Monday, March 4, 2013

Lions and Tigers and Blue Hose

I am a connoisseur of sports nicknames. And while "March Madness" is mostly about basketball, for me it's at least a little about being exposed to one or two nicknames that I had never heard before.

There are 347 colleges playing NCAA Division I men's basketball this season.  Most have boring nicknames like Tigers, Lions, and Bulldogs.  And that's fine -- I like bulldogs. But the ones that pique my interest are the unusual ones. There's something special about a unique nickname and what it says about the school.

Nicknames originate from a variety of sources: school administrators, students, an actual vote, long-standing tradition. Many college nicknames were not chosen by the school or its students, but were first appended to teams by sportswriters. Back when scribes actually reported on athletes (or, this time of year, "cagers" which my brother assures me is a term that's still used), they had to come up with different ways to name to team. Still others were chosen by a particular coach. 

So, while I bear no animosity toward any nickname (with the possible exception, as my friend Mary used to say, of a certain "worthless hairy nut") I much prefer the unique names, especially those with a history behind them (not the made-up, Johnny-come lately Banana Slugs or Cardinal). In no particular order, here are some of my favorite collegiate nicknames, along with a little background of the origin of the name.

Idaho Vandals. Okay, I lied. There is some order -- the Vandals are my all-time favorite nickname. There are lots of Spartans, Trojans, and Vikings, but for your hard-core pillagers and anarchists, I'll take a Vandal every time. Did the Vikings or the Spartans or the Trojans take down Gaul and Rome? I don't think so. An Idaho basketball coach from the 1910's first referred to his team's defense as so fierce that they "vandalized" their opponents; a writer for the school newspaper first referred to the team as the "Vandals."

Canisius Golden Griffins. The griffins of Greek mythology have the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. The nickname comes from a ship (believe it or not) that was built in Buffalo, NY and was the first ship to sail the Upper Great Lakes "Le Griffon."

Manhattan Jaspers. What is a Jasper you might ask? The correct question would actually be "Who was Jasper?" Brother Jasper was a Christian Brothers (F.S.C.) priest who was a BPOC in the late 19th century and introduced baseball to the school.

St. Louis Billikens. The Billiken is a goofy looking Buddha-like figure that was a charm doll created in the early 20th Century by a St. Louis illustrator and art teacher. It's not entirely clear how or why SLU adopted the Billiken nickname other than a supposed resemblance between the charm and a former football coach, John Bender, and its proximity to its creator.

Presbyterian Blue Hose. If they were called the "Blue Socks" it wouldn't seem all that unusual. But while at one time sportswriters apparently referred to them as either the Blue Stockings or the Blue Hose, the later won out, and an unusual name was born.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Another nickname coined by a sportswriter, trying to capture the spirit of a revived athletic program in the 1920's. Thank goodness we're still not "The Baptists." The Demon Deacon mascot is the perfect combination of a top-hatted Deacon with an impish attitude that represents the oxymoronic name.

A photo that appears to be from the 2007
Orange Bowl. Unfortunately, appearances at
such venues are few and far between for the Deacon.

Akron Zips. They were actually once the Zippers, named after a popular rubber shoe manufactured by BF Goodrich in Akron. With the advent of metal zippers that replaced buttons in pants, Akron thought it wise to shorten the nickname to the Zips. Their mascot is Zippy the Kangaroo. Honest.

Southern Illinois Salukis. The only school chosen here that got its nickname via a campus-wide vote. SIU was known as "The Maroons" before they decided a better moniker was in order. While Salukis are cool dogs, the nickname makes even more sense when one understands that the Southern part of Illinois has long been referred to as "Egypt."

Richmond Spiders. Another nickname inspired by a person (in this case a baseball pitcher) and bestowed by a sportswriter. The only arachnid-named school to my knowledge, although I always thought that one of the all-girls' schools was missing out by not naming itself the "Black Widows."

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. "Gamecocks" is just fine, but Chanticleers? Very cool. Chanticleer was a rooster who ruled the roost in one of Canterbury's Tales. When the school went looking for a nickname to replace "Trojans" it wanted to identify with South Carolina's Gamecocks (it was a two-year branch of USC at the time) but keep a separate identity. And so they settled on Chanticleer.

So those are some of my favorite unusual names. I'm hoping to find one or two more in this year's tournament. But in the meantime, is there one out there that you're particularly fond of that didn't make my list? If so, post a comment and let us know.