Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Yes, I know, you have to hold your nose to enjoy college sports, but there are saving graces. One of them is the names that history or accident have bestowed on some schools’ athletic representatives.

While it’s true that most colleges have found their team names in the same generic zoo that stocks our professional clubs, the difference in numbers between colleges and the pros means that the former have had many more opportunities for creativity. That’s particularly evident during the basketball season, when some 1,500 senior colleges field squads, plus at least as many more junior or community colleges. Give enough chances, even academic types can get things right once in a while.

The kinds of college nicknames worth savoring cover a wide gamut. There are occupational names tied to a school’s academic mission, such as the Purdue Boilermakers or the Leigh Engineers. There are names with a meteorological tilt, like the Miami Hurricanes, the Iowa State Cyclones and the Arizona State Sun Devils. There are whimsical names (the Hampshire College Blacksheep) and neo-whimsical (the California-Irvine Anteaters, the Cal-Santa Cruz Banana Slugs and the Fighting Artichokes of my beloved Scottsdale Community College). They are plays on words like the Pace University Setters and the Bryn Mawr Mawrters.

There are a couple of commercial tie-ins but they aren’t irksome because they’re either appropriate or non-commercial in result. Stetson U., in Deland, Fla., calls its teams the Hatters because both it and the hat maker had the same founder, John B. Stetson. Converse College, a woman’s school in Spartanburg, S.C., used to call its athletic reps the All-Stars even though it had no connection with and received no special treatment from the shoe company of the same name. Indeed, the last time I checked its basketball team wore Reeboks. The kidding must have gotten too great, though, because it recently changed its moniker to the Valkyries, indicating that someone in the place knew a little opera.

Usually, college cheers echo team nicknames, but sometimes the reverse is true. Georgetown U. calls its teams the Hoyas after its old “Hoya Saxa!” cheer which, the school says, is a Latin-Greek amalgam meaning “What rocks!” Virgina Polytechnic Institute dubbed its teams the Hokies because of a cheer composed by a student in 1896, the year the institution’s name was changed from Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. That chant began “Hokie, hokie, hokie high/ Tech, Tech, VPI.”

Catholic-run Manhattan College names its teams the Jaspers after Brother Jasper, the faculty member who was its first baseball coach. The school asserts that it was Jasper, not President Taft, who initiated the seventh-inning stretch in the diamond sport. The University of Idaho names its teams the Vandals, not for the ancient Germanic tribe but because a long-ago sportswriter wrote that its basketballers had “vandalized” an opponent.

Several of the better nicknames are steeped in regional lore, however vague. The University of North Carolina traces its Tarheels appellation to a couple of stories. One involved North Carolinians dumping tar into a river near Rocky Mount to impede British troops during the Revolutionary War. The other has a troop of local Confederate soldiers during the Civil War claiming that their battlefield tenacity stemmed from dipping their heels in the plentiful North Carolina gunk.

The roots of the term “Hoosiers,” Indiana U.’s marvelous nickname, are equally murky. One version traces it to the Anglo-Saxon word “hoo,” meaning hill, making Hoosiers early hillbillies. Another contends it first meant followers of Harry Hoosier, a frontier evangelist. Still another contends it’s what early homesteaders in the state hollered when strangers knocked on their doors. Whatever, it made a great movie title.

There’s nothing vague about the origin of the University of Oklahoma’s Sooners nickname. It honors the less-than-honorable gang that jumped the gun in the April 22, 1889 free-land rush that helped open the state for settlement. By such logic, jumping off-side in football should be cheered as a show of initiative, but there you have it.

For my money, however, the award for best college-sports nickname, for reasons of local color and amiable obscurity, goes to the St. Louis U. Billikens. A billiken, it seems, is an elfish, round-bellied figure of Asian origin, statues of which used to be considered good-luck charms. Around 1910 a St. Louis sportswriter decided that John Bender, the school’s football coach, looked like one of those and took to calling the team “Bender’s Billikens.” The name stuck.

You don’t get that kind of name from a brainstorming session, or from taking a poll. Aren’t you glad they didn’t have those way back when?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


The main question writers are asked by non-writers is where we get our story ideas. It’s usually asked with a trace of wonder, as though we possess some special or even secret knowledge.

I always laugh at the query. Then I’ll say that if one looks at the world in the right (or wrong) way it teems with things that are deserving of comment because they are so wonderful, terrible or, simply, interesting.

