The white-tailed deer is Michigan’s official state mammal, which makes the Mitten State’s longstanding nickname as The Wolverine State something of a misnomer. As the story goes, Native Americans and Ohioans in the 1830s perceived Michiganians to be ruthless, much like the large weasels. The moniker stuck because, until recently, the state was home to at least one wild wolverine (the Detroit Zoo’s resident creature doesn’t count). When our wild mascot was spotted in 2004, that was the first wolverine sighting in Michigan in nearly two centuries — that is, until a pair of hikers reportedly found the same animal dead in 2010.
Although the wolverine is gone, its spirit is honored by the University of Michigan — an identity that could become even more prominent on football Saturdays if U-M Athletic Director Dave Brandon has his way. “We’re interested in doing a mascot, but it has to be something that fans love, that children love, and everyone can embrace,” Brandon told Michigan Today in June. (So much for that ruthless reputation.)
In the 1920s, an attempt to use two live wolverines on the Michigan football sidelines turned disastrous — the pair didn’t exactly exude unbridled school spirit. In the late ’80s, a group of U-M students created Willy the Wolverine — a cuddly fellow birthed from rounds of intense marketing research. After a few tenuous years, Willy was put to rest by a cease-and-desist order from the school. (Two of his creators, Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell, went on to found the vastly successful Groupon.)
Another theory of how Michigan came to be The Wolverine State was put forth in 1944 by former Michigan football coach Fielding H. Yost in The Michigan Quarterly Review. Yost said he believed the nickname stemmed from the abundance of wolverine pelts once traded in Sault Ste. Marie. The traders, he speculated, might have referred to them as “Michigan wolverines.”
Regardless of whether either story is true, and despite the apparent absence of the creature within state boundaries, the name has sunk its teeth into the Michigan brand. Whitepages.com lists 332 Michigan businesses using the wolverine name.
As for the Big Ten team, we’re guessing there’s little chance they’d rather be known as the white-tailed deer.
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