How the Big Ten Schools Got Their Nicknames

A marching band holds up the flags representing the Big Ten Schools.
A marching band holds up the flags representing the Big Ten Schools.
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From Badgers and Boilermakers to Hoosiers and Hawkeyes, the Big Ten Conference boasts an interesting set of school nicknames. Here are the stories behind the monikers of the conference’s 11 teams, as well as future Big Ten member Nebraska.

Illinois Fighting Illini

According to the University of Illinois archives, the first documented use of the term Illini was in January 1874, when the campus weekly newspaper changed its name from The Student to The Illini. An editorial in the first edition of the renamed newspaper indicated that Illini was a new term. The Illini nickname wasn’t regularly applied to the school’s athletic teams until around 1915.

The Fighting Illini nickname was most likely introduced during the fundraising effort for Memorial Stadium, which was built in 1923 and honored the Illinois men and women who served in World War I. Chief Illiniwek, the school’s longtime Native American mascot, wasn’t adopted until 1926. The mascot was a nod to the loose confederation of Algonquin tribes that once lived in the region. A student played Chief Illiniwek and performed at Illinois athletic events until 2007, when the mascot’s name and image were retired after much controversy.

Indiana Hoosiers

Indiana’s athletic teams are named after the state nickname, for which there are as many explanations as there are candy stripes on the famous warmup pants of the IU basketball team.

There are theories that the nickname is derived from locals asking “Who’s here?” when visitors rolled into town, or from early settlers—some of whom evidently served as an inspiration for Mike Tyson—asking “Whose ear?” after a particularly gruesome brawl. Two other theories are that the nickname originated as a derogatory term for a country bumpkin, derived from the Saxon word “hoo,” meaning hill, or that the nickname comes from a contractor named Samuel Hoosier, who built a canal in the region in the 1820s. Whatever the origin, the nickname was popularized during the 19th century and eventually lost any derogatory connotations.

Iowa Hawkeyes

People living in the territory that would become the state of Iowa adopted Hawkeyes as their nickname in 1838. Hawkeye was the name of the white scout who lived among the Delaware Indians in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, which was published 12 years earlier. James Edwards, editor of the Fort Madison Patriot, moved his paper to Burlington in 1843 and renamed it the Hawk-Eye, adding to the popularity of the nickname. The University of Iowa borrowed the state nickname for its athletics teams and later introduced a cartoon mascot, Herky the Hawk, in 1948.

Michigan Wolverines

Michigan was not nicknamed the Wolverine State because a large number of the largest member of the weasel family roamed within its borders. In fact, the first verified sighting of a wolverine in Michigan wasn’t until 2004. Instead, the state nickname may date back to a border dispute between Ohio and Michigan in 1803 known as the Toledo War. It’s unclear whether the Ohioans applied the nickname to their rivals as a derogatory term or if Michiganders coined it themselves as a source of pride. Wolverines were well known as a fierce and ornery species that would kill much larger prey. Regardless, Michigan would become known as the Wolverine State and the University of Michigan adopted the nickname for its athletic teams.

Michigan State Spartans

When Michigan Agricultural College changed its name to Michigan State College in 1925, the school sponsored a contest to select a new nickname, as Aggies was no longer appropriate. The winning entry, Staters, wasn’t good enough for George S. Alderton, the sports editor of the Lansing State-Journal, so Alderton took it upon himself to choose another nickname. Alderton inquired about some of the other nicknames that had been submitted and settled on Spartans, which he used while covering the Michigan State baseball team’s southern training tour in 1926. After initially spelling Spartans with an ‘o,’ Alderton corrected the spelling and started using the Spartans nickname in headlines. “It began appearing in other newspapers and when the student publication used it, that clinched it,” Alderton said.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

