Every time Brigham Young University sports fans yell, “Go, Cougars!” they are unwittingly honoring Eugene Lusk Roberts (AB 1916), BYU’s first athletic director and the Founder for Homecoming 2009. Roberts began calling BYU athletes “cougars” when he wrote sports columns for a Salt Lake City newspaper — and the name stuck.
Roberts will be honored during a variety of activites during BYU Homecoming 2009 Oct. 20-24.
The cougar, however, represents more than a mascot. Roberts selected cougars because the large cats roam the nearby Wasatch Mountains he hiked frequently. His hiking hobby led to the creation of the popular annual Timp hikes, which endured for nearly 60 years. So the cougar also represents Roberts’ wholehearted passion for the outdoors, which complemented his role as the man who directed BYU athletics from 1910 to 1928.
The Homecoming theme, “Reach for the Summit,” gets its inspiration from Roberts and reflects not only his hikes, but also his foresight in athletics, literature and religion.
Enrolling at Brigham Young Academy in 1898, Roberts as a student wrote articles and drew cartoons for the school newspaper and his classmates eventually elected him senior class president. Later, as athletic director, he used his persuasive writing and leadership skills to promote the building of the women’s gymnasium.
Additionally, Roberts pioneered the recreational leadership program. Under his watch, physical education became a bachelor’s degree program, and football — banned as “a barbarous, brutal exercise” near the turn of the century — returned to campus. (Roberts had played BYA football before the ban.)
Roberts nurtured such world-class athletes as Alma Richards, who became Utah’s first Olympic gold medalist, and Clinton Larson, who set a world high jump record that stood for 17 years.
But Roberts emphasized fitness for everyone, a focus that led to marching, folk dancing, square dancing and a rich intramural program. He even took a two-month leave from BYU to study ballroom dancing in New York City so he could bring social dance to campus.
His greatest joy came from serving the students at BYU. “This school furnished the proper staging for me to act out many of the parts I had so often practiced in mental dramatic rehearsal; to be a cause, to do something worthwhile, to assist in great mass movements; to influence individuals,” Roberts said. “These were dreams from my youth, and Brigham Young University furnished the setting for the realization of these dreams.”
As much as he loved athletics, Roberts delighted in the surrounding mountains, particularly Mount Timpanogos. He earned the name “Timpanogos Roberts” for his annual pilgrimage to the summit, which often drew thousands of hikers.
The hikes began in 1911 and continued 17 years beyond his death in 1953. They were discontinued to preserve the delicate mountain ecosystem, or as one writer penned, “In 1970, Timpanogos was loved to death when 3,500 made the summit.” Roberts named the trailhead Aspen Grove and helped forge a trail. He even created a Timpanogos legend.
Roberts left BYU in 1928 to share his administrative and educational talents at the University of Southern California. While there, he created a religion class for Latter-day Saint students, which was taught by Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve and became the forerunner of the first Institute of Religion of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outside the Intermountain area.
BYU celebrates Homecoming every fall, inviting students and alumni to honor the university’s legacy. Roberts’ recognition as the 2009 Founder is fitting; as president of the BYU Alumni Association from 1919 to 1920, he organized BYU’s first Homecoming celebration.
For more information, visit homecoming.byu.edu.