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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | October 2, 2020

Here's the true story about how Toledo got the nickname 'Rockets'

University of Toledo Rocky the Rocket

NCAA.com has previously taken college sports fans down the rabbit hole behind how some of the country's most beloved college mascots came to be. While Yale's living, breathing bulldog mascot Handsome Dan wasn't the first real-life bulldog the school had, Handsome Dan I started a lineage that now stretches to Handsome Dan XVIII.

As unlikely as it sounds, Youngstown State is nicknamed the Penguins because of a remark an opposing basketball coach reportedly made five years before there was a student poll to decide the school's mascot. All because of an unheated locker room and the lack of warmups caused Youngstown State's basketball team to wave their arms like penguins.

The stories behind the mascots at Alabama, Arizona, Southern California, Southern Illinois, UC Irvine, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest are all compelling, too.

Here's the true story of how Toledo adopted the nickname Rockets.

When and how did Toledo become the Rockets?

Like many universities, Toledo's athletic teams didn't have an official nickname, so the school's nickname was borne of the ingenuity of a newspaper writer. Alabama, Arizona, Southern California, UC Irvine and Wake Forest's mascots came from a newspaper in one way or another.

"Sportswriters essentially gave the nicknames to a lot of these teams," said Sara Mouch, a university archivist at the University of Toledo.

In 1923, Toledo played Carnegie Tech (now known as Carnegie Mellon) in its football season opener. Carnegie Tech won 32-12 and even though Carnegie Tech holds the all-time series lead against Toledo 2-0, Toledo can credit its 1923 season-opening opponent for the adoption of its nickname.

The Pittsburgh Daily Post reported in its game preview that "Carnegie Tech kicks off the football lid here this afternoon, meeting a team that has never before appeared in Pittsburgh, and one of which very little is known, Toledo University of Toledo, O." The subheadline of the story read: "Skibos Tackle 'Mystery Team' in Tartan Bowl."

Even though Toledo and Carnegie Tech were based in neighboring states (Pittsburgh is less than an hour away from the Ohio border), the reported mysterious nature of Toledo's football team likely contributed to the creation of "Rockets" as a nickname, albeit indirectly. Pittsburgh-based writers didn't know what to call Toledo's team and they likely didn't have expectations for Toledo's performance, which means it may have been easier for Toledo to impress the writers covering its opponent.

A story published by the Telegraph-Forum of Bucyrus, Ohio reported in 1973, "The nickname came long before the space age." The Telegraph-Forum reported that one of the newspaper writers from Pittsburgh was "dismayed that the school had no catchy nickname he could attach adjectives to in his story."

The writer, who was unnamed in the story, then asked a Toledo spotter for his input. The spotter said, "since Toledo was providing plenty of fireworks, how about 'Sky Rockets,'" according to the Telegraph-Forum.

"Just then a Toledo player grabbed a fumble out of the air and ran 99 yards for a touchdown," the newspaper reported. "The writer, impressed by the speedy runner, said 'Rockets' would suffice."

As Toledo's media guide tells the story, "Pittsburgh writers pressed James Neal, a UToledo student working in the press box, to come up with a nickname. Despite UT’s 32-12 loss, the student labeled the team 'Skyrockets,' obviously impressed by his alma mater’s flashy performance against a superior team. The sportswriters shortened the name to 'Rockets,' which has been used since."

"The team played better than was expected against Carnegie Tech, [which is] why they were called [Rockets]," said Mouch, the university archivist. "Because it was sort of a dreary day that day and they were just sort of described as playing flashy and Skyrockets kind of aligned with the way they were playing that day."

Here's the front page of the sports section of The Pittsburgh Press — one of the hometown newspapers of Carnegie Tech — after the team's season-opening victory in 1923.

The Baltimore Sun reported "fumbles were responsible for the scoring of the visitors," in a "game marked by several spectacular runs and much fumbling."

What was the first reference to "Rockets"?

Using the newspapers.com database of old newspapers, the oldest reference to "Toledo Rockets" that NCAA.com was able to find was from Nov. 21, 1926 in The Cincinnati Enquirer, three years after Toledo lost to Carnegie Tech.

"The University of Toledo Rockets avenged their defeat by the University of Buffalo last year by running up a score of 33 to 7 against the New York gridders in their final game of the season here Saturday," The Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

On newspapers.com, NCAA.com was only able to find one reference to "Toledo Skyrockets," which the university credits as the athletic teams' original nickname, before it was shortened to just "Rockets."

It came on Dec. 30, 1934 in The South Bend Tribune, and it was in reference to a musical group performing at a New Year's Eve party.

That same year, 1934, also marked the only search result for "Toledo Sky Rockets," with a space between "Sky" and "Rockets." However, that reference wasn't relation to Toledo's athletic teams, either. It was about a Toledo-based horse named "Sky Rocket," which won a blue ribbon in a horse jumping competition.

Even though "Skyrockets" was reportedly the original nickname suggested by the Toledo student in the press box, the original "full" name has never been used in publication. "The way I understand it is that it was the Pittsburgh writer who shortened it to 'Rockets' when they wrote the story," said Mouch. "That's what I got from  the recollections of Dr. [Jesse] Long. It could've been as early as that game in September."

Were Toledo's athletic teams ever called anything else?

Toledo's athletic teams were previously called the "Blue and Gold," "Munies" and "Dwyer's Boys," according to Toledo's website. Munies was in reference to Toledo being a municipal university.

Where did the nickname Dwyer's Boys come from?

Toledo was coached by Joseph Dwyer in 1921 and 1922, then James Dwyer from 1923 to 1925, and the latter is credited by the school as the inspiration of the nickname.

Other proposed nicknames for Toledo were Bancroft Highwaymen, Bulls, Commodores, Jeeps, Toreadors and Turtles, according to the school.

"They had also tried to come up with different names before the 1923 game that weren't nearly as flashy," Mouch said. "They even tried using the name 'Turtles.' Some things were tied in to the city, like the Commodores for Commodore Perry, and Jeeps, of course. They had to cross a highway then because main campus is located on Bancroft Street, and that of course was established after the main campus was built in 1931. So, prior to the 'Rockets' becoming the name, it was mostly tied into the city."

How has Toledo's mascot evolved over the years?

"Well, his birthday, so to speak, was in the late '60s," Mouch said, "I think '67, and the earliest photo we have of a mascot is someone in a white sheet ... Not long after that, 1970, I think, was the first official costume and we actually have that costume here in the archives and it's just this very interesting, like blue suit with like a gold shield and a pointed gold sort of head that's very narrow, can't imagine it's very comfortable and they designed it and made it for like 80 dollars and it was to resemble a rocket. Now, Rocky and Rocksy are like rocket men instead of an actual rocket and they cost about $5,000 to make.

"The 1970 mascot probably lasted about a decade or so, it was in the mid-'80s where I think the next iteration was and it still sort of resembled a rocket. It was very cartoonish, it had big eyes on the head and things like that, and that lasted until 2001, so I think 2001 probably would've been when they introduced the rocket man  that we have today."

Rocky's birthday is listed as Oct. 20, 1966 on Toledo's website.

Toledo's mascot hasn't always looked like a rocket, however.

"I find some of the past costumes fairly disturbing," Mouch said. "One that I don't think lasted very long that kind of looked a little bit like a clown. There's this black and white photo of him on the basketball court standing behind a little kid, who's maybe 3 years old, and it looks really like out of a horror movie, frankly. He looks like  he was staring very sinister-like at this kid whose back is turned to him."

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