'Bear Down, Arizona' Turns 70

Nov. 1, 2022

Fight song composed by UArizona's Jack K. Lee continues to energize Wildcat faithful

UA band in front of old main

“Bear down, Arizona/ Bear down, red and blue/ Bear down, Arizona/ Hit ’em hard, let ’em know who’s who.” Devoted University of Arizona fans have sung those beloved words from the top rows of McKale Memorial Center and Arizona Stadium, supporting Wildcat teams alongside thousands of others, and they have bellowed them from the bowels of Arizona playing fields, gazing up at the game clock, hoping for last-minute, go-ahead wins.

For almost anyone who spends time on campus in Tucson, “Bear Down, Arizona,” the fight song that turns 70 years old this year, might as well be a permanent fixture on Billboard’s Hot 100. Set to the tight rhythms of snare drums and featuring blaring brass, the song has a way of seeping into life at the university, where students can hear the Pride of Arizona band in rehearsal right through the walls of the Main Library — even on the top, “silent” floors.

Composed by Jack K. Lee during a flight from Tucson to his home state, Ohio, after he interviewed for the position of UArizona marching band director in 1952, the song has gained traction over the decades. It was not Lee’s only contribution as a composer — he published more than 80 songs for marching band, orchestra, choir and concert band — but “Bear Down, Arizona” continues to capture the imagination of the Wildcat community.

As the song completes its seventh decade of near round-the-clock play, it is worth remembering Lee and another figure, John Byrd “Button” Salmon, without whom the tune might never have been.

The song’s signal phrase, after all, comes from Salmon, a leading Wildcat scholar-athlete in the 1920s, not long after UArizona completed its first-ever football season

in 1899. Salmon played quarterback, suited up as a catcher for the baseball team and was serving as president of the student body in 1926 — the same year, as fate would have it, that his life came to an end and the university’s journey toward “Bear Down, Arizona” in a sense began.

Driving that October from Phoenix to Tucson, his teammates beside him, Salmon sustained critical injuries in a wreck outside the town of Florence. His coach, J.F. “Pop” McKale, visited the injured Salmon multiple times, with the quarterback passing along this message to his team: “Tell them to bear down.”

Thus, the fight song represents a plea — originally to the teammates who would press on without Salmon — to push forward, no matter the obstacles. “Go, go, Wildcats, go,” Lee’s song concludes. “Arizona, bear down.”

Lee, for his part, received the band directorship at the university and remained there until 1980, taking his students in 1967 to perform at Super Bowl I — contested by the Bart Starr-led Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles’ Memorial Coliseum, which still stands today.

A creative mind in both composition and marching technique, Lee would fly his Wildcat bands to Europe in the summers, where they performed in more than 15 countries during his tenure. The Akron native passed away in 2005, but across campus, new generations continue to sing his rousing song.

The Jack Lee Bear Down Endowment, 40-10-4193, supports the Pride of Arizona marching band.

—Matt Morris 

The Arizona Daily Star article

The Arizona Daily Star covered the debut of Jack K. Lee’s enduring fight song, which he composed in 1952 while flying from Tucson after interviewing — successfully — to direct the Wildcat marching band, today known as the Pride of Arizona.