In 1857, the year before the Minnesota Legislature introduced the “Five Million Loan” bill to fund the construction of railroads, R.O. Sweeny’s political cartoon depicting local politicians as gophers pulling a locomotive circulated throughout the state. Minnesota soon became known as the Gopher State and the University of Minnesota’s athletic teams the Gophers. Sportswriter and announcer Halsey Hall first referred to the team as the Golden Gophers in the early 1930s, a reference to Minnesota’s yellow jerseys and pants, and the moniker stuck.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska’s football team was known by a variety of nicknames before 1900, including the Old Gold Knights, Rattlesnake Boys, Antelopes, and Bugeaters. There are conflicting stories as to how the Bugeaters nickname originated. One theory links the nickname to a bull bat indigenous to the plains that ate insects. Another account traces the name to an East Coast reporter who was convinced that there was nothing for Nebraskans to eat during a drought other than the bugs that devoured all of their crops. No matter the origin of Bugeaters, Charles Sumner “Cy” Sherman, sports editor for the Nebraska State Journal, was not a fan of the moniker. In 1899, Sherman, who would later help develop the Associated Press poll, suggested Cornhuskers instead. The nickname had been used by the Nebraska student newspaper as a derisive nickname for Iowa’s football team in 1894, but was soon adopted as a replacement for Bugeaters. In 1946, Nebraska became officially known as the Cornhusker State.

Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern’s school colors were selected in 1894, but it didn’t adopt its current nickname until 1924. That season, Northwestern played a particularly spirited game against the heavily favored University of Chicago. While NU lost 3-0, Chicago Tribune sportswriter Wallace Abbey referred to Northwestern’s defense as a “Purple wall of wildcats.” The nickname stuck and the school’s athletic teams would be known as the Wildcats. Before 1924, Northwestern’s teams were known as the Purple, or Fighting Methodists.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State also borrows the state nickname for its athletic teams. A buckeye is a tree prevalent in the Ohio River Valley that produces shiny brown nuts with tan patches that resemble the eye of a deer, or buck. By 1800, Buckeye was being used as a term to refer to residents of the area. William Henry Harrison popularized the nickname by using the buckeye tree as a campaign symbol during the election of 1840.

Penn State Nittany Lions

According to the school website, Penn State’s nickname was introduced in 1904. While on a road trip to Princeton, the Penn State baseball team was shown a statue of a Bengal tiger as “an indication of the merciless treatment they could expect to encounter on the field.” Harrison D. “Joe” Mason, a Penn State player, proclaimed the Nittany Lion “the fiercest beast of them all.” It was the first mention of such a creature. Penn State defeated Princeton that day and the Nittany Lion was soon adopted as the school’s mascot. Mount Nittany, derived from the Native American term meaning single mountain, is a prominent landmark at Penn State.

Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue's moniker dates to 1889, when the school’s dominant football team traveled to Crawfordsville, Ind., and defeated rival Wabash College, a liberal arts school, 18-4. Angered by the humiliating loss, Wabash supporters resorted to insulting their rivals’ academic focus on engineering and agriculture. Purdue’s players were referred to as “rail-splitters,” “pumpkin-shuckers,” “farmers,” and “log-haulers.” After Purdue blanked Wabash 44-0 in 1891, a headline in the Crawfordsville newspaper read, “Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers from Purdue.” Of all the supposedly derogatory nicknames bestowed upon Purdue, the school embraced the Boiler Maker moniker and adopted the Boilermaker Special, a locomotive, as its mascot.

Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin’s school nickname is borrowed from its state nickname, which is derived from the lead miners who built temporary shelters into the southwest Wisconsin hillside during the 1830s. The term was initially applied to settlers in the mining area, and then to the entire state. The Badgers nickname was adopted by the school’s football team when it began play in 1889. The school had a live badger mascot for a few years, but after it escaped its handlers too many times, it was retired to the Madison Zoo. Today, Bucky Badger is one of the most beloved mascots in college sports.

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10 Amazing Facts About Bruce Lee On His 80th Birthday

Photo courtesy of The Bruce Lee Family Archive
Photo courtesy of The Bruce Lee Family Archive

Bruce Lee is one of pop culture's most multifaceted icons. Legions of fans admire him for his movies, his martial arts prowess, his incomprehensible physical fitness, his championing of Chinese culture, and even his philosophies on life. Yet for all the new ground Lee broke, most of his recognition only came after his death at the age of 32. Read on to learn more about the life of this profound, if enigmatic, superstar.

