The Penn State Nittany Lions, one of the most iconic programs in all of college sports, are one of many teams with a completely made-up mascot.
Penn State athletics adopted the Nittany Lion name after the school's baseball team went up against the Princeton Tigers in 1904. Joe Mason, a senior member of the baseball team, was embarrassed by Penn State's lack of a mascot vs. Princeton's intimidating tiger, so he thought of the one thing that could take down a tiger...a lion. Instead of just being called "The Lions", Joe thought of a way to pay homage to Mount Nittany, a mountain range in Pennsylvania that lions roamed up until the 1880's. So on that day, for the first time ever, a Penn State team played a game as the Nittany Lions.
The team beat Princeton and Joe Mason became a man on a mission, he wanted the Nittany Lion to become the official mascot of Pennsylvania State University. Although the Nittany Lion isn't a real animal, the Penn State baseball player was able to get the student body excited about the new name and Penn State's teams have been known as the Nittany Lions ever since.
The Nittany Lion was not necessarily Penn State's first mascot.
Although it was never official, a mule named "Old Coaly" was accepted by many as the school's first mascot. Old Coaly was purchased by the university in 1863 for $190 and helped with farm chores and construction around campus for the next 30 years. Old Coaly eventually passed away, but the mule's legacy lives on as its skeleton has been preserved and placed in the downstairs of the HUB-Roberson Center located on Penn State's campus.
So, if you're ever with a group of friends and someone asks "what is a Nittany Lion?" feel free to say that it's not an actual animal, it is a fictional type of lion that got its name from a mountain range in Centre County, Pennsylvania.