As the annual Army-Navy football game approaches, supporters of the mighty Midshipmen might be asking themselves a simple question: why does the U.S. Naval Academy, an institution dedicated to the sea, have a landlubbing goat as its mascot?
Despite being founded in 1845 and establishing its football team in 1879, the academy didn’t adopt the goat mascot until 1890, and several instances suggest the origins of the academy rallying around “Bill the Goat.”
A bronze goat stands at the entrance to the academy’s grounds in Annapolis, Maryland, and a plaque there claims that midshipmen commandeered a goat in 1890 and brought it along to the first Army-Navy football game at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York.
The good luck goat came through that day, as Navy trounced their opponents 24-0.
Another sea tale posits that two ensigns were taking the goatskin of their ship’s deceased mascot to a taxidermist one year, but first stopped by the Army-Navy game being played in nearby Baltimore.
The Midshipmen were trailing at halftime when one of the ensigns wrapped himself in the goatskin and raced around the stadium to rally his comrades, according to the U.S. Naval Academy website.
Navy won that game, and as with the other origin story, the good luck goat became the Mids’ mascot in the process.
Then there’s Cmdr. Colby Chester, the Commandant of Midshipmen from 1891 to 1894, who was fond of goats and recruited a ship’s goat known as “El Cid” to serve as the mascot for the 1893 game. Navy won that year, 6-3.
Since then the academy has had a succession of goats, the majority named “Bill,” but a few brandished their own unique titles. The goat mascot from 1906 to 1912 was named “Three-to-Nothing Jack Dalton” in honor of the Navy kicker who won two successive Army-Navy games 3-0.
Jack’s pelt was later mounted and he can still be seen in the foyer of the Naval Academy’s Halsey Field House in a reared fighting pose, according to the academy website.
In 1914, the midshipmen selected a brown goat named “Satan” for his wicked temper. But following Navy’s defeat that year, the academy ran a newspaper advertisement in 1916 seeking “the meanest and fiercest goat possible.” That solicitation appears to have worked, as Navy beat Army that year and the new goat earned the name of “Bill VI.”
Since then, the academy has kept the “Bill” moniker for each of its goats, with “Bill XXXVII” currently serving in the exalted post.
And while goats in general might not suggest anything remotely maritime, the humble creature has roots in the sea.
Sailors for years brought goats aboard ships for very practical reasons. The cloven creatures provided a source of fresh milk, while their modest stature and stability on their feet made them easier to transport and handle than cattle, according to the U.S. Naval Institute.
Sailors would often release trips (or herds) of goats on otherwise deserted islands along their sea routes, so that they could later return to cull the herd for fresh meat and leather.
Even after modern technology emerged in the 19th century that allowed for better food storage, crews often brought goats aboard as a sort of ship mascot.
Go Navy, beat Army!
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.