Situated on the plains of central Nebraska, the University of Nebraska at Kearney has been known as the Lopers for over a century. The moniker, the origins of which is not totally clear, was born out of a misnomer and is one of the longest running mascots in the state. The name has ties to an Arizona school and uses a hand gesture that may have originally been made to mock a certain school in Texas. The name has been consistent through several official school name changes and has represented a spirit of independence, durability, and athleticism that has represented the school and central Nebraska for many years.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney mascot can trace its name back to the start of the 20th century. Though it is not entirely clear, even to the most knowledgeable historians at the University, the use of Antelopes first appeared around 1910 in the student newspaper. Supposedly, the name was chosen by the student body at the time.
The paper wrote, “the swiftest, most beautiful and most graceful animal in the Western plains. (The) Antelope appeals as a fitting emblem of a school located on the broad prairie of Nebraska, where the antelopes once roamed so freely.” Though all of these qualities are true of this graceful animal, it’s association with the prairie of Nebraska, and well, North America is widely misunderstood even to this day.
The antelope and its myriad of subspecies are actually only native to locations in Africa, Asia, and Europe. There are no antelopes in North America. The closest relative, and likely the animal students in 1910 had in mind when they made their decision, is the pronghorn. Very similar to the antelope, the pronghorn actually falls into a different taxonomic family. You can tell the difference between the two by the distinctive horns that grow on pronghorns. These horns are a strange hybrid of bone antlers and traditional keratin horns found in other species across the world. Whereas most keratin horns are permanent and have a single point, the set on the pronghorns shed annually and have an additional, forward facing tip where the animal’s name derives from.
Despite the misnomer, the name stuck. Onward through the 20th century the school was proud to be associated with the beautiful and athletic animal. The name was first seen shortened to ‘Lopers’ in the 1950’s in sports coverage by the local newspaper, the Kearney Hub. The nickname quickly stuck and the name has been carried by the school since. Curiously, another school that uses the antelope as their mascot, Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, arrived at their own variation of the animal’s name. The school dropped the ‘r’ and affectionately refer to themselves as the ‘Lopes.’
Though the nickname is not shared, the two schools do share a hand gesture. Students at both institutions often hold up their pinky and index fingers to imitate the horns of an antelope while the rest of their fingers create a snout-like shape. Supposedly, this gesture originated from a GCU freshman in the early 2000’s, who began using the gesture as a mocking imitation of the University of Texas popular ‘Hook Em’ hand motion. The motion caught like wildfire and made the jump across state lines to UNK.
Thanks to its mascot name, UNK has enjoyed a relatively consistent identity even through some major changes to its official naming and role within Nebraska. Prior to 1991, UNK had gone through several variations of Kearney State College. The school adopted the University of Nebraska at Kearney name not long after it was officially added to the University of Nebraska system in 1989. Along with its new name, the school added its official costumed mascot, Louie the Loper in 1991. Louie can be seen at nearly every sporting event cheering on Loper athletes. Always enjoying the spotlight, he likes to change his outfit depending on the season. During the fall you’ll see him in a blue football jersey while, during winter and spring sports, he’ll don a stylish white basketball jersey and shorts.
Though the actual animal may have never set hoof on Nebraska prairie, the region has enjoyed a rich history of Loper identity and success. Through name changes, associations with a southwest school who may have messed with Texas, and introduction into the wider Nebraska University system, the Loper has been a constant symbol within the Kearney community and central Nebraska. UNK Athletic Director, Marc Bauer said it well, “I think that our mascot is an ambassador for our school because that character is a part of our identity. We take a lot of pride in how we represent our institution in our community.”