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.
Getty Images

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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Fast Facts About Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph breaks the tape as she wins the Olympic 4 x 100 relay in 1960.
Wilma Rudolph breaks the tape as she wins the Olympic 4 x 100 relay in 1960.
Robert Riger/Getty Images

Wilma Rudolph made history as a Black female athlete at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. The 20-year-old Tennessee State University sprinter was the first American woman to win three gold medals at one Olympics. Rudolph’s heroics in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 4 x 100-meter events only lasted seconds, but her legend persists decades later, despite her untimely 1994 death from cancer at age 54. Here are some facts about this U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame member.

1. Wilma Rudolph faced poverty and polio as a child.

When Rudolph was born prematurely on June 23, 1940, in Clarksville, Tennessee, she weighed just 4.5 pounds. Olympic dreams seemed impossible for Rudolph, whose impoverished family included 21 other siblings. Among other maladies, she had measles, mumps, and pneumonia by age 4. Most devastatingly, polio twisted her left leg, and she wore leg braces until she was 9.

2. Wilma Rudolph originally wanted to play basketball.

The Tennessee Tigerbelles. From left to right: Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams, Wilma Rudolph, and Barbara Jones.Central Press/Getty Images

At Clarksville’s Burt High School, Rudolph flourished on the basketball court. Nearly 6 feet tall, she studied the game, and ran track to keep in shape. However, while competing in the state basketball championship in Nashville, the 14-year-old speedster met a referee named Ed Temple, who doubled as the acclaimed coach of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles track team. Temple, who would coach at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, recruited Rudolph.

3. Wilma Rudolph made her Olympic debut as a teenager.

Rudolph hit the limelight at 16, earning a bronze medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. But that didn’t compare to the media hype when she won three gold medals in 1960. French journalists called her “The Black Pearl,” the Italian press hailed “The Black Gazelle,” and in America, Rudolph was “The Tornado.”

4. After her gold medals, Wilma Rudolph insisted on a racially integrated homecoming.

Tennessee governor Buford Ellington, who supported racial segregation, intended to oversee the Clarksville celebrations when Rudolph returned from Rome. However, she refused to attend her parade or victory banquet unless both were open to Black and white people. Rudolph got her wish, resulting in the first integrated events in the city’s history.

5. Muhammad Ali had a crush on Wilma Rudolph.

Ali—known as Cassius Clay when he won the 1960 Olympic light heavyweight boxing title—befriended Rudolph in Rome. That fall, the 18-year-old boxer invited Rudolph to his native Louisville, Kentucky. He drove her around in a pink Cadillac convertible.

6. John F. Kennedy literally fell over when he invited Wilma Rudolph to the White House.

President Kennedy, Wilma Rudolph, Rudolph’s mother Blanche Rudolph, and Vice President Johnson in the Oval Office.Abbie Rowe/White House Photographs/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum // Public Domain

In 1961, Rudolph met JFK in the Oval Office. After getting some photos taken together, the President attempted to sit down in his rocking chair and tumbled to the floor. Kennedy quipped: “It’s not every day that I get to meet an Olympic champion.” They chatted for about 30 minutes.

7. Wilma Rudolph held three world records when she retired.

Rudolph chose to go out on top and retired in 1962 at just 22 years old. Her 100-meter (11.2 seconds), 200-meter (22.9 seconds), and 4 x 100-meter relay (44.3 seconds) world records all lasted several years.

8. Wilma Rudolph visited West African countries as a goodwill ambassador.

The U.S. State Department sent Rudolph to the 1963 Friendship Games in Dakar, Senegal. According to Penn State professor Amira Rose Davis, while there, Rudolph independently met with future Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah’s Young Pioneers, a nationalist youth movement. She visited Mali, Guinea, and the Republic of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) as well.

9. Denzel Washington made his TV debut in a movie about Wilma Rudolph.

Before his Oscar-winning performances in Glory (1989) and Training Day (2001), a 22-year-old Denzel Washington portrayed Robert Eldridge, Rudolph’s second husband, in Wilma (1977). The film also starred Cicely Tyson as Rudolph’s mother Blanche.

10. Schools, stamps, and statues commemorate Wilma Rudolph’s legacy.

Berlin, Germany, has a high school named after Rudolph. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp celebrating her in 2004. Clarksville features a bronze statue by the Cumberland River, the 1000-capacity Wilma Rudolph Event Center, and Wilma Rudolph Boulevard. In Tennessee, June 23 is Wilma Rudolph Day.