Something I always found intriguing were school nicknames. I can remember a trivia question I had heard once long ago…”Name the seven Division I-A football teams whose nicknames do not end with the letter “S””. You know this is from several years back since that number has increased with the expansion of the number of football programs now competing at the FBS level. But where did these teams get their nicknames? Some, as you’ll see, have interesting stories.
My wife is a graduate of the University of South Florida. When she graduated in the late 1980s, the school didn’t even field a football team. In the 1960s the school held a contest and “Buccaneer” was to be the school’s nickname. Problem was, another Florida school was using that nickname so USF would be known as the “Golden Brahmans”. Yep, that’s right…the Golden Brahmans.
What’s even funnier than the nickname is that the school found out later that the other Florida school with the nickname Buccaneers…well, it was known as the Pirates. Well, “Golden Brahmans” stuck until 1982 when the school changed the nickname to the Bulls for marketing purposes. Good move.
Naming your school after a non-existent animal proved to be a good move too. In 1904 Penn State’s baseball team traveled to play Princeton. After seeing the imposing Princeton Tiger statue, one of the Penn State players, Harrison Mason, came up with a story about the fierce Nittany Lion and how it could tear up a Tiger. Thing is…there is no such thing as a Nittany Lion. Princeton didn’t have to know that. Mason and his boys won that day and the Nittany Lion legend was born.
The University of Cincinnati is known as the Bearcats. But did you know that the Bear they are named for is really a person? In 1914 the Cincy football team was playing Kentucky when the Cincy cheerleaders struck up a chant about their star fullback, Leonard K. “Teddy” Baehr. The chant was about a “Baehr-Cat”. The name stuck…the spelling changed, of course.
So all school’s have mascots, right? Funny you should ask. What’s the official mascot of Stanford University? That’s right, the school doesn’t have one. From 1930 to 1972 the school was known as the Indians, but that was deemed offensive and the school went nine years without a nickname of any sort. In 1981 the university president, Donald Kennedy, said the school would be represented by the color Cardinal. Hence, the Stanford Cardinal, who were one of the seven school’s which would have been an answer to the trivia question at the beginning of this story. Oh…and the school still does not have an official mascot.
The Vikings. The Sun Dodgers. The Malamutes. I’m pretty sure Washington fans are glad they are Huskies. Prior to 1922 UW was known as the Vikings and Sun Dodgers. That year, faculty, students, coaches, and alumni got together to select the official nickname. Malamutes was a finalist, but Huskies won out in the end.
And how about Oregon? A great nickname story there that stretches back to 1776. There was a group of Massachusetts farmers that helped George Washington defeat the British that year. This group became known as the “Webfoots”. Many of the Webfoots’ descendants were among those who settled in the beautiful Williamette Valley in Oregon. The state became known as the Webfoot State and the state’s university adopted the nickname as well. The school later changed the Webfoot name to Ducks.
If we’re going to have a story about nicknames, we are going to have talk about Hokies. What the heck is a Hokie? Hmm…it seems that the school we know as Virginia Tech had undergone a name change in 1896. The school’s official name was the Virginia Agricultural & Mechanical & Polytechnic Institute. Because of the length, the name was shortened to it’s current name, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, or VPI. With the new name a new school cheer was needed. O.M. Stull crafted a neat little diddy that started with the line, “Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy.” Somehow the Hoki stuck and somewhere along the line an “e” was added, most likely for aesthetic reasons. Hokie just looks a little better than Hoki.
Anyone who remembers grade school history probably remembers the story about the land grants available in what today is Oklahoma. In 1889 the United States government opened up that territory and settlers could go claim their land. Some of them got smart and got a headstart–they became known as the “Sooners” which was adopted as the University of Oklahoma’s nickname.
And what of our national champion Crimson Tide of Alabama? In the early 1900s the school was known as the “Crimson White” and the “Thin Red Line.” Imagine if one of those would have stuck! But, prior to the Alabama-Auburn series taking a hiatus until after World War II, a reporter named Hugh Roberts had described Alabama as a “Crimson Tide.” That one, of course, did stick.
There is history behind every school’s nickname. If it sounds interesting, take a look at your favorite school and see where the nickname came from. Some are as simple as Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio State, or Tennessee–they are all named after the state nickname. Others, like the Crimson Hawk, have a bit more to their story.
You see, in the late 1980s as a player at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, I wore a very distinct silver helmet with the word “Indians” on the side. That was until we replaced that decal with just a simple “IUP” one year. After a coaching stint there in the early 1990s, I left the school and later found out about a possible nickname change. The Indian mascot was deemed offensive and was eliminated in 1991. Returning to a homecoming game in the ’90s, I was introduced to Cherokee the Bear. Yep…Indians was offensive but I guess a bear named after an Indian was not. Oh well…
In December of 2006 the school officially adopted the Crimson Hawk as the nickname and Norm as the mascot. Norm is, obviously, a Crimson Hawk, whatever that is. It appears there is no real Crimson Hawk, only a cartoon character. I guess that’s not as bad as the 2002 student poll that favored the Fighting Squirrels. So, Crimson Hawks it is…but I’ll always be an Indian.
P.S. The trivia question I mentioned at the beginning of the story…so Stanford was one of the answers…the rest (remember this is a few years back): Navy (Midshipmen), Tulsa (Golden Hurricane), Notre Dame (Fighting Irish), Illinois (Fighting Illini), Syracuse (Orangemen), and Tulane (Green Wave). At the time these were the only schools with nicknames not ending in “s”.