First, why "Nittany"? “Nittany” was around before Penn State, but it certainly has been used by the school (and half of the local businesses within 20 miles) for years.
What is the etymology of the term? The origins of "Nittany" are a bit obscure, but most likely the word comes from a Native American term meaning, "single mountain." Since a number of Algonquian-speaking tribes inhabited central Pennsylvania, the term can’t be traced to one single group. The description applied to the mountain that separates what is today Penns Valley and Nittany Valley, with its western end overlooking the community of State College and Penn State's University Park campus. The first colonial settlers in the 1700s adopted this term, or a variation of it, in formally naming Nittany Mountain (see William Ames' famed photograph of this location, here). Thus by the time Penn State admitted its first students in 1859, the word "Nittany" was already in use.
Following the emergence of the Nittany Lion mascot in the early 1900s, Nittany gained even more public prominence. Today, the word helps to define a host of places, services, and other entities in the Nittany Valley.
The standard line routinely goes something like this: "The Nittany Lion is the mascot of the Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, USA and its athletic teams. It refers to the mountain lions that once roamed near the school, and to Mount Nittany, a local landmark. There is also a fight song played during sporting events on campus entitled 'The Nittany Lion.'"
The Masonic connection is there, however. Well, at least, technically, although it is all about the name, not the Freemasons.
According to PSU sources, the mascot was the creation of Penn State senior H. D. "Joe" Mason in 1907. While on a 1904 trip to Princeton University, Mason had been embarrassed that Penn State did not have a mascot. Mason did not let that deter him: he fabricated the Nittany Lion on the spot and proclaimed that it would easily defeat the Princeton Bengal tiger. The Lion's primary means of attack against the Tiger would be its strong right arm, capable of slaying any foes (this is now traditionally exemplified through one-armed push-ups after the team scores a touchdown). Upon returning to campus, he set about making his invention a reality. In 1907, Mason wrote in the student publication The Lemon:
Every college the world over of any consequence has a college emblem of some kind—all but The Pennsylvania State College . . .. Why not select for ours the king of beasts—the Lion!! Dignified, courageous, magnificent, the Lion allegorically represents all that our College Spirit should be, so why not 'the Nittany Mountain Lion'? Why cannot State have a kingly, all-conquering Lion as the eternal sentinel?These words later inspired the fight song known as "The Nittany Lion", which begins "Every college has a legend...".
Mountain lions had roamed on nearby Mount Nittany until the 1880s. The origin of the name "Mount Nittany" is obscure, the most commonly accepted explanation being that it is derived of Native American words (loosely pronounced as "neet-a-nee") named after the cougars that roamed the mountain or "single mountain" - a protective barrier against the elements. The name was readily accepted without a vote of the student body. In 1907, the first tangible lion symbols appeared with the placing of two alabaster African lion statues, left over from the Pennsylvania exhibit at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, atop the columns at the main campus entrance on College and Allen streets. They were affectionately dubbed by the student body as "Pa" and "Ma." In the 1920s, a pair of stuffed mountain lions was placed in the Recreation Building to watch over athletic events. One of these original lions is now located in Pattee Library on the Penn State campus. About that same time, the tradition was established of having a student dressed in furry-lion outfits appear at football games.
In 1904, Joe Mason appears to have based the invention of the "Nittany Lion" on the African lion, not the mountain lions of Pennsylvania, but then, the urban legend around Penn State's "Lions" has a huge publicity relations machine behind it, even today. It will be working overtime as the verdict in the Sandusky trial comes in...