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March Madness Mascots

March 22, 2010

 

My brother Bill and I were watching the Big East Championship basketball game. Georgetown was playing West Virginia.

“What is a Hoya?” Bill asked.

I had no clue.

Dozens of schools have rather common mascots. Tigers, Wildcats, and Eagles are typical nicknames. When Clemson tangled with the University of Missouri last weekend, there was no doubt that the Tigers would prevail since both teams are known as Tigers.

Then there are those unusual mascots. Most sports fans are familiar with The University of Arkansas Razorbacks and the Ohio State Buckeyes.  But what is a Hoya any way? Why did The University of California at Santa Barbara select an Argentinean cowboy, the Gaucho, for a mascot? How could Wake Forest, a school with Baptist roots, become the Demon Deacons?

Some of the more unusual names will not be represented in the NCAA tournament.

The Iowa State University became the Cyclones in 1895. After the ISU football team trounced Northwestern, a reporter wrote, “Northwestern might as well have tried to play football with an Iowa cyclone as with the Iowa team it met yesterday.”

When the University of California at Santa Cruz decided to get into the NCAA game in 1980, it announced that the school’s mascot would be the sea lion. But students at UC Santa Cruz had adopted the colorful banana slugs that populated the redwoods on campus as an unofficial mascot. Students rallied and won. Sammy the Banana Slug has become one of the most recognizable college mascots ever.

University of Arkansas, Monticello, President Frank Horsfall, noted in 1925 “the only gosh-darned thing that ever licked the South was the boll weevil.” The well-known pest became the school’s mascot.

Scottsdale Community College needed a new mascot in the 1970s. At the time, the student government was upset with the administration for steering funding toward athletics instead of academics. They picked three unorthodox mascots and let the students vote. The choices were the Artichokes, the Rutabagas, or the Scoundrels. Former college president Art DeCabooter says that Artie the Fighting Artichoke won because he’s got heart.

Other strange mascot names include the Fighting Squirrels of Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, the Fighting Okra of Delta State in Mississippi, the University of Akron (Ohio) Zippers, the Columbia College Claim Jumpers, the Pittsburg State Gorillas, the University of Delaware Fighting Blue Hens, the Blue Hose of Presbyterian College, the Kangaroos of Austin College in Sherman, Texas, the University of Irvine Anteaters, the Purple Cows of Williams College, and the Long Beach Dirtbags.

Among the most incongruent were the Fighting Christians from Elon and the Fighting Quakers of Earlham. Both schools have changed their mascot names.

The Stormy Petrel, an extinct seafaring bird, is the mascot of Oglethorpe University, a landlocked Georgia school. They made a rare appearance in the NCAA tournament. The ESPN announcer called them the Salty Pretzels.

Georgetown Hoyas display a bulldog, but their nickname is unrelated. The origin of Hoya dates back more than a century when Georgetown’s teams were known as The Stonewalls. A student, using Greek and Latin terms, dubbed the baseball team Hoia Saxa, which translates “what rocks.” The name stuck, spawning Georgetown’s popular “Hoya Saxa” cheer. Eventually the school adopted Hoyas for all athletic teams.

After Purdue’s football team smashed Wabash College, 44-0, in its 1891 season opener, a Crawfordsville newspaper ran the headline “Slaughter of Innocents: Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers from Purdue.” The reference was intended as an insult. Instead it became a source of pride. Purdue teams are the Boilermakers.

A Terrapin is a carnivorous turtle native to the state of Maryland. It is better known as a snapping turtle. In 1932, Maryland football coach H.C. Byrd recommended the Diamondback Terrapin as mascot. Byrd had apparently had a run-in with a snapping turtle.

Wake Forest was originally known as the Old Gold and Black.  In 1922, after a victory over rival Duke, a local sports editor referred to the football team as the Demon Deacons. The new name quickly caught on with fans.

Originally known as the Road Runners, The University of California at Santa Barbara adopted its new nickname in 1936. Inspired by Douglas Fairbanks’ performance in the 1927 film “The Gaucho,” female students pushed to change the mascot to The Gauchos

This year, the Wofford College has become the surprise entry in the NCAA tournament. For the Terriers to make it to the Big Dance really is a Cinderella story. As an alumnus of Furman University, I contend that being devoted to any Southern Conference team gives one the freedom to be a fan of every other Southern Conference team. Last year I was squarely behind Davidson College during March Madness. Two of our sons are Wofford graduates. This year I am an enthusiastic supporter of Wofford.

Almost no one gives Wofford much of chance against the University of Wisconsin in the first round of the tournament. Yet there is hope.

A woman had a knack for winning the NCAA pool in her office. Her strategy was simple. She decided, based on the mascots, the teams she thought would advance to the next round. For example, if the Florida Gators played the Oregon Ducks, she reasoned that a duck was no match for an alligator. Easy!

Using that approach, a terrier has a fighting chance against a badger.

Go dogs!

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2010
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