What’s in a name? The Origins of 11 College Team Names

In the middle of all the excitement and anticipation of the nation’s biggest college basketball tournament, are the sidelights that make it even more interesting. There are the crazy fans, endless media coverage, and many others. This magnitude of focus brings each school, college, and university closer to the people which eventually make them recognizable institutions in the nation. By name, they are really easy to recognize. Duke is to Blue Devils as North Carolina is to Tar Heels. These team nicknames are almost always taken for granted. A few people know how these schools came up with such monikers.

In this list, we take a short look at 11 colleges and universities and see how they got their now famous nicknames.

Michigan Wolverines

How the Ohioans made Michiganians to call themselves Wolverines.

Michigan Wolverines
Image courtesy of ESPN
Why would a university name their athletic teams after a weasel? Actually, the University of Michigan just adapted the “Wolverine” from its home state which has the same nickname.

In order to trace the origin of how this came to be, one has to go back in time right around 1835 when a territorial dispute between the Ohioans and Michiganians is happening. And because the people from Michigan were so aggressive, rumors about how ferocious Michiganians are quickly spread in Ohio prompting its people to liken them to Wolverines. This caught on among Michiganians and they eventually referred to themselves as Wolverines.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

Even in a loss, a school can have something good, like a new sports moniker.

Gonzaga Bulldogs
Image courtesy of Flickr
After travelling to San Diego for a Christmas Bowl game against the West Virginia University in 1921, the Gonzaga football team quickly realized how superior the other team was when they got handed a 24-0 beating.

While other teams could have lost their appetite in a game where they are completely getting outclassed, the Gonzaga team played with a hunger and aggressiveness enough to impress a local sports writer who witnessed the game. The sportswriter compared the losing team to Bulldogs. Gonzaga thought it sounded well enough to adapt it as their team nickname.

Syracuse Orange

How Syracuse got its teams named after a color.

Syracuse Orange
Orange was not really the school’s original official color. It was rose pink and pea green then but due to its unpopularity, the university changed it to orange which symbolizes the golden apples of Hesperia and also reflects the story of the sunrise and hope for a golden future.

The varsity teams of the school were referred to as Orangemen and Orangewomen until 2004 when the school changed it to Orange citing gender neutrality as the reason.

To represent the color more, an orange fruit figure was made as a mascot. Named Otto the Orange, the mascot was officially recognized by the school in 1995.

Florida Gators

A story of father, son and a company manager who has no idea what an alligator is.

Florida Gators
Could it be true that the University of Virginia played a major role in giving the University of Florida its “Gator” nickname?

The story goes that in 1907, Phillip Miller, a store owner in Gainesville, travelled to Charlottesville, Virginia to visit his son Austin who was enrolled at the University of Virginia. While in town, he also took a visit to a local store, the Michie Company, which sold books and pennants.

The elder Miller wanted to sell pennants bearing the University of Florida mascot back in Gainesville. But since the University did not have a mascot back then or a moniker, Austin suggested using an Alligator. To their surprise, the manager of Michie confessed he had no idea what it was so Austin took an image of the animal from the University of Virginia’s library.

Just in time for the beginning of the 1908 school year, Phillip’s orange and blue pennants went on sale which turned out to be a hit and eventually led into the Gators being the school’s official moniker.

Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State could have been the Michigan State Staters

Michigan State Spartans
1n 1925, then known as the Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science, the school wanted a new nickname for its athletic teams. To address this need, Michigan State held a series of contests with the selected entry being the school’s new moniker. It turned out that the best entry they thought of was “Staters”.

Dismayed with the selection, two local sportswriters searched for a better nickname by reviewing the list of submitted entries and came upon “Spartans”. The nickname represents a better character and exhibits courage which the school eventually liked and replaces Staters with Spartans.

North Carolina Tar Heels

The University of North Carolina got its moniker from its home state’s best export.

North Carolina Tar Heels
By the simple process of burning pine trees, the state of North Carolina turned their state into one of the biggest producers of tar back in the days when wooden ships needed it for protection from rot.

One popular story explaining how the state became the “Tar Heel” state is that of North Carolina workers who emerged from the woods with their feet covered with tar, perhaps getting covered in it while working.

A more heroic story tells the tale of brave North Carolina soldiers who were left alone by retreating comrades in defending their position during a day in the American Revolutionary War. When the North Carolinians met the fleeing soldiers, they told them to put tar on their heels so they could “stick” in battle. No one knew if they did, but the state of North Carolina became glued to the “Tar Heel” nickname since.

