A matter of tradition

This is the second in a five-part series highlighting UH’s 80-year history

During the past 80 years, the University of Houston has developed many traditions ranging from burning faux wooden oil rigs, housing a three-toed Mexican cougar and even holding fiesta-themed barbecue cook offs.

While some older traditions have left impressions that are still with us today, others are just starting to gain momentum among Cougars.

Frontier Fiesta – one of UH’s oldest traditions – is an annual event started by a group of campus leaders in 1940 as a way to encourage school spirit and raise money. The fiesta-themed event is hosted in a town named "Fiesta City, " which is built each year at Robertson Stadium parking lot and gives new students an idea of what campus life is all about.

Alumna and Student Programs Vice President Tonja Jones, who has worked at the University for 13 years, said she believes the event’s diversity is what continues the tradition.

"It’s a concert for everyone. You’ve got your Tejano and your r’b – that’s what keeps the legacy and tradition by catering to all students," Jones said.

The first Frontier Fiesta, which usually is in spring semester, entertained about 5,000 spectators and raised $2,000 to help fund UH’s first student recreation center, according to The University of Houston Magazine Online.

The tradition of Homecoming dates back to 1946. According to Our Time, a book celebrating the first 75 years of the UH, the tradition was started when the Cougar Football program began after the World War II era. When it first began, it included a full day of events including breakfast, afternoon activities and an evening football banquet followed by a ball. Today’s homecoming events usually run more than 10 days and are capped off by the football game. The week’s events consist of pep rallies, dances, concerts, a parade, a spirit week and tailgates. All of which are made possible through the joint efforts of alumni, students, faculty and staff.

"The tailgates are much fuller and there’s more of an effort to make everyone feel welcome," Jones said. "If you don’t get involved with any other games, homecoming is the one to come out to whether you’re a student or an alumni. It’s the one opportunity for you to come out and get involved."

The story of the school’s mascot is another source from which other UH traditions were derived.

When head football coach and professor John Bender formed the first athletics program for UH he also came up with the idea for UH’s mascot, the Cougar, according to the UH Traditions Web site.

In 1947, the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity purchased a live cougar and had a contest so students could name the animal mascot. After 225 entries, Shasta became the name. Joe Randol, a UH student at the time, explained the name as "Shasta, ‘she has to’ have a cage, ‘she has to’ have a keeper, ‘she has to’ have the best."

Between the years of 1947 through 1989, five live cougars served as mascots. Costumed students now carry on the traditions of Shasta.

One legendary tradition is the Cougar Sign, which is made by folding in your ring finger of your hand toward your palm.

The Cougar Sign traces back to 1953 when the UH Cougar football team first played against the University of Texas Longhorns, according to the UH Traditions Web site.

Fraternity members of Alpha Phi Omega were in charge of caring for Shasta, the first real live Cougar, to attend the game. On the way to the game, Shasta’s front paw was caught in the car door and one of her toes was cut off. The Longhorns heard of what happened to Shasta and during the game began mocking UH by holding up their hands with the ring finger bent.

UH took the gesture and adopted it as their own, and would never let UT forget this incident. In 1976, UH played UT at the Southwest Conference where UH was finally able to beat UT with a score of 30 to 0. In front of the largest crowd attendance -77,809 – in UH history, the Longhorns were finally defeated and since then UH has not played UT.

Other than at football games Shasta has been rallied around at all UH sporting events and has been a tradition since 1947.

According to Jones, a newer tradition gaining momentum on campus is the rubbing of the paw from the cougar outside of Ezekiel W. Cullen for good luck the Friday before Saturday game days.

"It’s important to know every time we come on pep rally day that we’re going to rub the Cougar paw," Jones said.

Whether it’s the celebration of a full-blown fiesta or the history of the mascot Shasta, these are only a few of several traditions the University continues to carry on.

Additional reporting by Ruth Rodriguez

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