The Story of Bear Down
University of Arizona Athletics’ most enduring tradition is the slogan and battle cry, “Bear Down.”
More than a casual piece of encouragement, the rallying phrase has roots nearing a century old, to the Roaring ‘20s, and pre-dates another venerated exhortation, “Win one for the Gipper,” by several years.
In the fall of 1926, John Byrd “Button” Salmon was newly installed student body president at the UA, a promising student and member of note of several of the school’s honor societies. He also was a varsity quarterback, a baseball catcher and generally acclaimed popular campus figure. He embodied all-around.
In early October after the Wildcat varsity defeated the freshman squad in an annual match at the time, Salmon and several friends were returning from a visit to Phoenix, and an automobile crash north of Tucson near Florence left the young athlete critically injured.
Salmon, then 22, lost his battle and died the morning of Oct. 18. A memorial service was held on campus that week, drawing a reported thousand mourners, and a line of cars stretched miles to his burial plot.
The coach at the time, J.F. “Pop” McKale, had visited Salmon in the hospital regularly before his death, and later told the squad the young athlete’s last message to his teammates was, “Tell them... tell the team to bear down.”
It’s unclear whether McKale invoked the phrase to the team before one of several games that year, a contest in Las Cruces against New Mexico A&M (NMSU) that same week, or two weeks later before a game against New Mexico in Tucson. UA won both.
But when word spread, the UA student body drew to the phrase swiftly, and among other uses painted the slogan on the roof of the university gymnasium shortly thereafter, known since as Bear Down Gym. An airplane view of that huge-lettered phrase caused eventual long-time band director Jack K. Lee to write the song, “Bear Down, Arizona” during his application for the UA band job. The song, and Douglas Holsclaw’s “Fight, Wildcats, Fight,” are played throughout University of Arizona sporting events, and from the campus belltower daily.
A memorial to Salmon, a bronze bust mounted on marble outside McKale Memorial Center, was erected in 1986 and soon should move to more visible quarters near the new Lowell-Stevens Football Facility. In spring of 2008, another highway memorial honoring the Bear Down tradition was installed along State Route 79 near the site of the tragic crash at Florence.
With or without the pieces of bronze and marble, Bear Down as a phrase and song has been inexorably a part of UA athletics, woven into its fabric year after year since October 1926. Too, since 2000, UA Athletics has awarded John Button Salmon Awards to 17 former coaches or administrators for exemplary leadership and service to the University, in honor of the tradition’s namesake.
“Button” Salmon died generations ago but his message still echoes across every UA athletic venue, in every corner and through every building on campus, and in the thoughts of tens of thousands of Wildcat supporters past, present and future.