Jayhawks, Hoyas & Owls (Oh My!): How 21 Schools Got Their Nicknames
By Ethan Trex
March Madness starts today, which means you're going to be tossing team nicknames around like crazy for the next few weeks. Do you know where these mascots came from, though? What the heck is a Hoya? Would you know a Gaucho if you saw one? Let's take a look at the origins of some of the tournament teams' mascots.
1. Georgetown Hoyas
The origins of the Hoya nickname are a bit murky, but the school thinks it originated in the 1890s. Students created a mixed Greek and Latin cheer of "Hoya Saxa!" (which translates into "What Rocks!") to inspire either the school's baseball or football teams. By 1920, "Hoya" had become a popular saying on campus, and by 1928 the nickname was firmly stuck to the school's teams.
Georgetown's original dog mascot, a pit bull named Stubby, actually fought in World War I before becoming associated with the school. He earned a promotion to sergeant by capturing an enemy spy and later delighted Georgetown crowds by pushing a football around the field at halftime.
2. Temple Owls
When Temple was founded in 1884, it was a night school, so people jokingly referred to its students as "night owls." When the school started fielding teams, it was only natural to call them the Owls.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
A buckeye is a small, dark brown nut with a light brown patch on it. Carrying a buckeye is supposedly good luck; some superstitious people (like me) won't leave the house without one in their pocket. The buckeye tree is Ohio's state tree, and Ohio residents have been referred to as Buckeyes since 1788. Hence, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
4. UCSB Gauchos
5. Kansas Jayhawks
According to the school's website, the mythical jayhawk is a combination of two birds: the belligerent blue jay and the quiet, deadly sparrow hawk. During the 1850s, there was a lot of violence regarding whether or not Kansas would enter the union as a free or slave state, and the militant free staters eventually became known as Jayhawkers. The fictitious bird eventually became a symbol of Kansas' commitment to freedom, and in 1912 a student drew a depiction of the bird. The bird wore shoes so it could kick opponents.
6. Purdue Boilermakers
In 1891, Purdue's football rivalry with Wabash was thriving. Purdue's team took a trip to Crawfordsville and thumped Wabash 44-0. The next day the local paper in Crawfordsville depicted the Purdue squad as conquering bullies and ran the headline: "Slauther of Innocents: Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers from Purdue." Instead of being offended, Purdue's teams ran with the nickname.
8. Cornell Big Red
In 1905, Cornell alum Romeyn Berry was trying to write a fight song, but he hit a snag. The school didn't have a mascot for him to reference. To solve this problem, he called Cornell "the big red team," and eventually fans just started calling their squads the Big Red.
9. East Tennessee State Buccaneers
The Buccaneer is a fine mascot for a coastal school, but ETSU is decidedly landlocked. What gives? According to the university's website, a series of subterranean rivers runs through tunnels in the mountains near the school's campus. According to legend these waterways, known as Pirate Creek, were once home to pirate Jean Paul LeBucque, who had fled from the coast to hide his treasure. Thus, an inland school has a pirate mascot.
10. Tennessee Volunteers
This one comes from Tennessee's nickname, the Volunteer State. During the War of 1812, President Madison asked Andrew Jackson to find 1500 fellow Tennesseans to voluntarily help him fight the British at the Battle of New Orleans. Later, during the Mexican War, Tennessee's governor put out a call for 2800 men to help battle Santa Anna, but 30,000 volunteers showed up. All of this voluntary participation earned the state, and later its biggest college, a nickname.
12. North Texas Mean Green
The vicious play of football star "Mean" Joe Greene may have given rise to the school's current moniker. According to one story touted by the university, Sidney Sue Graham, the wife of sports information director Fred Graham, called Greene "mean" following a brutal tackle during his late-1960's career at the school. She then began calling the entire smothering defensive unit the "Mean Green," and although Graham initially dismissed his wife's newly coined phrase, he eventually used it in a press release that caught on with reporters.
13. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
There's some debate about how the Fighting Irish nickname affixed itself to Notre Dame. Some people say the media started calling the teams the Fighting Irish because the Catholic school's teams played with the ferocity and grit people associate with the Irish.
Others say the nickname came from the Union Army's Irish Brigade, while yet another story claims the name was born at an 1899 away football game at Northwestern where the home crowd chanted "Kill the Fighting Irish!"
14. California Golden Bears
In 1895 Cal's powerhouse track team went on the road to challenge top college powers back East in a series of meets. Arthur Rodgers, a university regent, commissioned a blue banner decorated with a gold grizzly bear for the team to carry on its journey. The team kicked some serious tail, and a nickname was born.
15. Sam Houston State Bearkats
This odd spelling has been around since the school abandoned its previous nickname, the Normals, in 1923. According to SHSU, the name probably doesn't refer to any sort of animal; instead, it reflects a popular 1920s saying on campus, "Tough as a Bearkat!"
17. New Mexico Lobos
According to the school, it picked the Spanish word for "wolf" as its nickname in 1920. The school paper wrote, "The Lobo is respected for his cunning, feared for his prowess, and is the leader of the pack. It is the ideal name for the Varsity boys who go forth to battle for the glory of the school. All together now; fifteen rahs for the LOBOS."
18. UTEP Miners
This one's pretty straightforward. When the school was founded in 1914 it was known as the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy. It later became Texas Western and then UTEP, but the mining heritage hangs around in the school's mascot.
19. Vermont Catamounts
Vermont got its Catamount nickname through a democratic vote. In 1926 the student newspaper UVM Cynic ran a poll asking students to vote for the wildcat or lynx as the school's mascot. The response was tepid at best, so the paper gave it another try later in the school year. This time the options were the camels, tomcats, cows, or catamounts. "The Catamounts" took the day by grabbing 138 votes to the other options' combined 126.
20. Murray State Racers
Murray State's teams were originally known as the Thoroughbreds in a nod to Kentucky's racing tradition, but newspaper editors had trouble cramming such a long word into headlines. Eventually they started shortening it to "Racers" to save space, and in 1961 the school officially changed its nickname to the shorter version.
21. Minnesota Golden Gophers
According to the school's website, Minnesota has been known as "the Gopher State" since an 1857 cartoon depicted local politicians as gophers pulling a locomotive. Thus, the school's teams eventually became the Gophers. The "golden" part came later. In the 1930s the football team wore gold jerseys and gold pants, so a radio announcer started calling them the "Golden Gophers."