California Retrospective: At 50, UC Irvine has built its campus culture from the ground up

Barbara Terhune, right, and Linda Teply ride their bikes before attending opening-day classes at UC Irvine on Oct. 4, 1965.
(Frank Q. Brown / Los Angeles Times)

Oct. 4, 1965, was the first day of school for Mike Grayston — and for UC Irvine.

He came to campus when there were only 958 freshmen, 215 sophomores, 254 juniors, two seniors and 140 graduate students. The university owned 1,000 acres but was home to just eight buildings.

“There was just a lot of dirt,” Grayston said. “We started off with nothing, but then quickly built our own culture and traditions.”

In just 50 years, the school has acquired 1,475 acres for 500 buildings, which include more than 300 residential houses and five libraries.


UCI began the last school year with 5,394 freshmen, 4,870 sophomores, 6,168 juniors, 7,893 seniors and 4,262 graduate students.

Those numbers would have inundated the 118 faculty members the school employed in its inaugural year.

“The school is really an educational miracle,” founding UCI chemistry professor Hal Moore said. “There was no infrastructure for teaching or research yet, but we felt a sense of ownership. As far as all the other UCs that have been around for almost 100 years, I think we’re competitive with them.”

The founding year included a lot of important decisions, including choosing a mascot.

Grayston remembers when the university held a mascot election in November 1965. The options were a roadrunner, a golden bison, a sea hawk and — no joke — a unicorn.

But two water polo players, Pat Glasgow and Bob Ernst, and student Schuyler Hadley Bassett III had a different idea.

At the time, cartoonist Johnny Hart had a popular comic strip that featured an anteater who cried “Zot!” The three campaigned for the furry creature, making pins featuring the animal.


At a water polo game against Cal Poly, UCI students blew on paper party horns, mimicking the motion of the anteater’s tongue. UCI won.

By the time the election rolled around, students wrote in the anteater on the ballot. It took 56% of the vote, ahead of the second top vote-getter: “none of the above.”

“I think we all realized our school was a blank slate,” Grayston said. “We didn’t want to be another Berkeley or UCLA. We wanted to be the Anteaters.”

Mark Barcelona, a student who gives campus tours, said a tour isn’t complete without telling visitors the Anteater story.

Another quip Barcelona and other guides enjoy telling guests is that UCI’s football team has been undefeated since 1965.

That’s because there is no football team.

Nevertheless, the school has an accomplished athletic history.

Since 1965, the Anteaters have won 28 national championship titles, mostly in water polo and volleyball. The men’s basketball team went to the NCAA tournament this year for the first time.


UCI’s dance teams have also gotten national attention.

Directors and members of hip-hop dance crew Kaba Modern, founded in 1992, competed in the first season of MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew” in 2008.

In less than 23 years, the campus has produced seven dance teams. Some have competed in tournaments throughout Southern California, others internationally.

“Throughout the years, these teams each created a name for themselves,” current Kaba Modern member Marvin Ho said. “Any other university might have one or two teams, but at UCI there’s a huge unity among students just through dance.”

UCI’s faculty is also on the map. In 1995, F. Sherwood Rowland was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and Frederick Reines in physics. UCI biochemist Irwin Rose earned the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2004.

UCI chemists gained recent attention for their work in figuring out how to unboil eggs, a study that shows how tangled proteins can be pulled apart and reformed. The discovery could potentially streamline protein manufacturing and reduce costs for cancer treatments.

The campus even has titles for breaking six Guinness world records.

From 2010 to 2012, UCI broke the record for largest game of dodge ball, first with 1,745 students, then 4,000 and finally 6,084.


The following years, they took the titles for largest water-pistol fight, pillow fight and, most recently, game of capture the flag.

UCI’s 2014 graduating class of 2014 even secured a special speaker for its commencement ceremony: President Obama. By the end of Obama’s speech that sunny morning in June, new graduates had showed the president how to properly yell the Anteater’s battle cry, “Zot! Zot! Zot!”

But that was not UCI’s first time hosting a president.

President Johnson dedicated the school when it opened, when the campus was small and, as Grayston said, nothing but a bunch of dirt.

“It’s true we didn’t have much to begin with,” Grayston said. “But to be honest, we weren’t really thinking too much about that. We were too busy having fun.”