A closer look at nine of the most unique nicknames in college sports
What's in a nickname? More than it seems, sometimes. Sure, plenty of colleges and universities play it down the middle. There are, after all, 76 U.S. college teams known as the Eagles. Tigers was the right call for another 46 schools and Bulldogs fit for 40. Solid, sturdy and safe is one route to take.
But today we're focusing on those who chose to live on the fringes when they named their teams. Birds of a different feather who have drawn attention to their school by taking a chance and picking a name that makes a sports fan look twice and ponder the meaning.
We scoured Divisions I, II and III and picked nine of our favorite nicknames. Disclaimer: This list is 100 percent subjective and was selected using a loose criteria of intrigue and humor. As always, we aim to entertain, enlighten and inform.
Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys and Golden Suns
Arkansas Tech started playing football in 1911 and was called the Aggies (a nickname shared by eight college teams today) until a game on Nov. 17, 1920, according to the school's official history.
The name Wonder Boys first appears as a proper noun in reference to the Arkansas Tech football team in the Arkansas Gazette after a 13-0 win over what is now Henderson State University. The name Wonder Boys quickly gained popularity and star quarterback John Tucker came tobe known as “The Original Wonder Boy.” Tucker went to work at Tech in a variety of roles,including coach, teacher, athletic director, chemistry teacher and director of student affairs, between 1925 and 1972.
When the school began fielding women's sports, they became the Golden Suns. Arkansas Tech, located in Russellville, is a Division II program and charter member of the Great American Conference.
Campbell Fighting Camels
Campbell University has been a Division I program since 1977. It competes in the Big South Conference and is located in tiny Buies Creek, North Carolina, (population 2,942 in 2010), which is 30 miles south of Raleigh. There isn't a native camel in sight and not many nearby, including the N.C. Zoo which is 90 minutes west. Tall tales abound regarding the origin of the nickname, which Campbell shares with one other U.S. school. Thanks to Campbell associate AD for sports communications Stan Cole and a local historian, we can straighten out the story.
According to J. Winston Pearce, author of “Campbell College, Big Miracle in Little Buies Creek,” the nickname’s origin perhaps stretches back to the turn of the century when all but one of the school’s original buildings were destroyed by fire. In the aftermath, Z.T. Kivett visited the school’s founder and president, Dr. James Archibald Campbell, at his residence.
As Dr. Campbell bemoaned the fate of the institution he had worked 13 years to build, Mr. Kivett encouraged him, “Your name’s Campbell; then get a hump on you! We’ve got work to do.” Dr. Campbell thought that Mr. Kivett said, “You’re a camel, get a hump on you.” Hence the nomadic nickname.
The school was known as the "Hornets," "Campbells" and "Campbellites" until the humped friend from the desert became the official nickname and mascot in late 1933 or early 1934.
Centenary College Ladies and Gentlemen
The Gentlemen and Ladies may be forgotten, but they’re not gone. Teams from the school in Shreveport, Louisiana, competed in Division I from 1959-2011 as an independent and as members of the Atlantic Sun and Mid-Continent conferences. Robert Parish played center at Centenary before he anchored the Boston Celtics world championship frontcourt. Centenary moved to Division III in 2012, and of course there's a story regarding the origin of their original nickname, according to the university's website.
First established in the fall of 1921 by then-Centenary President George Sexton, it seems the football team had been in a fight the previous game, and Sexton sat the team down before the next game and told the players, "...from now on, you will all act like gentlemen."
With the majority of Centenary men also soldiers, the moniker "Gentlemen" or "Gents" was a logical choice. A tongue-in-cheek account that first mentioned the new nickname appeared in the 1923 Yoncopin (Centenary’s yearbook) in the football summary.
"...there was some doubt on the eve of the first game. Reports from the Marshall (Texas) camp had them recruiting from the boiler factories and we were made to believe that the Marshall team was coming to Shreveport to mop-up with the 'Gentlemen.' Well, we put on our best manners, but just couldn't help running up a 77-0 score..."
When the school started fielding women's teams in the 1960s, they naturally became known as the "Ladies."
Fort Wayne Mastodons
A stocky elephant-like creature, the Mastodon, 10 feet tall and tusked, roamed the southern Great Lakes region of North America 10,000 years ago, per the Fort Wayne website. In 1968, local farmer Ortie Routsong uncovered unidentified fossil remains and called in the IPFW geology department, which recovered many parts of the large beast's bones and skull.
Fast forward two years and the university was trying to select a name for its athletic teams. Student body president Steve Pettyjohn made the case for Mastodons in an editorial in the school newspaper.
