It's All In A Name
Sept. 14, 2004
By Beth Rosenberg
It's difficult to imagine a college football game without a mascot on the sidelines. Whether he's picking "fights" with the other team's mascot, kidding around with the cheerleaders or doing somersaults in the end zone, the mascot is a focal point for the fans and a unifying icon for a particular college or university.
Many of the more than 1,000 NCAA institutions have interesting anecdotes on how they got their mascot or nickname. Some of those stories date back more than a century, although others only go back a decade or two.
There are mascots that are relatively common, and often the animal or person chosen brings to mind attributes of an ideal athletics team -- strong, fierce, wise or powerful. Others, though, are unique and stand out among the hundreds of college mascots. The Banana Slugs of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Billikins of Saint Louis University are two that are one of a kind.
"The amount of stock we put in mascots is something that is unique to us here in the United States," said California University of Pennsylvania professor Roy E. Yarbrough, author of the book, "Mascots: The History of Senior College and University Mascots/Nicknames." "Mascots are supposed to be good luck charms, and our connection with them goes back to us wanting to feel that good luck."
In his book, Yarbrough writes: "You probably cannot name three of your last five teachers, but I'll bet you can identify at least five of the seven dwarfs."
The reason for this is simple, he explains. The dwarfs' names -- Dopey, Doc, Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful and Sleepy -- are colorful adjectives that suit the character of their bearer.
"A mascot is an identity, a source of entertainment, a rallying point," Yarbrough, who is considered the "guru" of mascots, writes. "Mascots for athletics teams are chosen for many different reasons. Each college or university desires to represent their school in a unique way, forever hoping that their mascot will bring them victory on the field or court."
Yarbrough, who in the 1960s was the panther mascot for Greenville College, said that some of the most familiar mascots at colleges and universities are Eagles, Bears, Lions, Bulldogs, Panthers, Wildcats and Pioneers.
"Eagles are always the top one. There are more than 70 of those," he said. "Tiger is probably second. Cougars are up there. Knights are pretty popular. Wildcats, too."
Hawks of many varieties also are popular, though the most famous hawk of all may be the St. Joseph's University Hawk, best known for continuously flapping his wings for entire basketball games.
Some of the reasons for a mascot's popularity can be traced back to the oldest schools in this country. For example, Yarbrough attributes some of the Tigers' popularity to schools paying homage to those who brought them football -- in this case Princeton University.
Yarbrough said that many Southern schools have taken on the Tiger nickname. His research showed that people from the Ivy Group schools, such as Princeton, taught Southerners how to play football, and out of respect for the teachers, several schools picked up the Princeton mascot.
In some cases, mascots have been chosen simply to honor a college president's or athletics director's alma mater. This is the case of the Idaho State University Bengals, which is a type of Tiger.
According to the school's Web site, Ralph H. Hutchinson, a Princeton grad, became the school's athletics director in 1921 and immediately organized a club that adopted Princeton's Bengal Tiger as the school mascot.
Yarbrough said Virginia's Hampden-Sydney College became the Tigers in much the same way -- the first two presidents of the college were Princeton graduates. And the University of the South is the Tigers because, according to a school newspaper article from 1904, "Sewanee has often been called the Princeton of the South."
Unique nicknames and mascots
And what are some of the more unique mascots, according to Yarbrough? The Banana Slugs, of course, he said, adding the Salukis of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale among those that stand out.
Yarbrough said one of the mascots -- and the reasons behind it -- he finds most interesting is the Gator. Not as in the University of Florida Gators, he said, but as in small, women's colleges such as the Pine Manor College and the College of Notre Dame (Maryland).
Those Division III schools are called Gators because back in the 1950s, when there were more single-sex colleges and universities, young men would say they had a date with a "Gator Girl," referring to the IZOD-brand shirts the young women wore when they went to meet their dates, Yarbrough said.
And it's a safe bet that Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, is home to the only Student Princes.
