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March 13, 2019

I teach in the religion department at the University of South Carolina Upstate. As students filed into my Comparative Religion class last week, I asked if their favorite college basketball teams would receive a bid to the Big Dance, the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament. One student said, with obvious excitement, that he hoped Georgetown University would be invited.

“The Georgetown Hoyas?” I asked.

“Yes, sir. That’s my team!” he replied.

I asked, “What is a Hoya?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe a bulldog of some kind?”

He was completely stumped. I assured him the question would not be on the next religion test. The truth is that I didn’t know what a Hoya was either.

Dozens of schools have rather common mascots. As a graduate of Furman University, I thought that the Purple Paladins was a unique mascot name. Then, I learned that a Paladin is a knight renowned for heroism and chivalry. So, I suppose a knight by any other name is still a knight and that is not a unique mascot name. For example, the United States Military Academy at West Point cheers for the Black Knights. Rutgers University touts the Scarlet Knights. At least two other universities, Central Florida and Fairleigh Dickinson also have a knight as their mascot.

Several mascots are tied in representing four universities each – Owls, Bison, Rams, Aggies, and Bobcats. The Spartans represent five schools including Michigan State University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and our own University of South Carolina Upstate.

Many schools prefer predatory animals as their mascots. Among birds of prey Hawks with five and Eagles with fifteen lead the way. There are nine universities with Bears as their mascots and four with Wolf Pack or Wolfpack.

By far, the most popular group of Mascots are the big cats. Lions and Cougars represent five institutions each. Eight athletic programs use the nickname Panthers and another nine call their teams Wildcats. Tigers lead all of the big cats with thirteen universities, including three in the Southeastern Conference, Auburn, Louisiana State, and Missouri. Clemson is the only Atlantic Coast Conference team with Tiger as their mascot.

If Clemson tangles with Auburn or if Louisiana State University has a game against the University of Missouri, there is no doubt that the Tigers will win. All four schools have the same nickname for their orange and black mascots.

In the 2019 NCAA basketball tournament, there will, no doubt, be two or more teams that answer to the nickname Wildcats – Arizona, Villanova, and Kentucky. We could see the Wildcats go to battle against their own cousins in the final game come the first Monday in April.

In fact, in college basketball, big cats abound. In addition to the Wildcat teams, the Lafayette Leopards and the Cincinnati Bearcats may join the fray.

Then there are the Baylor Bears and the Bruins from Belmont and UCLA respectively, not to mention the Wolfpack from North Carolina State and the Wisconsin Badgers. In this three-week tournament, the fur is sure to fly!

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 anyway?

The University of California at Irvine Anteaters made it into the Big Dance several years ago, but some of the more unusual names will not be represented in the NCAA tournament.

Why did the University of California at Santa Barbara select an Argentine cowboy, the Gaucho, for a mascot? How could Wake Forest, a school with Baptist roots, become the Demon Deacons?

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  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. The administration 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 a 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 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.  After some controversy, both schools 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 as “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, Indiana, 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 a 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 the rival Duke Blue Devils, 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 present nickname in 1936. Inspired by Douglas Fairbanks’ performance in the 1927 film “The Gaucho,” female students pushed to change the mascot to the Gauchos.

The canines of the world are representatives of numerous schools with five Huskies and a whopping fourteen schools that cheer on their Bulldogs, the most popular mascot of all. Smokey, the University of Tennessee bloodhound, and the feisty Terriers of Wofford College will be in the field of sixty-eight teams. 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. Two of our sons are Wofford graduates, so I am an enthusiastic supporter of Wofford.

Granted Wofford is a longshot to advance very far into 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 would have a fighting chance against a small bird like a cardinal, a blue jay, or even a duck.

We’ll see! Go Terriers!

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