By Arizona Athletics
University of Arizona Athletics’ most enduring tradition is the slogan and battle cry, “Bear Down.”
More than a casual piece of encouragement, the rally cry has roots over a century old, to the Roaring ‘20s, and pre-dates another venerated exhortation, “Win one for the Gipper,” by two years.
In the fall of 1926, John Byrd “Button” Salmon was the newly installed student body president at the University of Arizona, 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. The Wildcats won both.
But when word spread, the university 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 university's 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.
Originally located outside the McKale Memorial Center upon its dedication in 1986, the bronze bust memorial to John “Button” Salmon was relocated in 2013 to more visible quarters near the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility. The new location placed the bust closer to the stadium, representative of Salmon’s participation in football. The bust faces southeast so that it may look across the former Kindall-Sancet baseball stadium and on to the current home of Arizona baseball, Hi Corbett Field, as well as Salmon's hometown of Bisbee.
As part of a new tradition established with the 2013 season, Arizona football players pass and touch the bust as a show of tribute as they complete the “Wildcat Walk” and enter the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility before every home game. The "Bear Down" rally cry also appears inside Arizona Stadium. Arizona’s FieldTurf playing surface features "Bear Down" in ghost lettering behind the prominent block “A” logo at midfield.
In spring of 2008, a 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 Arizona athletics, woven into its fabric year after year, since October 1926. Since 2000, Arizona Athletics has awarded John Button Salmon Awards to 23 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 Arizona 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.