Since the earliest days of recorded University of Michigan history (as early as 1861), the students and alumni have been referring to themselves as “Wolverines”. While this moniker has proven successful for over a hundred years of intercollegiate sports, what is the reason for it? And moreover, what exactly is a wolverine?

The simplest reason for the wolverine nickname would be that the animal was abundant in Michigan for some time. However, all evidence points otherwise, as there has never been a verified trapping of a wolverine inside the state’s borders, nor have skeletal remains of a wolverine been found in the 96,705 square miles that comprise Michigan. In fact, there had never been a verified sighting of a wild wolverine inside Michigan until February 2004.

The truth is that there is no truly known reason why the Wolverine was chosen as a nickname. However, there are several theories.

The great Michigan football coach Fielding H. Yost had a theory for the nickname, which he wrote about in the Michigan Quarterly in 1944. Yost felt the reason for the nickname concerned the trading of wolverine pelts which occurred in Sault St. Marie for many years. The trading station served as an exchange between the Indians and other trappers and fur traders, who would eventually ship the products of to the Eastern United States. Because many of the furs were in fact wolverine pelts, traders may have referred to them as “Michigan wolverines”, leading to the state nickname and ultimately to the University of Michigan representation.

Eight years later in the Michigan Quarterly Review of 1952, Albert H. Marckwardt presented another theory for the “wolverine” name. Marckwardt’s reasoning is based when Michigan was first settled by the French in the late 1700s. The appetites of the French who made up a sizable portion of the settlers were judged to be gluttonous or “wolverine-like” and therefore, the title wolverines was set upon them.

The last theory surrounds the border dispute between Michigan and Ohio in 1803. While the two sides argued over proper setting of the state line, The Michiganders were called wolverines. It was unclear, however, whether the Michigan natives pinned the name upon themselves to show their tenacity and strength or whether Ohioans chose the name on account of the gluttonous habit of the wolverine. From then on, Michigan was labeled “the Wolverine state: and when the University of Michigan was founded, it simply adopted the nickname of the state it represented.

While wild wolverines exist in Oregon, Montana, Washington, Colorado, Wyoming, California, and parts of Canada, there are no wild wolverines in Michigan. All the wolverines necessary can be found on the fields, courts and rinks of Ann Arbor.

Despite the wolverine’s ferocity, Fielding Yost set out to find one in 1923, upon seeing Wisconsin carrying live badgers along with its football team. Yost’s desire met with difficulty, as the coach had problems finding a dealer in live wolverines. After a letter to 68 trappers yielded no mascot for his team. Yost expanded his wish to any wolverine, alive or dead. Yost finally got word of a mounted wolverine belonging to Michigan Senator, William Alden Smith, and made a deal to secure the wolverine for his team. However, Yost went to Smith’s home only to find that the specimen was actually a coyote.

Yost was able to obtain a mounted wolverine from the Hudson Bay Fur Company in the fall of 1924, but his quest for a live one continued. In 1927, 10 wolverines were obtained from Alaska and placed in the Detroit Zoo. On big football days, two of these wolverines were brought to Michigan Stadium and carried around in cages.

However, the animals grew larger and more ferocious, and as Yost states, “It was obvious that Michigan mascots had designs on the Michigan men toting them, and those designs were no means friendly.” Therefore the practice of bringing wolverines into the stadium had to be discontinued after only one year. However, one of the wolverines was not returned to the zoo. Instead “Biff” was put in a cage at the University of Michigan Zoo where students were able to visit him at times. In 1937, the Chevrolet Motor Company donated a wolverine (as well as a cage to keep it in), to the University of Michigan. It was unclear how long this wolverine lasted, but it is known that no live wolverines have been in the stadium in the last half century.

For more information about the Wolverine please visit the Wolverine Foundation.

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