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Mike Lopresti | | June 24, 2019

The Sweet 16 of college basketball nicknames and the stories behind them

Where are the best mascots?

Welcome to the Sweet 16. No, not that Sweet 16, but the bracket for the Great Nickname Showdown in Division I. That way we can decide a national champion – March Madness for monikers, even if it’s December.

A word or two about criteria. Uniqueness counted heavily, as did quirkiness. But an interesting back story also scored highly. Since there are no metrics for nicknames – couldn’t find one thing on KenPom – no seeding was done. This Sweet 16 was bracketed by a blind draw, which might leave the NCAA selection committee aghast.

RELATED: The best nicknames and mascots in NCAA Division II sports

So here goes, with apologies to the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (from Chaucer’s Canterbury tales), Canisius Golden Griffins (from a doomed ship built in Buffalo) and Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (coined by a football coach with 95 percent of his roster from the area). They just missed the cut. The Ragin’ Cajuns were an especially tough call, since the mascot is a giant pepper. And the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs would be a certain entrant, except they’re not Division I.

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Vandals first appeared a century ago, when sportswriters mentioned how the defense “vandalized” opponents. The team was coached by Hec Edmundson, who ended up having the arena named after him – at Washington.

A Delaware Revolutionary War company was led by a captain who staged cock fights, when he wasn’t tormenting the British. Apparently, his blue hens were a ferocious bunch, and their fame and name spread to his company . . . and 140-odd years later, to the teams of Delaware.

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Winner: Idaho’s case would have been stronger had Vandals come from the folks who sacked Rome in 455 A.D. The Fightin’ Blue Hens gets the nod, if only because of the mascot name -- YoUDee.


You know anything about bullfighting, you know where Toreros comes from. The university founders wanted the school colors to be blue and white, to be associated with the Virgin Mary. Bullfighters, meet the Virgin Mary. There’s a hard-to-beat combo.

For Mastodons, we have to start at Orsie Routsong’s farm in northern Indiana. While a pond was being expanded in the 1960s, bones were discovered on his land. A geologist from Purdue Fort Wayne decided they were from a mastodon, and enlisted some colleagues and students to excavate the finds, put them back together, and displayed the skeleton on campus.  The rest is nickname history.

Winner: Mastodons, by a horn.


Someone apparently saw a story about two baby kangaroos at the Kansas City zoo in the 1930s and came up with the nickname – for the UMKC debate team.

The southern Illinois area was once called Little Egypt, supposedly because people from the drought-ravaged northern part of the state migrated to the fertile south for food, as Jacob sent his sons to buy grain in ancient Egypt in the Bible. And since a Saluki is an Egyptian hound, well, you get the idea.

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Winner: The Kangaroos own one very powerful trump card. The first version of the mascot was drawn by a young artist who had a studio near Kansas City. Some guy named Walt Disney.


Nobody is really sure how Campbell teams metamorphosized from Hornets to Camels in the 1930s. One story suggests that after a fire destroyed much of campus, civic leader Z.T. Kivett visited school founder and president James Archibald Campbell for a pep talk. “Your name’s Campbell, then get a hump on you. We’ve got work to do.” Only the president thought he said, “You’re a camel, get a hump on you.” So a great name came from a misheard word? Whatever.

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Back when Albany was a teachers college, an early nickname was Pedagogues, a word for teachers. The mascot was something called a Pedguin. In 1965, a contest was held to find something better, or at least didn’t need a translator to explain. Student and future poet Kathy Earle sent in Great Danes. Albany had a swell nickname, and she won a $25 savings bond.

Winner: Camels is hard to beat, fighting or otherwise.


A 1927 film The Gaucho starred Douglas Fairbanks, with the story about an Argentine cowboy. Female students at Santa Barbara must have liked the film – or at least the star -- because they led a campus vote for Gauchos to be the school nickname.

 In the same year 2,000 miles away, a contest to give Akron a nickname came up with Zippers; a brand name for rubber overshoes produced in town by B.F. Goodrich. Later, it was shorted to Zips.

