The mental_floss Guide to the NCAAs: The South


We may not be much help in filling out your bracket. But throughout this week we're going to bring you a _flossy take on March Madness: one interesting fact about each of the 65 teams in the tournament field. Let's kick things off with the South region.

(1) Duke can boast of many notable alumni in politics, from former senator Elizabeth Dole to med school grad Ron Paul. But the school hasn't been great to its most famous alum. In 1954, a committee recommended that then-VP Richard Nixon, a 1937 School of Law graduate, be given an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, and Nixon agreed to be the graduation speaker. However, after vociferous debate, a faculty panel voted down the recommendation, and Nixon bailed on the commencement address.

Over a quarter-century later, Duke President Terry Sanford pushed to build Nixon's presidential library on campus, even meeting with Nixon himself to work out the details. However, a similar faculty committee killed the idea. The Nixon Library ended up in Yorba Linda, California.

(16a) Winthrop shows that you don't have to dish out millions to get your name on a college. The school got its start as a teachers' college in the 1880s and is named after Robert C. Winthrop, a Massachusetts philanthropist and former Speaker of the House. The fledgling school needed some startup capital, so Winthrop floated the institution $1500. The school's administration was so grateful that it named the whole place after him.

Interesting side note about Winthrop: he was also John Kerry's great-great-grandfather.

(16b) Arkansas Pine Bluff is playing in its first NCAA tournament, but the school has a long and storied history as a leader in a somewhat less publicized field: aquaculture, or the study of how to farm freshwater and saltwater fish and other organisms.

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(8) California may look sharp in its blue-and-gold uniforms, but did you know they swiped one of the colors from another school? The particular dark blue that the Golden Bears sport is officially known as Yale Blue, since the Ivy League university has used it for over a century. How did Cal end up with Yale's color? According to the school's website, most of the university's founders were Yale men who had made their way west. Cal wasn't the only school to bogart the hue, either; Yale blue was Duke's official color until the 1960s.

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(12) Utah State has a fun rite of passage: to become a "True Aggie," you have to smooch someone who is already a True Aggie under the moonlight. This tongue play is particularly prevalent during the school's Homecoming dance, which is how the school was once briefly a world record holder for "Most Couples Kissing At the Same Place at the Same Time" until a group of Canadians broke the record six months later.
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(4) Purdue is a tremendous college choice if you're an aspiring astronaut. The school has been called "the Cradle of Spaceflight" and has cranked out 22 astronauts who have been chosen for space flight, including big names like Neil Armstrong and Gus Grissom.

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(11) Old Dominion takes its name from its home state of Virginia's "Old Dominion" nickname. Where does that nickname originate, though? The English Civil War, of course. Virginia remained loyal to the monarchy during the conflict, so when King Charles II came into power during the Restoration in 1660, he wanted to show his gratitude to the Virginians. Charles II conferred the title "Dominion" on the colony, and the nickname stuck. Knowing this origin makes the school's athletic mascot, the Monarchs, make a bit more sense, too.
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Like most schools, (3) Baylor has a ceremonial mace that's carried during official events. Baylor's mace has a cool story, though. Its main element is a sword that Cyrus Alexander Baylor, brother of university founder R.E.B. Baylor, received for bravery during the War of 1812. The sword was a gift to Baylor from none other than General Andrew Jackson. A cane that belonged to Sam Houston is also part of the mace, which makes the Bears' first-round matchup against Sam Houston State a bit more interesting.

(14) Sam Houston State was the first "“- and according to the school, possibly the only "“- college ever to start a branch campus in an old prisoner-of-war camp. Throughout World War II, the government housed 5,000 German POWs in Huntsville, TX, and after the war, SHSU bought the abandoned camp for $1. (Pretty sweet deal: the camp was 861 acres and included over 400 buildings.) It then transformed the former prison camp into a campus with lodging for 2,000 students.
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(7) Richmond may be a great school, but it's got another claim to fame: it once hosted Dawson, Joey, and Pacey. Dawson's Creek filmed several episodes on the Spiders' campus, but the show never referred to the school by name. Instead, the scripts made vague allusions to it being a "beautiful Ivy League campus."

(10) Saint Mary's Gaels slipped into the tournament after bumping off Gonzaga last week, but what's a Gael? The Gaels are a group of people of Irish and Scottish descent who speak one of the Gaelic languages. According to the school's website, the term originally meant "raider," but gradually evolved to mean "Irish person." You've got to admit "the Gaels" is a bit catchier than "the Saint Mary's Irish People."
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(2) Villanova temporarily closed its doors in 1857 because of a shortage of priests that made staffing the Catholic school too difficult. An economic crisis coupled with the Civil War kept the university closed until 1865.

(15) Robert Morris may not be the biggest school, but it once had pro cheerleaders. When the Pittsburgh Steelers debuted their cheerleaders, the Steelerettes, in 1961, the squad was entirely composed of Robert Morris Junior College students. The Steelerettes cheered on the Steelers until 1970.