of celebrated alum, our very own Wildcat Willy.

The first Wildcat Willie costume was introduced in 1964 by the Chi Sigma Nu fraternity and was present at every home football and basketball game. Members of the organization would alternate Willie duties, with community support for the character growing more and more with each appearance.

It wasn’t until 1989 that Willie underwent his first major appearance change. Student Jay McQuillen introduced clothing to Willie for the first time, electing to throw on a sports jersey rather than to parade a naked Wildcat costume. His second major change to the character was changing the name from ‘Wildcat Willie’ to ‘Wildcat Willy,’ like we see today.

McQuillen would go on to have an illustrious mascot career, as he went on to become the mascot for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and IHL’s Orlando Solar Bears. While attending NMU between 1984-89, McQuillen began his mascot career at NMU hockey games, but later became full time mascot for all sports on campus. He earned his Bachelors of Science in Liberal Arts with a major in Speech Communication in May 1989, and was later elected into the NMU Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.

One of the defining characteristics of Willy is his approachability. A major aspect in designing the perfect model is attempting to ensure that the costume wouldn’t scare fans and children away. Before Willy put on a football jersey for the first time and, for a short while afterwards, his costume was supposed to emulate a more realistic Wildcat. With his snarling growl and sheering gaze, Wildcat Willy needed a remodel.

In 1997, the decision to redo Willy’s costume was taken into effect. A new design was created to soften Willy’s harsh demeanor, with the new costume made to emulate a more cartoonish appearance. Enormous eyes and a black, bulging nose highlighted the kid-friendly look, while still adhering to the classic Wildcat Willy look by keeping the long, shaggy ears.

After a successful 20 years with that design, a logo rebranding commissioned by the university meant that Willy would also need to endure an appearance change. In the fall of 2017, the newest iteration of Wildcat Willy came to fruition, and the new costume can still be seen at sporting events and activities across campus.

Willy’s history as a friendly figure around the community stretches much further than just another student donning a costume. In the mid 1970s, a 38-pound live bobcat named Bobby was housed in Gant Hall, and later relocated to a pen behind Spooner Hall. She would travel with the athletic teams on road trips and was a fun showcase for the university.

One winter night, however, Bobby escaped from her cage and a local radio station set up a hotline. Responding to tips from ore boat workers who reported seeing a bobcat on their dock, Gant Hall Director John Gardner and fellow Hall Director Tom Manson managed to capture it with a gunny sack. It turned out to be a different bobcat, and Bobby was never seen again.

The legacy of Wildcat Willy will live on in NMU folklore. If you would like to rent Wildcat Willy for your next event, an appearance request form can be found at www.nmuwildcats.com.