Like most columnists, I kept a list of subjects that caught my eye, and as a blogger I still do. Contrary to public perception, it’s a list that tends to grow rather than shrink. I’m sure that once I finally pack it in –either by choice or necessity-- it will be with many opinions or observations unexpressed.

The past week was a case in point. I entered it with what seemed like a perfectly good blog idea only to see it superseded not once but twice. I won’t tell you what the discarded ideas were because I might choose to revisit them. The winner, though, shone through like the headlights of an 18-wheeler coming ‘round the bend on a foggy night.

The subject was big-time college sports, an old punching bag of mine. Every time I think it can’t get worse, it does. That happened last week, with exclamation points.

Exhibit A was a hoot-- the news that Robert G. Burton, a businessman from Greenwich, Conn., asked for a refund of the $3 million he’d contributed to the University of Connecticut’s athletics department a few years earlier to build on its campus an office-locker-workout facility named the Burton Family Football Complex. His gripe is that he wasn’t sufficiently consulted before the school hired a replacement for Randy Edsall, the football coach who recently left the Storrs job for one at the University of Maryland.

Burton’s demand came in a single-spaced, five-page rant he sent to Jeff Hathaway, the UConn AD. Naturally, it wound up on the Internet. In it, Burton tore poor Hathaway a new one, declaring him to be unqualified for his post because (among other failings) he lacked the skills to “manage and cultivate” fat-cat donors like himself. He declared Hathaway’s choice of ex-Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni to replace Edsall an “embarrassment” not only to him but to his entire family. Apparently, Mrs. Burton also is mortified.

Burton wrote that he’d be withdrawing future support for UConn athletics. He helpfully reminded Hathaway that this would include his purchase of a $50,000-a-year football-game box, $8,000 for his ad in the school’s football program and the $20,000 he’d kicked in annually to help fund Edsall’s coaches’ clinic, one of the ways universities pad the salaries of their already-overpaid coaches without the sums appearing on their books.

The incident offered a peek into the world of college-athletics “boosters,” people who may or may not be alums of the institution they support (Burton isn’t) but who believe that their earthly happiness depends on the school fielding really good major-sports teams year in and year out. Depending on their level of largess they can be rewarded with such perks as the ability to call the coach the day before the game to get his view on whether his team will cover the spread, and a voice in the school’s councils.

The most common reaction to Burton’s demand, on UConn websites and elsewhere, was that he’s a rich jerk who deserves to be rebuffed; after all, colleges are supposed to run their own affairs in the name of “academic integrity.” To that I say “Nonsense!” Big-time college sports have little to do with academics and institutions forfeit their integrity when they get into the entertainment business. UConn should give the guy his money back. He didn’t get what he paid for.

Exhibit B was, simply, appalling. It was the hospitalization of 13 University of Iowa football players after what only could be described as a brutal workout that included prolonged, high-poundage, high-speed weight lifting, under the supervision of the team’s so-called “strength” coaches. The young men came down with something called rhabdomyolysis, a condition that occurs when too-strenuous exercise causes muscle breakdowns that release substances harmful to the kidneys. Some of the players were confined for as much a week, and the extent of their injuries still is unclear.

Almost equally distressing was that the revelation of those injuries—several days after they happened-- came from the victims, not the university, via emails and tweets. Several players reported being unable to walk before being hospitalized, one said he’d fallen down some stairs. “Just thinking about it [the workout} makes me vomit,” wrote a third.

The university initially tried to downgrade the matter, with an athletics department spokesman calling the workout “allowed and routine.” Later he backtracked some, saying that if “due diligence” (ugh!) showed they were required “steps would be taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” In other words, “we did nothing wrong but we won’t do it any more.” Great. Can you spell l-a-w-s-u-i-t?

Football head coach Kirk Ferentz was out of town during the incident. He’s returned but the university said he wouldn’t answer questions publicly until after tomorrow (Feb. 2), the national signing day for new recruits. First things first, right?

One thing besides Iowa’s callous attitude should be obvious: it’s that the kids were killing themselves in January for a sport that isn’t played until September. The workout in question may have been called “off-season,” but, in truth, there is no off season for the collegiate big-timers. It’s an exhausting, year-round grind that, for players, amounts to a full-time job and then some. Anyone who emerges from the jock mill with an education worth the name deserves a medal as well as a degree.

And maybe a Purple Heart.