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?

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