Kansas State Wildcats

Three coaches, three name changes.

Kansas State Wildcats
A series of coaching changes resulted in a back-and-forth change in team nicknames. That was the narrative of how Kansas State became known as “Wildcats”.

In 1915, John Bender was hired by the university to handle the school’s football program. Bender did not have an illustrious career there as coach since he only served for just one season but he will always be remembered as the one who first called the team Wildcats. But that did not stuck long then and like Bender’s length of stint, lasted for just a year.

Bring in Z.G Clevenger who was hired as the new coach in 1917. He called the team “Farmers”. Perhaps realizing that the Farmers label intimidates no one, the team’s coach in 1920, Charles Bachman, renamed the team Wildcats. Since then, the Kansas State University’s sports teams were known by that nickname.

Butler Bulldogs

A wandering fraternity mascot inspired Butler to call themselves Bulldogs

Butler Bulldogs
Their spirits getting fainter in each and every loss the Butler University’s football squad was suffering back in the 1919 season, the school’s supporters were in wondering in unison: “what can we do to spark the team?”

What they thought of was to replace the team’s moniker from “”Christians” into something that carries more spunk. Enter Butler’s school paper Collegian editor Alex Cavins and his staff. While in the middle of discussion, a Butler fraternity’s bulldog mascot named Shimmy entered the Collegian office and inspired Cavins. The next release of the Collegian showed a drawing of Shimmy the bulldog going after a figure labelled as John the Baptist, which was a representation of Butler’s next opponent, Franklin Baptists.

Indiana Hoosier

From Hoosier’s men to Hoosier’s nest, Indiana University sure has an interesting nickname.

Indiana Hoosiers
Indiana University is the lead school of the state’s public school system so it is only easy to see why they called themselves “Hoosiers” coming from the moniker of the state.

There are a lot of stories about the origin of the name but not one is agreed upon. One colorful anecdote comes from poet James Whitcomb who tells that Hoosier was derived after a brutal bar brawl, which happened in the days of early state settlers, where ears that were cut-off cluttered the floor. One man stepped on one of those ears and asked “Whose ear?”

No one knows whether the owner of the ear ever got it back but history is listening, thus it might probably be just the origin of the Hoosier.

Duke Blue Devils

Duke could have been called “The Polar Bears” or “The Blue Warriors”.

Duke Blue Evils

Image courtesy of topbet.eu
What fueled Duke’s inspiration of naming its athletic teams Blue Devils is not their sheer luciferian desire to beat the hell out of rival North Carolina. Instead, it was derived from a French Military squad called the Chasseurs Alpins. Because of the squad’s unique uniforms, they were given the nickname “les diables bleus” which in English is “The Blue Devils”.

The name Blue Devils was chosen by campus student leaders and editors of the school’s publications from a list that included the likes of Blue Titans, Blue Eagles, Polar Bears, Royal Blazes, or Blue Warriors. This happened during the 1922-1923 academic year; the time when World War I was about to end and the school was welcoming back returning veterans. This erased some of the lingering suggestions that the name “Blue Devils” was anti-religious. Though the use of the moniker was not official during its first year, the use continued until it got stuck into permanency.

Miami (FL) Hurricanes

The University of Miami named their team after their state’s most hated visitors.

Miami Florida Hurricanes
Image courtesy of Operation Sports
A strong weather disturbance that can flush away houses in a snap is what comes to mind when hearing the word Hurricane. Although it does not register any likeable memory to anyone, the University of Miami chose to be called “Hurricanes” but not because of its destructive nature.

Rather, the school’s officials gave their athletic teams the label Hurricanes to serve as a remembrance of a strong storm that hit the school’s area a few days before after it was opened.

Additionally, the school’s mascot, Sebastian the Ibis, was chosen because as stories have it, the Ibis was the last animal to leave when there’s a hurricane and also the first to come back once the storm has left.

From the team nicknames alone once could see how rich in history college sports is. It provides a link to previous generations that are just as passionate as today’s fans. There other teams out there that carry far more intriguing nicknames. For every common animal name like Bulldogs, Hawks, Eagles, etc. there are the likes of Fighting Illini, Seminoles, and Hoyas that sound unusual but gets our attention. All in all, the joy of college sports begins in the name.