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March 13, 2022

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

In his play, Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare depicts a prophetic encounter.  The ominous dialogue is an exchange between the Emperor and a soothsayer in the crowd. 

The soothsayer warns, “Beware the Ides of March.”

Basketball has the sports spotlight in March.  The National Collegiate Athletic Association showcases conference tournaments, closely followed by the Big Dance, the NCAA basketball tournament.   The top sixty-eight teams in the country compete for the national championship.  All of this basketball has surely exceeded the wildest imagination of Dr. James Naismith, the man who invented the game by attaching a peach basket to the wall of a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891.   The roundball frenzy has become, indeed, March Madness.

Much of January and February are spent on the inside looking out. Usually, the winter has kept us more confined than we like. Winter has not been nearly as harsh this year as in the past.  In March, cabin fever gives way to spring fever.   All around are signs of the hope of spring.  Flowers and trees are blooming earlier than expected this year.  School children fly kites in open fields.  Golf courses are busy with activity.  

Emily Dickinson wrote in one of her sonnets, 

A little Madness in the Spring

                                             Is wholesome even for a King.

I taught in the religion department at the University of South Carolina Upstate for more than a decade.  As students filed into my Comparative Religion class at the beginning of March, 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 relatively 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.  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.  There are nine universities with Bears as their mascots and four with Wolf Pack or Wolfpack.  Hawks with five and Eagles with fifteen lead the way among birds of prey.

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 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.

In college basketball, big cats abound.  In addition to the teams already named, the Lafayette Leopards, the Penn State Nittany Lions, 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.  Still, 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?

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 prevailed.  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 in Clinton, South Caroliona, 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.

So, what is a Hoya?  Georgetown University displays 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.  Using Greek and Latin terms, a student 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 the moniker 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 Boilermakers 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 had a run-in with a snapping turtle.

Wake Forest was initially 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 world’s canines represent 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 are other examples.

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

March Madness is a month-long event that begins with Championship Week, the final week of the regular season.  For Duke University, the game Saturday night had special significance.  Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devil’s storied leader for forty-two years, coached his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium against the University of North Carolina.  After nearly a week of celebration on the Duke campus, the Tar Heels upset the favored Duke team.  The sold-out crowd was visibly distraught.

On Sunday, the next day, the South Carolina women’s basketball team played the University of Kentucky in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference.  The Lady Wildcats defeated the Lady Gamecocks on a last-second shot.  Coach Dawn Staley’s team was ranked number one in the nation.  Kentucky fans were excited.  The Carolina faithful were in despair.

The following Monday night, the Furman Paladins took the Moccasins of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga into overtime.  Furman lost by a single point on a buzzer-beater three-point shot by a Chattanooga player from just inside half court.  

Clare and I, three of our children, and several nieces and nephews are all Furman graduates.  March Madness is here with a full measure of agony and ecstasy for all who enjoy college basketball.  

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies.  Thank you for all you have done.  I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind.  Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you.  One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need.  Please continue with your kindness and generosity.  This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Greater Spartanburg Ministries, 680 Asheville Highway, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29303, (864) 585-9371.

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