How Every School in the Top 25 Got Its Nickname
As we head into the first college football weekend of the season, let's celebrate with a little history. Here's how each team in the AP Preseason Top 25 got its nickname.
Hugh Roberts, sports editor for the Birmingham Age-Herald, is widely credited as being the first to use “Crimson Tide” to refer to Alabama’s football team. Roberts used the term to describe crimson-and-white-clad Alabama’s surprising performance during a rain-soaked 6-6 tie with heavily favored Auburn in 1907. Henry “Zipp” Newman, who became the sports editor of the Birmingham News at the age of 25, helped popularize the nickname. Sportswriters are also to thank for the elephant that serves as Alabama’s mascot. The elephant reference dates back to the school’s 10-0 season in 1930, when sportswriters began referring to Alabama head coach Wallace Wade’s hulking linemen as the Red Elephants.
2. Ohio State
Ohio State 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.
Oregon’s athletic teams were originally known as the Webfoots. Californians used Webfoots as a derisive nickname for their rain-soaked neighbors to the north, while Oregonians embraced the moniker with pride. According to Oregon’s athletics website, the Ducks nickname emerged out of sportswriters’ need for a shortened version of Webfoots to appear in headlines. The student body adopted Ducks as their official nickname and Oregon’s first athletic director, Leo Harris, made an informal agreement with Walt Disney that granted Oregon permission to use Donald Duck’s likeness in the team logo.
Stanford adopted Indians as its official nickname in 1930, but the moniker was dropped in 1972 after meetings between Stanford’s Native American students and school president Richard Lyman. The student body held an election to decide on a new nickname, and while Robber Barons garnered the most support, new president Donald Kennedy expressed his concern that the moniker was disrespectful to school founder and railroad magnate Leland Stanford. Cardinals, or Cardinal, a reference to the school color, not the bird, was eventually adopted as Stanford’s official nickname. The Tree, symbolic of El Palo Alto (tall tree) that appears on the university’s seal, is a member of the Stanford Band and not recognized as an official mascot of the school.
When Herman J. Stegeman took over as head coach in 1920, Georgia’s football team, which had previously been referred to as the Red and Black, became known as the Wildcats. Atlanta Journal sportswriter Morgan Blake took issue with the unoriginal moniker, pointing out that it was already shared by at least two other teams in the south—Kentucky State and Davidson. “I had hoped that Georgia would adopt some original nickname that would stand out,” Blake wrote. “…The ‘Georgia Bulldogs’ would sound good, because there is a certain dignity about a bulldog as well as ferocity, and the name is not common as ‘Wildcats’ and ‘Tigers.’ Yale is about the only team I recall right now that has the name.”
One week after Blake’s story ran, Cliff Wheatley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution referred to Georgia as the Bulldogs several times in his recap of the team’s tie at Virginia. The new nickname quickly caught on.
6. South Carolina
According to USC’s website, the Gamecock nickname was adopted in 1902 after South Carolina upset Clemson, 12-6. USC students paraded through the streets carrying a transparency that depicted a gamecock standing over a fallen tiger. The transparency, which had been displayed in a storefront window, was reportedly drawn by USC professor F. Horton Colcock and prompted an angry response from the Clemson Cadets. The gamecock symbol on the transparency was likely derived from the nickname bestowed upon General Thomas Sumter, a South Carolina hero during the American Revolution. Sumter was often called the Carolina Game Cock for his fierce fighting tactics. In 1903, South Carolina’s newspaper, The State, shortened the nickname to one word and began referring to USC’s athletic teams as the Gamecocks.
7. Texas A&M
Texas A&M is one of a handful of schools that once referred to its athletic teams as the Farmers. According to the school website, Aggies was occasionally used during the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the student yearbook changed its name to Aggieland in 1949 that Aggies became the official nickname.
When Walter Merritt Riggs established the first football team at Clemson in 1896, he borrowed the colors and nickname from his previous institution, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama, which would later become Auburn. In his A History of Clemson Football, Joe Sherman writes that Clemson wore purple and gold. How Clemson's colors evolved to purple and orange is unclear.
Louisville chose Cardinals as its nickname around 1913. The cardinal is Kentucky’s state bird.
In 1911, Florida’s student monthly, The Pennant, nicknamed Everglades native and UF center Neal Storter “Bo Gator.” According to The Pennant, the Alligator nickname was extended to the whole team during Florida’s trip to South Carolina that same year. Florida would finish undefeated that season and a local vendor ordered banners that featured an alligator. The nickname stuck.
11. Florida State
After the Florida State College for Women was renamed The Florida State University in 1947, students voted Seminoles as the school’s nickname, a nod to the state’s Seminole Tribe. Some of the other suggestions that were considered include Golden Falcons, Statesmen, Crackers, Tarpons and Fighting Warriors. As The Daily Democrat noted in its coverage of the student vote, “The only conflict which may arise from the result, students say, lies in the fact that the University of Florida yearbook is named ‘The Seminole.’”
In 2005, the NCAA granted Florida State a waiver from a new policy that prohibited colleges from using hostile or abusive Native American names and imagery.