Yarbrough said the name was coined in 1926 by Edwin R. Butcher, Heidelberg's alumni director, admissions director and publicity agent. Butcher, it is said, was walking through downtown Tiffin when he noticed a theater billboard promoting the film, "The Student Prince." The film is based upon a play about a young German prince and a private tutor, a graduate of the University of Heidelberg, who asked the king to place the isolated prince in the university where he could mingle with other students.
Pittsburg State University in Kansas prides itself on being the only Gorillas. The name, according to Yarbrough, came about in 1920 when a group of young men, dissatisfied with the state of school spirit, organized themselves as gorillas to accelerate enthusiasm. At that time gorilla was slang for roughneck, and the group sponsored pep rallies and other events to boost school spirit. In the mid-1920s, the Gorilla became the official mascot.
Earlier this year, one of the most interesting Division III women's basketball games, by mascot standards anyway, took place between the Oglethorpe University Stormy Petrels (a small seabird) and the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Oglethorpe Athletics Director Bob Unger set up the meeting after ESPN and Sports Illustrated rated the two as the most unusual mascots.
Oglethorpe won the contest, 74-68. The game included prizes for elementary and middle school students who dressed up like banana slugs.
"We have a lot of pride being the Banana Slugs, believe it or not," coach Steve Spencer told the newspaper. "Everywhere we go, banana slugs get a little banana slug love from people."
Newspapers picking nicknames
Yarbrough said that in some cases, schools received their nicknames from newspaper reporters. The University of Richmond became the Spiders after a reporter said the baseball team's 6-foot-10 pitcher looked like a spider when he came off the mound, with his arms and legs moving all around.
"It stuck," Yarbrough said. "Everyone started calling the baseball team the Spiders and eventually it became the school's mascot."
Yarbrough also attributes this method of gaining a mascot to the University of South Carolina, Columbia, whose athletics teams are known as the Gamecocks. "In an account of an early football game it was stated that the South Carolina team 'fought like game cocks.' Then in 1903, The State, South Carolina's morning newspaper, shortened the name to one word and the University of South Carolina athletics teams have been the Gamecocks ever since."
Denison University also earned its moniker in this fashion, after being called "Big Red" by a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch in the early 1920s.
According to the Bowling Green State University Web site, the school received its nickname -- the Falcons -- in a similar manner. Until 1927, Bowling Green was referred to as Bowling Green Normal University, for its teacher-training curriculum. The school's nickname was "The Normals." That year, though, a man named Ivan "Doc" Lake, a distinguished 1923 graduate of the university and active athletics booster, suggested that the university needed a new nickname. Lake, then a sports reporter for the local newspaper, had just finished reading an article about falconry. He suggested the university rename its nickname and mascot as the Falcons.
"He felt the bird was a fierce fighter with speed and courage," the Web site says. "Doc Lake's suggestion of the Falcons met with instant general approval by members of the university."
For other schools, the wearing of a certain color led to their team nickname.
Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, did not call itself the Yellow Jackets because of the wasp, but rather because of the yellow jackets students would wear to games. The wasp mascot, Yarbrough said, came later.
Syracuse University student-athletes were called the Orangemen simply because of their orange uniforms, and St. John's University (New York) was originally called the Redmen because they wore cardinal red uniforms. It was only later, after some students went out and stole a cigar store Indian, that people assumed it that the mascot had to do with Native Americans.
Both Syracuse and St. John's have since changed their nicknames -- Syracuse to the Orange and St. John's to the Red Storm.
Illinois College athletics teams are known as the Blueboys and Lady Blues. Yarbrough says this is simply an offshoot of the school's colors and the college's Civil War activities. The college was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and students and faculty had strong abolitionist ties. Those fighting for the North, and against slavery, were often called the "Boys in Blue."
Still other colleges and universities use colors in their names. Examples are: the University of Evansville Purple Aces, the Tulane University Green Wave, the St. Francis University (Pennsylvania) Red Flash and the Millikin University Big Blue.
What does that mean?
For other schools, mascots and nicknames come about because someone said something and it stuck, or someone made up a word and it sounded good. The Georgetown University Hoyas are a good example of that, Yarbrough said.