1. Bruce Lee’s first starring role in a movie came when he was just 10 years old.

In 1950’s The Kid, a pre-teen Bruce Lee played the role of Kid Cheung, a streetwise orphan and wry troublemaker, based on a comic strip from the time. Starring opposite Lee, playing a kindly factory owner, was his father, Lee Hoi-chuen, who also happened to be a famous opera singer. (Bruce Lee was actually born in San Francisco while his father was there on tour; Lee would move back to the U.S. in 1959).

According to Lee biographer Matthew Polly, the movie was a big enough success in China to earn sequel consideration. There was just one problem: A young Bruce Lee was getting into fights at school and out on the streets, so his father forbid him from acting again until he straightened up—which, of course, didn’t wind up happening.

2. Bruce Lee was deemed physically unfit for the U.S. Army.

While he may have walked around with body fat in the single digits and could do push-ups using only two fingers, Lee still managed to fail a military physical for the U.S. draft board back in 1963. Despite being an adherent to physical fitness all his adult life, it was an undescended testicle that kept him from fighting for Uncle Sam in Vietnam.

3. Bruce Lee was an exquisite cha-cha dancer.

Long before he was known for breakneck fight choreography, Bruce Lee’s physical skills were focused on the dance floor. More specifically, the cha-cha. In Polly’s book, Bruce Lee: A Life, the author explains that the dance trend made its way from Cuba through the Philippines and soon landed in China. And once the cha-cha settled into the Hong Kong social scene, it didn’t take long for youth dance competitions to spring up. Lee had been taking part in cha-cha dancing since the age of 14, and in 1958, he won the Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship. Foreshadowing his later dedication to martial arts, Lee would keep crib notes of all 108 different cha-cha steps in his wallet so that he could obsessively memorize them.

4. Bruce Lee refused to lose a fight to Robin.

The Green Hornet aired its first episode in September 1966, with Bruce Lee as the Hornet's (Van Williams) lightning-quick sidekick, Kato. The series would immediately be compared to Batman, ABC's other costumed crime-fighting show, and it wouldn't be long before a two-part crossover episode was in the works. And as heroes do, before they teamed up, they first had to fight each other. According to Newsweek, since Batman was by far the more popular show, the script featured a fight between Burt Ward's Robin and Bruce Lee's Kato that was set to end with the Boy Wonder getting the upper hand. But who would really buy that?

Well, Lee certainly didn't—and he knew no one else would, either. Williams later recalled that Lee read the script and simply said, "I'm not going to do that," and walked off. Common sense soon prevailed ... sort of. The script was rewritten to change the ending—not to a Kato K.O., but to a more diplomatic draw. Though The Green Hornet was Lee's first big break in the United States, the series itself lasted only 26 episodes.

5. Bruce Lee trained numerous Hollywood stars.

As Bruce Lee worked to become a big-screen heavyweight, he made a living as a martial arts trainer to the stars. Among Lee’s students were Steve McQueen, James Coburn, James Garner, Roman Polanski, and Sharon Tate. For his services, Lee was known to charge about $275 per hour or $1000 for 10 courses. McQueen and Coburn grew so enamored with Lee over the years that they remained close friends until his death in 1973, with both men serving as pallbearers at Lee's funeral (alongside Chuck Norris).

6. Roman Polanski may have (briefly) thought Bruce Lee murdered Sharon Tate.

In addition to providing Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate with kung fu lessons, Bruce Lee also lived near the couple in Los Angeles when Tate and four others, including Lee’s close friend Jay Sebring, were murdered by the Manson Family in August 1969. It would be months before the Manson Family was arrested for the murders, but in the meantime, according to an article from Esquire, Polanski had grown obsessed with finding a suspect, looking for potential perpetrators even amongst his own inner circle.