12. Louisiana State
By most accounts, LSU took its nickname back in 1896 during a perfect 6-0 season under the leadership of coach A.W. Jeardeau. While Tigers was a popular nickname at the time, the moniker carried additional meaning for LSU, tracing its roots to the Civil War. The nickname was reportedly derived from a group of Confederate soldiers from New Orleans known as the Tiger Rifles, and was eventually applied to all of the Louisiana troops in General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. LSU’s first logo—a snarling tiger head—was borrowed from the Washington Artillery militia unit in New Orleans.
13. Oklahoma State
Before Oklahoma State University was OSU, it was Oklahoma A&M, and its athletic teams were known as the Agriculturists, Aggies, Farmers, or Tigers. The Tigers moniker and the selection of orange and black as the school’s colors were reportedly a tribute to a faculty member whose father was a Princeton graduate. Oklahoma A&M would become known as the “Princeton of the Plains.”
In 1923, the school was in search of a new mascot when U.S. Deputy Marshall Frank “Pistol Pete” Eaton led the Armistice Day parade in Stillwater. Eaton, a renowned marksman, would become the model upon which OSU’s Pistol Pete mascot and Cowboys nickname were based. One year later, Oklahoma City Times sports editor Charles Saulsberry started referring to A&M as the Cowboys, and in 1926, balloons printed with “Oklahoma Aggies – Ride ‘Em Cowboy” were sold at home football games. Aggies and Cowboys were used interchangeably until the school was renamed Oklahoma State University in 1957.
14. Notre Dame
There are several accounts of how Notre Dame acquired its Fighting Irish nickname, but the most widely accepted explanation is that sportswriters coined the moniker around 1920. The school’s website suggests that the name began as an abusive expression, which is supported by another story of how the nickname began. During an 1899 football game against Northwestern, fans reportedly chanted, “Kill the Fighting Irish, Kill the Fighting Irish.” In 1929, the Notre Dame Scholastic explained how the moniker was eventually embraced. “The term, while given in irony, has become our heritage. ...So truly does it represent us that we unwilling to part with it.” Prior to officially adopting Fighting Irish as the school nickname in 1927, Notre Dame’s athletic teams were known as the Catholics and Ramblers.
In the early 1900s, the Texas athletic teams were known primarily as the Varsity or Steers, and occasionally the Longhorns. In 1913, school benefactor H.J. Lutcher Stark, who had previously served as the football team’s manager, donated warm-up blankets with the word “Longhorn” sewn into them. The student body adopted Longhorns as the school’s official nickname and introduced a live Longhorn as the official mascot in 1916.
The Sooners trace their nickname to the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, when, at noon on April 22 of that year, the borders of the Oklahoma Territory were opened to eager settlers in search of free land. Settlers who crossed the border before noon, including land surveyors and railroad workers who took advantage of the access that their positions granted them to claim territory for themselves, were called Sooners. The university’s athletic teams were known as the Rough Riders or Boomers until Sooners was officially adopted in 1908. Boomers were settlers who lobbied the U.S. government to open unassigned lands in the Oklahoma Territory.
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.
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.
19. Boise State
Boise State’s nickname dates back to the school’s days as Boise Junior College. Originally founded by the Episcopal Church in 1932, the school attained four-year status and became Boise College in 1965. After a short stint as Boise State College, the school attained university status in 1974. If a Boise State alum, or anyone else for that matter, knows anything more about the origins of the Broncos nickname, please share in the comments.
20. Texas Christian
There are at least two accounts of how TCU's athletic teams became the Horned Frogs, but both of them trace the nickname to the late 19th century, when the school was still known as AddRan College. According to one story, the school’s football team practiced on a field that was teeming with horned frogs. The players shared some attributes with the fierce reptiles, not including their ability to shoot a stream of blood through their eyes, and reportedly began referring to themselves as horned frogs. According to another story, a four-student committee chose the nickname in 1897 for the football team and school yearbook.
UCLA (originally the Southern Branch of the University of California) ditched Cubs for Grizzlies in 1924, but was forced to look for another nickname when it prepared to enter the Pacific Coast Conference in 1926. Montana, an existing PCC member, also used the Grizzlies moniker and threatened legal action if UCLA didn’t change its name. According to the UCLA Alumni Association, students submitted more than 100 potential names in 1926, including Buccaneers, Pirates, Panthers and Gorillas. More than half of the entries, however, were related to bears. Student leaders at UC Berkeley, where Bears and Bruins were both used as nicknames, offered to let UCLA use the latter moniker. UCLA’s Student Council unanimously approved the new name.
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.
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.
24. Southern Cal
USC’s athletic teams were known as the Methodists or Wesleyans until 1912, when athletics director Warren Bovard asked 25-year-old Los Angeles Times sportswriter Owen Bird to come up with a better nickname. Bird first referred to USC as the Trojans in a 1912 track preview. In explaining his new moniker, he wrote, “The term 'Trojan' as applied to USC means… that no matter what the situation, what the odds or what the conditions, the competition must be carried on to the end and those who strive must give all they have and never be weary in doing so.”
25. Oregon State
Beginning around 1910, Beavers was one of the nicknames used to refer to the athletic teams at Oregon Agricultural College, which became Oregon State. The school’s other nicknames included Hayseeds, Aggies and Orangemen. Beavers, which eventually became the school’s official moniker, was derived from the state nickname and Oregon’s history in the fur trade.