Winner: Akron. You’ve got to love Zippy the kangaroo mascot.


Who has the best reptile mascot?

Actually, it’s a horny toad, which is actually a lizard. Anyway, in 1897, library societies at TCU named the yearbook annual, The Horned Frog. They supposedly had considered The Cactus but the University of Texas beat them to it. Or else Kansas might be playing the TCU Cacti in the Big 12.

Ray Hanson was a Marine hero in World War I, surviving wounds and being gassed. So when he was later athletics director at Western Illinois and wanted to use the nickname Leathernecks for his teams, the Corps gave him a thumbs-up.

Winner: Hanson’s nickname was Rock, because he was good friends with Knute Rockne. That makes Western Illinois tempting, but there’s no stopping a mascot named SuperFrog.

MORE: Becoming a college mascot: How to be one of the best parts of game day


It was the 1960s and the students at UC Irvine wanted a distinctive, not-exactly-establishment nickname. They found one, using a character from the B.C. comic strip as their inspiration.

When a disastrous citrus freeze threatened the very existence of DeLand Academy in Florida in the 1880s, famed hatmaker John Stetson – who had a winter home nearby – was called in to help. He gave the school a new name, and nickname.

Winner: One of the other suggestions at UC Irvine was the Unicorns. They made the right call.


North Florida

In 30-plus years of the 19th century at Manhattan, Brother Jasper of Mary founded the band, orchestra, literary club, introduced baseball, served as athletics director and was prefect of discipline. No wonder his name lives on.

In the late 1970s North Florida was holding an election for a nickname. The favorites appeared to be Armadillos or Manatees, but here came Dr. Ray Bowman, a faculty member from the natural resources department, to spend his own money for fliers and placards promoting Ospreys. A true grass-roots write-in campaign. It worked.

 Winner: Manhattan. Sorry, Dr. Bowman.


   The University of Delaware agricultural department still raises blue hens, which gives Delaware the edge of having something that is still, you know, alive. But there’s just something appealing about a big prehistoric beast that went extinct 10,000 years ago. Maybe Mastodons didn’t survive, but they are advancing.

Winner: Purdue Fort Wayne.


Hard to say no to Walt Disney, but this decision might be different if it was the UMKC Mickey Mouses.

Winner: Camels, in all their humped glory.


 Boy, this is like Kansas vs. Duke in the Elite Eight. Let’s go with the Zips, in overtime.

Winner: Akron

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Know something else Brother Jasper did? On a hot day in June of 1882, he noticed the students watching a baseball game were growing restless. Before Manhattan batted in the seventh inning, he stopped the game and suggested the fans stand up, move around, get the blood flowing. The students continued that ritual when the team played an exhibition game against the New York Giants in the Polo Grounds, so the major leagues got a look at it.  Thus was born – so the legend goes, anyway – the seventh inning stretch. That tops B.C. any day.

Winner: Manhattan.

And now, the Final Four . . .


One of the 11 names on the nickname ballot at Fort Wayne – it was IPFW back then, affiliated with both Indiana and Purdue universities – was Boiler-Hoosiers. Had that won, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. That wouldn’t make the nickname NIT. Fighting Camels is soooo easy to love, but Mastodons has a more compelling history. There is a story that suggests student government leaders helped stuff the ballot box and fix the nickname election in favor of Mastodons, including an officer who would one day – you can’t make up things like this – serve in Congress. Incidentally, it’s actually a female mastodon that was discovered – ask your local paleontologist how they determine that – so wonder why they call her Don? She is so interesting, the University of Michigan borrowed her bones for research.

Fact is, this probably should have been the nickname championship game. See what happens when you don’t seed?

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Winner: Purdue Fort Wayne.


One point off Manhattan for false advertising, since it’s really in the Bronx. Plus, we should reward Akron for resisting any temptation to go with another big rubber product company in town, Goodyear. Or else they might be taking the floor as the Akron Blimps.

Winner: Akron.


Hail the Mastodons, as the ice age meets 21st century college basketball. Farmer Orsie, they couldn’t have done it without you. From the Pleistocene Era to one shining moment.

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