During one kung fu lesson in the months after the murders, Lee had mentioned to Polanski how he had recently lost his glasses, which immediately piqued the director’s interest. A mysterious pair of horn-rimmed glasses had been found at the murder scene near his wife’s body, after all. Polanski had even purchased a gauge to measure the lenses and find out the exact prescription so that he could do his own detective work, according to The New York Post.

The director, without giving himself away, offered to bring Lee to his optician to get a new pair—this would allow him to hear Lee’s prescription firsthand and determine if the specs discovered at the crime scene belonged to him. It turned out Lee’s prescription didn’t match, and Polanski never told his friend about his suspicions.

7. Bruce Lee had his sweat glands removed.

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973).Warner Home Video

Bruce Lee brought an impeccable physique to the screen that was decades ahead of its time. But because his roles required so much physicality, he would be drenched with sweat while filming. And apparently, the martial arts pioneer loathed the sweat stains that would show up on his clothing as a result. His solution? In 1973, Lee actually underwent a procedure to surgically remove the sweat glands from his armpits to avoid the fashion faux pas from showing up on camera.

8. Bruce Lee’s cause of death still raises questions.

Bruce Lee’s death at the age of 32 on July 20, 1973, was officially ruled the result of a cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain. Lee had complained about headaches on the day of his death, and was given a painkiller by Betty Ting Pei—an actress who claimed to be Lee's mistress—before lying down for a nap. He never woke up.

Though many reports at the time suggested Lee had an allergic reaction to an ingredient in the painkiller, Polly points to a mystery that began on May 10, 1973, when the star previously collapsed in a hot recording studio while dubbing new dialogue for Enter the Dragon.

In Polly’s opinion, Lee’s collapse had to do with heatstroke, since his stint in an overheated recording studio was compounded by a lack of sweat glands that prevented his body from cooling off naturally. Heatstroke can also cause swelling in the brain, much like was found during Lee’s autopsy. And Dr. Lisa Leon, an expert in hyperthermia at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, told Polly, “A person who has suffered one heat stroke is at increased risk for another" and that there may be long-term complications after the initial incident.

9. Footage from Bruce Lee’s Funeral was used in 1978’s Game of Death.

At the time of his death, Bruce Lee was involved in numerous projects, including the movie that would become Game of Death, his next directorial effort. According to Vice, there wasn’t much completed on the film by the time of Lee’s passing—there were some notes, a story outline (which simply read “The big fight. An arrest is made. The airport. The end.”), and 40 minutes of footage, including Lee’s now-iconic fight against NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Usually, a project in that situation would just be a lost cause, but production company Golden Harvest wanted to salvage what they could, so they hired Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse to put together ... something. The result was a Frankenstein’s monster of a film, comprised of 11 minutes of existing footage Lee shot, overdubbed clips from his previous movies, and stand-ins to fill out certain scenes. The director even resorted to using an unfortunate Bruce Lee cardboard cutout to complete one shot.

That’s not even the top rung on the ladder of poor taste: When the movie called for Lee’s character to fake his death, they used footage from his actual funeral to realize the scene, complete with waves of mourners, pallbearers, and closeups of Lee’s open casket.

10. Bruce Lee’s posthumous success resulted in its own sub-genre.

Lee’s career was exploding in China and gaining momentum in the United States by 1973, but he passed away just a month before his biggest hit was released: Enter the Dragon. The movie, which grossed more than $200 million at the worldwide box office, catapulted the late Lee to icon status. But with the star himself no longer around to capitalize, there would soon be a wave of knockoff films and wannabes looking to take advantage of the martial arts craze.

Both affectionately and derisively known as “Bruceploitation” films, this strange sub-genre of martial arts cinema gave life to z-movie oddities like Re-Enter the Dragon and Enter the Game of Death, starring the likes of—and we’re not kidding—Bruce Le and Bruce Li. Jackie Chan was even roped into a few of these movies, like 1976's New Fist of Fury. In 1980, Bruceploitation even went meta with The Clones of Bruce Lee, starring Dragon Lee, Bruce Le, and Bruce Lai, who play genetic reconstructions of the late actor after scientists harvest his DNA.