When the NCAA Tournament tips off, you may know every team’s star player and its odds to win the title. But how well do you know the mascots? Not just what the teams are called, but where those names came from? Let’s fill you in on some of the tourney’s more unusual nicknames.
1. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: Wake’s teams originally called themselves the Tigers, but that name didn’t stick. People started referring to the squads as “the Baptists” due to the school’s religious affiliation, and when the football team beat arch-rival Trinity (which would later become Duke) in 1923, student newspaper editor Mayon Parker dubbed them the “Demon Deacons” to honor both their Baptist affiliations and “devilish” play.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes: What’s a buckeye? It’s a small dark brown nut with a light brown patch on it. Carrying a buckeye is supposedly good luck; some superstitious people (like me) won’t leave the house without one in their pocket. The buckeye tree is Ohio’s state tree, and Ohio residents have been referred to as Buckeyes since 1788. Hence, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
3. Utah Runnin’ Utes: Utah’s teams are named after the Utes, the American Indian tribe for which the state of Utah is also named. According to the school’s website, the Utes were one of the first groups of American Indians to ride horses. The team’s actual mascot, though, is Swoop, a red-tailed hawk indigenous to Utah.
4. Kansas Jayhawks: According to the school’s website, the mythical jayhawk is a combination of two birds: the belligerent blue jay and the quiet, deadly sparrow hawk. During the 1850s, there was a lot of violence regarding whether or not Kansas would enter the union as a free or slave state, and the militant free staters eventually became known as Jayhawkers. The fictitious bird eventually became a symbol of Kansas’ commitment to freedom, and in 1912 a student drew a depiction of the bird. The bird wore shoes so it could kick opponents.
5. Louisville Cardinals: According to U of L’s website, the school chose the cardinal as its mascot sometime around 1913. They wanted a mascot that would prompt statewide identification, so they picked the cardinal, Kentucky’s state bird.
6. West Virginia Mountaineers: Since 1927, one West Virginia student has played the role of the school’s rifle-toting mountaineer, an homage to the early settlers of the state.
7. Dayton Flyers: The Flyers nickname is a tribute to Dayton natives Orville and Wilbur Wright, who built the first successful airplane.
8. Boston College Eagles: When Boston College was still young, the school didn’t have a mascot. A school newspaper cartoon depicted BC’s stellar track team as a cat licking a plate of rivals, which didn’t sit well with Reverend Edward McLaughlin. McLaughlin wrote a fiery letter to the school’s newspaper suggesting BC get a mighty, scary mascot. He suggested the Eagles. It stuck.
9. USC Trojans: Before 1912, USC’s teams were either the Methodists or the Wesleyans. When school administrators decided to pick a new name, a Los Angeles Times sports editor picked the Trojans. USC was far from a powerhouse in those days, but although the team often did battle against bigger teams with nicer equipment, USC’s squads fought valiantly. Just like the Trojans.
10. Robert Morris Colonials: This one’s not too tough. Robert Morris, the school’s namesake, was a bigshot during colonial times. Morris signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, and he helped finance the American side during the Revolutionary War.
11. UT Chattanooga Mocs: It’s not quite clear why the school’s teams are called the Mocs. Until 1996, they were the Moccasins, possibly a tribute to Moccasin Bend, a large bend in the Tennessee River near the school. The actual mascot currently in use is a mockingbird (Get it? Moc-kingbird!) driving a train, a tribute to the “Chattanooga Cho Choo” and the city’s railroad culture.
12. Siena Saints: Siena is a Catholic school, so the saint part is pretty self explanatory. What’s interesting, though, is that the school’s mascot isn’t a traditional saint. It’s a Saint Bernard.
13. Purdue Boilermakers: In 1891, Purdue’s football rivalry with Wabash was thriving. Purdue’s team took a trip to Crawfordsville and thumped Wabash 44-0. The next day the local paper in Crawfordsville depicted the Purdue squad as conquering bullies and ran the headline: “Slauther of Innocents: Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers from Purdue.” Instead of being offended, Purdue’s teams ran with the nickname.
14. Cornell Big Red: In 1905, Cornell alum Romeyn Berry was trying to write a fight song, but he hit a snag. The school didn’t have a mascot for him to reference. To solve this problem, he called Cornell “the big red team,” and eventually fans just started calling their squads the Big Red.
15. California Golden Bears: In 1895 Cal’s powerhouse track team went on the road to challenge top college powers back East in a series of meets. Arthur Rodgers, a university regent, commissioned a blue banner decorated with a gold grizzly bear for the team to carry on its journey. The team kicked some serious tail, and a nickname was born.
16. East Tennessee State Buccaneers: The Buccaneer is a fine mascot for a coastal school, but ETSU is decidedly landlocked. What gives? According to the university’s website, a series of subterranean rivers runs through tunnels in the mountains near the school’s campus. These waterways, known as Pirate Creek, were according to legend once home to pirate Jean Paul LeBucque, who had fled from the coast to hide his treasure. Thus, an inland school has a pirate mascot.
17. Tennessee Volunteers: This name derives from Tennessee’s nickname, the Volunteer State. During the War of 1812, President Madison asked Andrew Jackson to find 1500 fellow Tennesseans to voluntarily help him fight the British at the Battle of New Orleans. Later, during the Mexican War, Tennessee’s governor put out a call for 2800 men to help Santa Ana, but 30,000 volunteers showed up. All of this voluntary participation earned the state, and later its biggest college, a nickname.
18. Minnesota Golden Gophers: According to the school’s website, Minnesota has been known as “the Gopher State” since an 1857 cartoon depicted local politicians as gophers pulling a locomotive. Thus, the school’s teams eventually became the Gophers. The “golden” part came later. In the 1930s the football team wore gold jerseys and gold pants, so a radio announcer started calling them the “Golden Gophers.”
19. North Carolina Tar Heels: No one’s quite sure why residents of North Carolina are called Tar Heels. It could be because the state’s huge pine forests once supported thriving tar and pitch industries. Another legend springs from the Civil War, where North Carolina’s Confederate soldiers were said to be so brave that they held their ranks like they had tar on their heels holding them down.
20. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers: If you’ve ever been to Bowling Green, this nickname makes perfect sense. WKU’s campus sits on top of a hill that’s 232 feet higher than the surrounding area. Big Red, the lumpy, furry mascot who looks like Grimace and the Kool-Aid Man’s illegitimate child, came along in 1979.
21. Akron Zips: In 1925 student Margaret Hamlin pocketed ten bucks for winning a contest to name Akron’s sports teams. Her winning suggestion was “The Zippers,” a nod to a popular overshoe of the same name made at the nearby B.F. Goodrich plant. The name stuck around until 1950, when the school shortened it to the Zips.
22. Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks: According to Stephen F. Austin’s website, when the school first opened in 1923, administrators held an assembly to pick a nickname. English professor T.E. Ferguson suggested the Lumberjacks since the school’s campus was in the middle of a pine forest. [Photos courtesy of Albert Brown & CSTV.]