Mental Floss

The mental_floss Guide to the NCAAs: The West

Ethan Trex

Yesterday we took a look at some interesting facts about the schools in the NCAA tournament's South region. Today, let's turn our sights to the West.

(1) Syracuse got its start as Genessee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, NY. The school only moved to Syracuse in 1870 after the city had made a concerted effort to lure a college to town and whiffed on getting Cornell to choose it over Ithaca, NY.

(16) Vermont has a couple of interesting claims to fame. It was the first American university to publicly declare its support for freedom of religion, and its charter explicitly states that the school's "rules, regulations, and by-laws shall not tend to give preference to any religious sect or denomination whatsoever." Additionally, in the 1870s it became the first university to admit women and African Americans into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
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(8) Gonzaga has been known to make some noise in the tournament, but where did the Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington, get its unusual name?

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(9) Florida State is one of only two schools in the country to have its own circus. (Illinois State is the other.) The FSU Flying High Circus has been around since 1947 and offers FSU students a chance to perform under a three-ring big top. The school offers a one-credit class "Introduction to Circus," and performers practice their acts each day in anticipation of a big show each spring.
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(5) Butler may have gotten to hear Kurt Vonnegut's swan song. The college invited Vonnegut to give a lecture in 2007, and while the author wrote his talk, he died before the scheduled speech. His son Mark read the lecture in Vonnegut's place; there's a real possibility that the talk is the last thing Vonnegut ever wrote.

(12) UTEP must have a nice weight room, because it produced one of the sports world's most famous sets of giant biceps. NFL referee Ed Hochuli attended the school from 1969 to 1972; he played linebacker for the Miners' football team.

If muscle-bound zebras don't get you excited, then the school's Asian-influenced architecture might. Many of the school's buildings are designed in a style that's more commonly associated with Bhutanese monasteries and fortresses. This unique stylistic choice came about after a 1916 fire destroyed most of the school. Dean Steven Worrell's wife remembered a National Geographic feature about Bhutan's "Castles in the Air," and she suggested the style be used throughout the rebuilt campus.
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(4) Vanderbilt's teams may be the Commodores, but the name is a bit of a misnomer. The school is named after shipping magnate/robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was known by the naval title "Commodore Vanderbilt" during his life. He was never an actual commodore, though. In fact, he was never even in the Navy. People just started calling Vanderbilt "Commodore" in the 1840s because he owned a lot of steamships, and the nickname stuck.

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(11) Minnesota's teams call themselves the Golden Gophers, but they could have been the Doughboys. Baked goods mogul John Sargent Pillsbury helped the school get off the ground after the Civil War by giving it a hefty loan to cover its operating costs. Minnesota still honors Pillsbury as "the Father of the University."
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Sick of bland academic buildings? Head to (3) Pitt. The school's Cathedral of Learning stands an impressive 535 feet high, making it the tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere. The limestone-clad Late Gothic Revival cathedral contains over 2000 rooms. Check out the view from the top on this webcam.

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(10) Florida has at least one possession that sounds like it fell straight out of James Bond movie. In 2009 the school completed construction on the world's largest single-aperture telescope, which is nestled into a volcanic peak in the Canary Islands. The telescope, which was a joint project between the Spanish government, the University of Florida, and a Mexican university, cost over $130 million and took nearly 25 years to build.
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(2) Kansas State got one of its beloved fight songs, "The Wabash Cannonball," in an odd way. In 1968 the school's Nichols Hall burned down, destroying all of the marching band's sheet music. The only sheet music that survived was "The Wabash Cannonball," which band director Phil Hewett had taken home with him, and since the band was hard-up for tunes, they just played the song over and over again at a basketball game three days after the fire, and a new tradition was born.

(15) North Texas might have a tough time against Kansas State, but they can boogie with the best of them. The school's One O'Clock Lab Band was the first student band ever to get a Grammy nomination when its big band jazz records Lab '75 and Lab '76 received nods during the mid-1970s.