SBJ/December 10 - 16, 2001/Opinion

Colleges win at the name game

Steeped as they are in exploitation and hypocrisy, it's tough to enjoy college sports, but there are saving graces. Among those are the nicknames that history or accident have bestowed on some schools' athletic representatives.

While it's true that most colleges have looked for their nicknames to the same generic zoo that stocks our professional clubs, the difference in numbers between the colleges and the pros means that the former have had more opportunities for creativity. That's particularly evident during the basketball season, when some 1,500 senior colleges field hardcourt squads, plus numerous junior and community colleges. Given that many chances, even academic types can get things right once in a while.

The kinds of college nicknames worth savoring cover a wide gamut. There are occupational names tied to the school's educational mission, such as the Purdue Boilermakers or the Lehigh Engineers. There are names with a meteorological tilt, like the Miami Hurricanes and the Iowa State Cyclones. There are whimsical names (the Hampshire College Blacksheep), and neo-whimsical (the California-Irvine Anteaters and the Cal-Santa Cruz Banana Slugs). There are plays on words, like the Pace University Setters and Bryn Mawr Mawrters.

There are a couple of commercial tie-ins, but they aren't irksome because they're either appropriate or non-commercial in their result. Stetson U. in Deland, Fla., calls its teams the Hatters because both it and the famous hat maker had the same founder. Converse College, a women's school in Spartanburg, S.C., calls its athletic reps the All Stars, but it has no connection to nor does it get special treatment from the shoe company. Indeed, its basketball team wears Reeboks.

Usually, college cheers echo school nicknames, but sometimes the reverse has obtained. Georgetown U. calls its teams the Hoyas after its old "Hoya Saxa!" yell, which the school says is a Latin-Greek amalgam meaning "what rocks!" Virginia Polytechnic Institute dubbed its teams the Hokies because of a cheer composed by a student in 1896, the year the institution's name was changed from Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. That chant began "Hokey, hokey, hokey high/ Tech, Tech, VPI."

Catholic-run Manhattan College names its teams the Jaspers after Brother Jasper, the faculty member who was its first baseball coach and who, the institution asserts, initiated the seventh-inning stretch in that sport. (Didn't President Taft do that?) The University of Idaho's teams picked up the nickname of Vandals not from the ancient Germanic tribe but because a long-ago someone wrote that its basketballers had "vandalized" an opponent.

A couple of the better nicknames have regional historic roots, however vague. The University of North Carolina traces its Tar Heels appellation to a couple of stories. One involved North Carolinians dumping tar into a river near Rocky Mount to impede British troops during the Revolutionary War; another has a group of North Carolina soldiers during the Civil War answering taunts from fellow Confederates by saying their detractors would fight better if their heels were dipped in the plentiful North Carolina gunk.

Indiana University says the origin of its Hoosiers nickname is lost in the mists of time, but notes that one theory has it that it's what early homesteaders in the state hollered when people knocked on their doors.

For my money, the best college-sports nickname, for reasons of local color and amiable obscurity, is the Billikens of St. Louis University. It seems that a billiken is an elfish, round-bellied figure of Asian origin, statues of which used to be considered good-luck charms, and that around 1910 a local sportswriter decided that John Bender, the school's football coach, looked like one. He started calling the team "Bender's Billikens." The name stuck.

You don't get that kind of name from a brainstorming session, or from taking a poll. Aren't you glad they didn't have those way back when?

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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