PERCHED AMONG THE LIVE OAKS of “College Hill,” the University of Texas at Austin opened its doors in 1883 to a class of 221 students eager to establish the beloved traditions that thrive there today. As UT grew from 40 acres to its current sprawl of more than 350 acres, so did the legends and stories that supply its rich history—especially those centered around football. The first game, the first mascot, the first university colors . . . it all had to start somewhere.
UT’s first football game—a combination of rugby and modern football—was played December 4, 1883, on a grassy hill just north of the Capitol. A small group of students attending the university’s first year of classes lost against the Texas German and English Academy. Despite the loss, a law student by the name of Gilbert Bee Willet later commemorated the event in a poem called “The First Battle.”
UT students and athletes have not always sported the signature burnt orange and white colors that brighten the campus today. In fact, deciding on the university colors took more than eighty years to settle. It began in 1885, when a group of baseball fans thought some colors would help them show support for UT’s upcoming game against Southwestern University in Georgetown. Two young men rushed to the nearest general store on Congress Avenue, requested any two colors available in large quantity, and purchased six bolts each of white and orange ribbon. Their choice did not become official until May 1900, after the board of regents tallied the votes of 1,111 students, faculty members, and alumni. Orange and white received 562 votes, orange and maroon followed with 310, royal blue alone received 203, and various other colors trailed with less than 15 votes each. Over the next few decades, many different shades of orange were used until the board of regents settled upon burnt orange—what they deemed “Texas Orange”—on June 17, 1967.
UT’s first mascot was a dog lovingly known as Pig Bellmont. L. Theo Bellmont, UT’s first athletic director and co-founder of the Southwest Athletic Conference, brought Pig to the campus in 1914. The dog spent the next nine years winning the hearts of students and faculty members, wandering the forty acres daily, stopping by campus buildings, attending sporting events, and retreating to his favorite spot under the University Co-op steps every evening. He was dubbed “Pig” after football fans noticed the similarly bowlegged stance of both the dog and football center Gus “Pig” Dittmar. A short time later, on New Year’s Day 1923, UT lost its first mascot in a tragic car accident at the corner of Twenty-fourth and Guadalupe streets. Pig received the highest honors upon his death, including a closed black casket, a funeral procession led by the Longhorn Band, and a heartfelt eulogy delivered by the dean and founder of the College of Engineering, Thomas U. Taylor. A marker left to commemorate Pig’s dedication to the university was inscribed with the epitaph, “Pig’s Dead . . . Dog Gone.”
Before 1913, the UT football team was often called “varsity,” “Steers,” and occasionally “Longhorns.” That year UT benefactor H. J. Lutcher Stark donated a slew of blankets to the athletic department, each with the word “Longhorn” carefully stitched on the back. The name pleased students and athletes so much that they deemed it the official name of the UT football team and later presented the Longhorn steer as the team’s official mascot.
Former UT student Stephen Pinckney purchased the university’s first live Longhorn with $124 donated by alumni; ex-student T. B. Buffington presented the mascot to students at the 1916 Thanksgiving Day football game against Texas A&M. The Longhorns won 21—7, redeeming themselves from the previous year’s 13—0 loss. After the victory, a Daily Texan reporter announced that a T and the game’s score would be branded on the side of the steer, but the plan was halted after students protested the cruelty of such an act. Enticed by the possibility of revenge, some Aggies snuck into the South Austin stockyards and branded the 1915 game score of 13—0 on the Longhorn’s side. But creative UT students altered the numbers until they read “BEVO,” reversing the practical joke and officially naming the new mascot.
During certain times of the year Austinites can look at the city’s skyline and see the Main Tower piercing the darkness with orange and white floodlights symbolizing a victory in football, baseball, basketball, and any other sport. The massive light system was installed and tested in 1937 upon completed construction of the tower itself, and university officials immediately decided to use the lights when the Longhorns won a game. The issue of exactly when and how to use the lights remained undetermined until October 1947, when a committee devised the schedule for displaying the victory lights that included the complete orange flooding of the tower on nights of Thanksgiving Day football victories. All other football wins would find the tower shaft bathed in white and the observation and column decks lit with orange. In 1973, amidst a national energy crisis, university officials pulled the plug on victory lights, returning them to power a year later.
That familiar hand symbol made by extending the index and little fingers and hiding the others behind the thumb—”Hook ’em, Horns”—did not appear at a UT football game until 1955, when head yell leader Harley Clark, Jr., introduced the sign at a night pep rally preceding the game against Texas Christian University. It did not take long for his formal suggestion to become one of UT’s most identifiable symbols, expressed whenever students sing “The Eyes of Texas,” a song composed in 1903 by student John Long Sinclair and inspired by the words of UT’s third president, William L. Prather.