"Everyone says, 'Well, that's bulldog,' but it's based on the Latin term, Hoya, which means 'steady as a rock, solid as a rock,' " he said. "When students would sing the school songs, they would chant at the end, 'Hoya, Hoya, Hoya.' "
And the bulldog mascot came about because a former president of the school had a bulldog that went everywhere with him and people started calling him "Hoya."
Still other nicknames are basically made-up words. Good examples of this are the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Hokies and the Hoosiers of Indiana University, Bloomington.
According to the Virginia Tech Web site, a Hokie is simply "a loyal Virginia Tech fan." The basis for the word goes back to 1896 when Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College changed its name to Virginia Polytechnic Institute. With the change came the necessity for writing a new cheer and a contest for such a purpose was held by the student body.
Senior O.M. Stull won first prize for his "Hokie" yell, which is still used today. Later, when asked if "Hokie" had any special meaning, Stull explained the word was solely the product of his imagination and was used only as an attention-getter for his yell.
As for figuring out what a "Hoosier" is, there's no clear consensus of how that word came into being, though it is a generally accepted term to describe someone from Indiana. Yarbrough said, based on his research, that it came from the question "Who is your family," which was asked by people in Southern Indiana.
The Virginia Military Institute also has a made-up name of sorts for its nickname. The school's Web site says the school nickname "Keydets" is derived from a drawled pronunciation of the word "cadet."
Yarbrough said that most schools nowadays have traded in live mascots for the costumed kind, partly because of an outcry from animal-rights groups and partly because it can be difficult for college students to properly care for a live animal.
Southern Illinois used to have a live saluki, Yarbrough said, but legend has it that the dog had to be run for two hours before a game to ensure he'd be calm enough to remain in the stadium.
In his book, Yarbrough wrote that the first husky appeared at Northeastern University in 1927. He had come to Boston by train from Alaska and was greeted by 1,000 students and the university band. "King Husky I" reigned for 14 years and was replaced upon his death by "King Husky II" and so on. "King Husky VII" died in 1989 and has not been replaced with a live mascot.
Some institutions have kept up the tradition of having live mascots on the sidelines.
According to the University of Georgia Web site, Uga (the bulldog) is from a line owned by Frank W. (Sonny) Sieler of Savannah since 1956. The current line began with Uga I, a solid white English bulldog that was the grandson of a former Georgia mascot that made the trip to the 1943 Rose Bowl.
Perhaps the most famous Uga was Uga V that made appearances in the movie "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." The dog also graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. Uga IV was the first mascot invited to the Downtown Athletic Club, was escorted through the banquet hall by the president of the club and was photographed with Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker.
Not all schools have such love for their live mascots, Yarbrough said. A school out in Oregon in the 1940s was so frustrated with its live bear mascot that the students cooked and ate it.
Changing mascots and nicknames
It's not often that schools change mascots or nicknames, but when they do it's usually because their former icon was considered politically incorrect by some and the change was needed to quiet the controversy.
Some recent changes include Braves to Bobcats, Chiefs to Stars and Chieftains to Red Hawks, said Yarbrough, who often serves as a consultant to schools changing nicknames.
"Red Hawk is getting a lot of new schools," he said. "In the past year there have been three or four schools that have picked up Red Hawks."
Even his own school, California (Pennsylvania), is considering tweaking its mascot, he said. The women's basketball team won the Division II basketball championship this year and the school mascot -- Vulcan, the god of fire -- was scrutinized for possibly not being photogenic enough.
"Once we won the championship and were on ESPN, that got people's attention," he said. "What we're talking about is renovating the Vulcan. That god will always be a god, but you can get an extension of the god."
Yarbrough said changing a nickname or mascot isn't an easy decision, and it can be costly. He estimated that it takes between $150,000 and $200,000 to change it, and the impact can be detrimental if it doesn't have the support of students, fans and alumni.
"You'll always find someone who's offended, someone's always not happy. There are those who say the Fighting Irish (of Notre Dame) is offensive," he said. "I think some folks get too uptight.
"Let's have fun, that was the intent. Let that magic flow, that magic that the mascot is supposed to have given us, because that was the intent -- a sense of identity."
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