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March Madness

March 9, 2014

The strong wind gusts on the first Sunday afternoon of this month remind me that March is a restless time.  Many of our familiar clichés and quotes about March confirm the unsettled nature of this, the third month on our calendars.

The time-honored adage, “in like a lion, and out like a lamb,” describes the dramatic changes we might expect in the weather.

Shakespeare’s admonition to Julius Caesar, “Beware the ides of March,” signals a foreboding feeling.

“As wild as a March hare” implies that even rabbits are more impetuous during these thirty-one days.

Maybe the humorous poet Ogden Nash put it best:

                              Indoors or out, no one relaxes
                              In March, that month of wind and taxes,
                              The wind will presently disappear,
                              The taxes last us all the year.

In March, cabin fever gives way to spring fever.  The winter has kept us more confined than we like, with much of January and February being spent on the inside looking out.  While winter has not entirely left us, all around are signs of the hope of spring.  School children, still bundled against the biting wind, fly kites in open fields.

Emily Dickinson wrote in one of her sonnets,

                                  A little Madness in the Spring
                                   Is wholesome even for a King.

Spring-cleaning, which goes much deeper than the ordinary, is one example of wholesome madness.  Most homemakers have a moment, often in the spring, when an impulse to tidy up seizes them.  The urge takes them from the ceiling to the floor and from the back of closets and cabinets to the far reaches of basement and attic.  It is a particularly virulent form of spring fever that can become confounding and even annoying to those not afflicted with the malady.

What is worse is when the spring-cleaning madness, though wholesome in its outcome, works at cross-purposes with March Madness of the basketball variety.  Many a couch potato has been rousted from comfort by a renegade vacuum cleaner, intruding into the line of vision during the final seconds of an overtime game.

Basketball has the sports spotlight for the month of March.  The National Collegiate Athletic Association showcases conference tournaments, closely followed by The Big Dance, the NCAA basketball tournament.

All of this basketball has surely exceeded the wildest imagination of Dr. James Naismith, who invented the game. A Canadian by birth, Naismith was a coach in Springfield, Massachusetts.  By attaching a peach basket to the wall on each end of the gymnasium at the local YMCA, Naismith created an indoor game suitable for the harsh winters of New England. The roundball frenzy has become, indeed, March Madness.

Several years ago my brother Bill and I were watching the Big East Championship basketball game between Georgetown and West Virginia.

“What is a Hoya?” Bill asked.

I had no clue.

Dozens of schools have rather common mascots for their athletic teams. Tigers, Wildcats, and Eagles are typical. When Clemson tangles with the University of Missouri, Auburn, or Louisiana State the Tigers will no doubt prevail since all four teams are known as Tigers.

Some schools, however, have unusual mascots with strange nicknames. Most sports fans are familiar with the Razorbacks of the University of Arkansas and the Buckeyes of Ohio State.  But what is a Hoya anyway? Why did the University of California at Santa Barbara select an Argentinean cowboy, the Gaucho, as its mascot? How could Wake Forest, a school with Baptist roots, become the Demon Deacons?

When the University of California at Santa Cruz decided to compete in the NCAA in 1980, it announced that the school’s mascot would be the sea lion. But students there had already adopted the 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.

President Frank Horsfall of the University of Arkansas at Monticello noted in 1925 “the only gosh-darned thing that ever licked the South was the boll weevil.” That 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. Students voted on the three unorthodox mascots selected:  the Artichokes, the Rutabagas, or the Scoundrels. Former college president Art DeCabooter claims that Artie the Fighting Artichoke won because he has heart.

Other strange mascot names include the Fighting Squirrels of Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, the Columbia College Claim Jumpers, the Pittsburgh State Gorillas, the University of Delaware Fighting Blue Hens, the Blue Hose of Presbyterian College, the Kangaroos of Austin College, 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 since changed their mascot names.

The Stormy Petrel, an extinct seafaring bird, is the mascot of Oglethorpe University, a landlocked Georgia school. When the team made a rare appearance in the NCAA tournament, the ESPN announcer mistakenly 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, becoming 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.” Though the reference was intended as an insult, it instead became a source of pride. Purdue teams are the Boilermakers.

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. Douglas Fairbanks’ performance in the 1927 film “The Gaucho” inspired female students to lobby to change the mascot to the Gauchos.

Several years ago Wofford College was a surprise entry in the NCAA tournament. For the Terriers to make it to the Big Dance really was a Cinderella story. Almost no one gave Wofford much of chance against the University of Wisconsin in the first round of the tournament. Though the Badgers prevailed, the Terriers put up a good fight.

A woman with a knack for winning the NCAA pool in her office had a simple strategy. She decided, based on the mascots, which 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!

Conference tournaments begin this week followed by the NCAA tournaments next week.

Enjoy March Madness!

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2014
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