How Every School in the Preseason Top 25 Got Its Nickname
By Scott Allen
The first college football weekend of the season has arrived. Here's a little history for your next tailgate party.
1. OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
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.
2. TCU HORNED FROGS
There are at least two accounts of how Texas Christian University'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.
3. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
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.
4. BAYLOR BEARS
In 1914, about 15 years after green and gold were selected as the school’s official colors, Baylor President Samuel Palmer Brooks held an election to choose a mascot. Bears received more than half of the 406 student votes cast, while Buffaloes finished second. Other mascots on the ballot included Eagles, Ferrets, Frogs, Antelopes, and Bookworms. Baylor’s first live bear mascot arrived on campus in 1917. In 1974, the student body voted to name the live mascot Judge in honor of the school’s founder, Judge R.E.B. Baylor.
5. 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.
6. AUBURN TIGERS
According to Auburn's website, the school traces its name and nickname to a 1770 Oliver Goldsmith poem, which includes the line, "where crouching tigers await their hapless prey." Newspapers occasionally referred to Auburn's athletic teams as the Plainsmen, another nod to the poem, but after Auburn shut out rival Alabama in 1901, the Birmingham News headline read, "A Tiger Claws Alabama." The Tigers nickname stuck.
7. OREGON DUCKS
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.
8. USC TROJANS
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.”
9. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
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 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.
10. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
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.
11. NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
There are several accounts of how Notre Dame acquired its Fighting Irish nickname, but the most widely accepted explanation is that sportswriters coined the name 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.
12. CLEMSON TIGERS
When Walter Merritt Riggs established the first football team at Clemson in 1896, he borrowed the Tiger nickname from either his previous institution (the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama, which would later become Auburn) or Princeton.
13. UCLA BRUINS
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 Grizzlies 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.
14. LSU TIGERS
By most accounts, Louisiana State 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.
15. ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS
After a half-century as the Owls and then the Bulldogs, Arizona State became the Sun Devils after a student vote in 1946. Sparky the Sun Devil was drawn by Bert Anthony, who was also an artist for Disney.
16. GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS
Georgia Tech's athletic teams are most commonly referred to as the Yellow Jackets, but they are alternatively known, particularly among students and alumni, as the Ramblin' Wreck. The Yellow Jackets nickname originally had nothing to do with the six-legged flying insect that appears on Georgia Tech's logos in the form of the school's mascot, Buzz. Instead, Yellowjackets, as a single word, was used to describe fans who attended Georgia Tech athletic events wearing yellow coats and jackets.
The Ramblin' Wreck nickname dates to the late 19th century when Georgia Tech engineering students working in the jungles of South America constructed makeshift motorized vehicles out of spare tractor and automotive parts. The students' fellow workers referred to the vehicles as the Ramblin' Wrecks of Georgia Tech, and the nickname was eventually popularized in the school fight song. Several cars were used to represent the Ramblin' Wreck on campus until 1961, when a Delta Air Lines pilot sold a restored 1930 Model A Ford Sport Coupe to the school that has been used to lead the football team on the field before every home game ever since.
17. OLE MISS REBELS
The University of Mississippi's teams were originally known as The Flood. In 1936, the editor of the school's student newspaper proposed a contest to select a new name, and Rebels was the most popular choice among five finalists. An illustration of Colonel Reb, the Rebels' controversial mascot, first appeared in the school yearbook a few years later. School officials retired Colonel Reb, a caricature of an antebellum Southern plantation owner, as an on-field mascot in 2003, responding to complaints of racial insensitivity. Ole Miss historian David Sansing says that Colonel Reb may have been modeled after a black man, Blind Jim Ivy, who was a regular at campus sporting events until his death in 1955.
18. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
Arkansas's athletic teams weren't always known as the Razorbacks. From 1894 until 1910, the football team was known as the Cardinals, a reference to the deep shade of red that the student body voted the school's official color—over heliotrope—in 1895. Upon returning to Little Rock after Arkansas's 1909 team capped off an undefeated season with a win at rival LSU, head coach Hugo Bezdek announced to the crowd of cheering students that his team had played "like a wild band of Razorback hogs." The Razorback, a wild boar known for its fighting ability, was adopted as the school's mascot the following year. "Wooo, Pig, Sooie" was incorporated as the school yell, or "Hog Call," during the 1920s, while the Razorbacks debuted a live mascot in the 1960s.
19. OKLAHOMA SOONERS
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.
20. 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.
21. STANFORD CARDINAL
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. 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.
22. ARIZONA WILDCATS
The school's website suggests the Wildcats nickname came from a Los Angels Times columnist in 1914, who wrote that Arizona "showed the fight of Wildcats." Arizona's first mascot was a desert bobcat named Rufus Arizona.
23. BOISE STATE BRONCOS
Boise State’s nickname dates back to the school’s days as Boise Junior College. According to the student handbook, the Broncos mascot was chosen by students in 1932: "They chose the Bronco because wild horses could be found near Boise, many students rode horses at the time, and because of the prevalence of farming and ranching in the Boise area."
24. MISSOURI TIGERS
Tigers was adopted as Missouri’s nickname in reference to the Columbia Tigers, a militia of more than 100 citizens that fortified the town against a rumored attack by a pro-Confederate guerilla band during the final year of the Civil War. In 1984, the school held a contest to name its mascot. Truman, a reference to Missouri-born President Harry S Truman, was the winning entry.
25. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Like several schools, the University of Tennessee's athletic teams share a nickname with their home state. Tennessee became known as the Volunteer State during the War of 1812, when General Andrew Jackson received an outpouring of support from volunteer soldiers in Tennessee to fight in the Battle of New Orleans. This reputation was solidified during the Mexican War, when 30,000 Tennessee residents volunteered to battle Santa Ana.
All photos via Getty Images