...it sounds different, strange, and even ickey (as one female student put it). That’s exactly why. It’s different and yes, even strange. I’m tired of slavishly copying what Bloomington, West Lafayette, and other big schools do. And I’m tired of these high school attitudes and high school nicknames…For God’s sake, let’s have the courage to be a little different.
With strong support from the Geology Club, the nickname passed, ensuring Fort Wayne's inclusion on lists of unique nicknames for years to come.
Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos
The fine Midwestern destination Kansas City is known for delicious barbecue, passionate sports fans and a vibrant downtown framed by the Missouri River to the north. But when seeking a nickname for its debate team in the 1930s, UMKC selected an animal endemic to Australia — with a little help from Walt Disney.
According to university history, the discussion started in 1936, triggered by the arrival of two baby kangaroos to the Kansas City Zoo. Yearbook editors, however, felt the nickname was an inappropriate representation.
Just as the criticism began to mount and support for the kangaroo was beginning to wane, famed cartoonist Walt Disney came to the rescue. In April 1937, a leading KCU political group, the CO-OP Party, won a landslide election with “Kasey the Kangaroo” as its insignia. “Kasey,” the group stated, fit KC.
The same month, the first issue of the KCU humor magazine The Kangaroo was published. Six months after the first kangaroo appeared on the cover, another kangaroo was featured, this time alongside Mickey Mouse. The artist of this drawing was the famous Disney, and support for the kangaroo mounted. In a matter of a few years, The Crataegus folded and The Kangaroo became the school’s yearbook.
UMKC is a Division I program with 16 teams that compete in the Western Athletic Conference. According to the UMKC website, SUNY-Canton and Austin College in Sherman, Texas, are the only other U.S. colleges known as Kangaroos.
Presbyterian Blue Hose
Give the sportswriters credit for this unusual handle. The Presbyterian teams wore blue stockings and nimble headline writers often shortened "Stockings" to "Hose." Here's the rest of the story from the school's athletics website:
Coincidentally enough, former college PR guy Ben Hay Hammet’s 1982 centennial history of PC noted that blue-stocking Presbyterians also referred to “Presbyterians with strong puritan leanings.”
“At any rate,” Hammet wrote, “the sports nickname was shortened to ‘Blue Hose’ in 1954 — presumably under the assumption that it sounded somewhat fiercer to carry onto the field of athletic battle.”
The student body adopted the nickname as the official school nickname in the 1950s.
Presbyterian became a full member of Division I as a Big South member in 2011.
Texas A&M International Dustdevils
In my mind, a dustdevil is what swirls around on the hardwood floor after we turn on the ceiling fan. A gentle reminder to vacuum, if you will. But down in the south Texas town of Laredo, the term is used to describe a weather phenomenon created when warm air interacts with cool air under clear skies. These vertical whirlwinds of sand and such are relatively harmless.
From the official website:
Dusty is a traditional cowboy hat pulled down low over its forehead as is necessary for anyone stuck in a swirling dustdevil or sandstorm environment. The Star of Texas adorns the center of the hat, paying homage to the Lone Star State. Dusty's bandana is tied tight around its face, protecting its features from the vortex it lives within.
Dustdevils became the official nickname in 2002. When Texas A&M International became a full Division II member six years later, it planned to seep up original mascot "Dusty" and sent him off to that wastebasket in the sky, but eventually decided to stick with him.
UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs
I'm not picking favorites, but this is my favorite. Who doesn't love a slimy yellow mollusk who slithers on the floor of the Redwood Forest?
Former UC Santa Cruz chancellor Robert Sinsheimer, for one. In 1980, he changed the university's official nickname to Sea Lions, and while one was painted on the floor of the basketball arena, those stubborn students kept cheering for the Slugs. Crazy college kids. In 1986, the university administration relented. It was an excellent decision.
The Banana Slug has attracted a good deal of national attention over the years. In 2008, ESPN named it one of the 10 best college basketball mascots. Four years earlier, Reader's Digest named it the best. People magazine once dedicated a full-page spread to the Santa Cruz Banana Slug movement. The National Directory of College Athletics named it the best college mascot and Sports Illustrated once named the Banana Slug the nation's best college nickname.
Here's a certain path to carving out a unique space in the world of nicknames: Make one up.
That was the tact taken in 1984 by the creative students and staff at Division III Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri. How did they concoct such a moniker? They took it from the local intersection of Gore and Lockwood Street.
Even better is the lovable mascot they invented. It has the paws of a cheetah, the horns of a buffalo and the face of a St. Bernard