Lions, Tigers… and Black Bears: Where did these FCS football team names come from?
Say this about FCS schools — they’re colorful.
There are the Dartmouth Big Green, sharing the same Ivy League with the Cornell Big Red. The Presbyterian Blue Hose and the Delaware Blue Hens. The Marist Red Foxes, Saint Francis Red Flash, the Illinois State Redbirds and Southeast Missouri State Redhawks .
They’re also a menagerie.
There are Lions and Tigers and Maine Black Bears, oh my. The Wofford Terriers and the Albany Great Danes. The Wagner Seahawks and the Stony Brook Seawolves, the Youngstown State Penguins and Jacksonville Dolphins. Though Jacksonville is a lot closer to dolphins than Youngstown is to penguins.
If you prefer a little drier climate, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits are just down the road from the South Dakota Coyotes.
Where’d some of these names come from? Glad you asked.
Indiana State became the Sycamores by popular student vote in 1921, a tribute to the trees in the area, and a decided improvement over the old name. Before that, they took the field or court as the Indiana State Fighting Teachers.
Weary of being the Southern Illinois Maroons, the student body held an election for something more distinctive in 1951. Salukis won in a landslide over Rebels by a vote of 536-144. So Southern Illinois became the only school named for a dog breed that goes back to ancient Egypt in 3600 BC, inspired by the region often being called Little Egypt. The reason why is a tad obscure, but anyway, one of the major towns is Cairo.
When a citrus freeze threatened the financial stability of fledging DeLand Academy in Florida in the 1880s, famed hat maker John B. Stetson, who had a winter home nearby, stepped in to help. Which is why today we have the Stetson Hatters.
Prior to 1961, Furman had nicknames for nearly any taste. There were the baseball Hornets and the football Hurricane. But the basketball team had this unusual tag that was rooted back to Charlemagne’s court in France; the Paladins, a name coined by a sportswriter and meaning a champion of chivalry or defender of a cause. The students took a nickname unification vote in 1961, and Paladins won. So the mascot for every sport now is a knight on a horse.
About the Georgetown Stonewalls. At least that’s what they once were, way before Patrick Ewing. But folklore has it that one day a Georgetown student, leaning on his required Greek and Latin classes, started a chant “Hoya Saxa!” Which loosely means “What rocks!” Bingo, the Georgetown Hoyas.
Then there’s the school that owes its nickname to the World War I trenches in France. In the 1920s, the athletic director at Western Illinois was Ray “Rock” Hanson, a highly decorated Marine. He came up with an idea, asked the Navy Department, and the brass said yes, not about to turn down a war hero. Why is why today they’re the Western Illinois Leathernecks.
Meanwhile, Western Carolina goes by Catamounts – defined as a wild cat – because the students voted that way. Had they opted for the second choice, they would be the Western Carolina Mountain Boomers, and the mascot would be a squirrel.
Once upon a time, Virginia Military Institute came out as the Flying Squadron. Now they’re the Keydets, with a kangaroo as a mascot, and no clear reason why.
But for the biggest FCS nickname mystery of all, we head for Buies Creek, North Carolina. That’s where nobody seems to know for sure why Campbell greets the world as the Fighting Camels.
Meet Billy Liggett, the director of news and publications for Campbell, who went searching through the history books trying to find out. He began with the popular version that in 1900, school founder J.A. Campbell was confined in bed, depressed about the fire that burned down his creation. A friend and architect, Zachary Taylor Kivett, supposedly came by for a pep talk, with these words of encouragement, “I thought Campbells had hump on them.” Which instantly beget the Fighting Camels, right?
“That story always bugged me, because the school mascot didn’t change (from Hornets to the Camels) for another 34 years after that,” Liggett said. “There was never any explanation of why the change. That story wasn’t even introduced into legend until the 80s. It made me want to do research.”
And he learned . . .
“It was a very frustrating process. I came away with a few possibilities, but certainly nothing concrete.”
One story held that the name change – done suddenly and without fanfare in 1934 – was in homage to the Camel cigarette brand. Not quite as honorable a story as the Kivett quote, maybe, but one that Liggett found believable.
“Looking at that photo of the first basketball team to be the Camels, it’s the exact same camel logo that was on the cigarette brand back in the ‘30s. Our biggest donor at the time was the treasurer of R.J. Reynolds. And North Carolina, of course, is a huge tobacco state. It’s a huge part of our history. The fact that it was almost secretly done kind of supports that.”
Liggett also found an alum who said it was simply a fondness for an alliteration, the Campbell Camels. Plus, it evoked the image of a determined animal that can do a lot with a little. Go for days without water, for instance.
“It’s either one of those two,” said Liggett, who plans to pursue the matter further when there’s time. But maybe finding out how the Campbell Fighting Camels – arguably the finest nickname in all the FCS — got their name will turn up the same answer as whatever happened to Amelia Earhart. We’ll never know for sure.
“I haven’t given up hope,” Liggett said. “I have access to tons of archives that I haven’t even cracked open yet. I think it’s got to be in there somewhere.”