Sunshine, Vistas ... And Criminals

As winter tightens its grip around much of the nation, the lucky people of Yuma, Ariz., are still in shirtsleeves. Even in January, temperatures in this Sunbelt spot average in the mid-60s.

But when Michelle Longoria invited The Early Show for a visit, she really piqued some interest with the intriguing fact that Yuma's high school is nicknamed "Home of the Criminals."

Co-anchor Julie Chen headed west to check it out, for the latest installment in the "Tour My Town" series.

She quickly learned that it's Yuma's climate that draws thousands of visitors every winter. They fill the RV parks, some of which offer their very own golf courses, and nearly double the city's population.

But back to that business about the criminals. Chen followed up and found that when freshmen arrive at Yuma High School, they are "sentenced" to four years at the school. And when they graduate, they are considered "paroled".

Even the school's mascot is a "criminal" — and that can lead to some amusing misunderstandings.

"A lot of times kids think that we are reform school kids, kids that have been in trouble and that's why we're nicknamed the criminals," said Louie Pisano, Yuma High's basketball coach.

Actually, the real story began nearly 100 years ago, before Arizona was even a state.

That's when the area's most hardened convicts were sent to the Arizona Territorial Prison, an institution built from the bottom up by convict labor.

The prison closed in 1909, and according to Jesse Torres, prison park manager, the building was put to good use.

"In Yuma, the local high school burned down and they needed classes. And they decided, 'Well, where are we going to hold these classes? They looked up the hill here and saw this fantastic territorial prison and they said 'we'll use the prison as a high school'. And sure enough, for four years, from 1910 to 1914, it was used as a high school," said Torres.

The school relocated in 1914, but the time behind bars left its mark — along with the nickname, "Criminals."

"The old-timers used to tell me that when they'd go to Phoenix to play Phoenix football, we beat 'em for a state championship and they said, 'You guys are criminal!'" remembered Bobby Brooks, owner of Brownie's Diner.

And Jeff Magin, the school principal, told Chen it's a way of life now. "At first it was fighting words, but then it became a source of pride — and in 1917, it was officially adopted as a mascot of the school," said Magin.

So today, 2,800 students at Yuma High are bona fide criminals, and proud of it.

"There's Lions and Tigers and Warriors all across the United States but there's only one school that can claim to be the Criminals. And so we're proud of it. It's tradition, it's history," said principal Magin.

The school district is so proud of its "criminal" history that it even had bars from the old prison installed at the gate that leads to the school's sports field.

"It gives you kind of that little swagger when you go somewhere and intimidating," said Pisano. "Everywhere you go, everybody wants to get a T-shirt because they like that criminal logo."

To meet that demand, the school actually sells T-shirts and other "crim-wear" at the student store — aptly called the Cellblock.

As for those who object to all the criminal references, perhaps it's best to keep those feelings private.

"We had a council member who tried to change the name. They almost ran her out of town on a rail," said Mayor Larry Nelson.