Thursday, March 24, 2011

Unique University Mascots

As I've been watching March Madness on TV over the last week I started to contemplate with some friends about where some of these universities got their names from. You come across teams like the Bulldogs, Huskies, Panthers, and Jawhawks its really pretty obvious the origin behind it. However have you ever asked yourself what a Tar Heel is, or Hoosier. Although there are numerous universities with unique and entertaining names I narrowed it down to simply 7.

North Carolina Tar Heels
Like so many odd names and phrases the exact origin of the term “tar heels is unknown. Luckily the legends behind the term keep us well entertained. Most of the legends connect two things; North Carolina’s early production of tar due to their vast pine forests that cover the state and the fighting style of North Carolina troops in both the American Revolution and the Civil War. One of the earliest references was in 1779 when General “Mad” Anthony Wayne led troops in New York to retake a position near West Point which became the headquarters for General Washington and his men. After the victory by the Continental army, General Wayne explained to Washington that much of the success of the battle goes to the North Carolina boys whose “heels were stuck like tar” as the British fire upon them relentlessly. There was a book written in 1901 about North Carolina’s history and in it referenced that the term Tar-heel State started during the Civil War because “in battle the soldiers of North Carolina stuck to their bloody work as if they had tar on their heels.” The book even stated that General Roberts E. Lee at one moment stated, “God bless the Tar-heel boys.” It seems that no matter when and where the term was first used it seems fairly obvious why it was started. So next time all you North Carolina see your team take the court or hit the field just remember, that they are “Tar-heels” and you should expect them to hold their ground and never give up under any circumstances.

Alabama Crimson Tide
The football tradition of Alabama University started as far back as 1892. Surprisingly it was not until 1899 that football at Alabama was a full time traveling sport. At the time the name for the team seemed to vary. Sometimes they were known as the “Crimson White” and other times they were simply known as “varsity”. In 1907 Alabama took the field against Auburn for the final time until the series was brought back in 1948. With Auburn a heavy favorite it was not looking good for Alabama. With all the rain that fell, the field was mired in mud which to the sports editor for the Birmingham Age-Herald, Hugh Roberts, seemed like a sea of mud; when the final seconds game off the clock, Alabama had tied the score 6-6. As Roberts wrote of the game the next day he compared Alabama to a Crimson Tide. It was at that point that Alabama became known as Crimson Tide. So to all those Alabama fans out there be glad you still aren’t called “varsity”, Roll-Tide.  

Stanford Cardinal
Win you first look at the Stanford Cardinal name your first thought is probably that it probably should be plural. You have multiple students on the field or court and they are each a cardinal, fighting together they are cardinals. However the name is actually not referencing the bird but rather the color. it probably Stanford’s first win as a football team was against California in 1892. Following that game the university established the color cardinal as their official primary color, however it was not until 1930 that the athletic department adopted a team mascot which was the Indian. By 1972 enough objections were made by Native American students that the President of the university dropped it and the name Cardinals took over. Despite the plural form being used the mascot name still referenced a color and not a bird. By 1981 the university president declared that athletic teams for Stanford would be name the Cardinal in the singular form to represent the color to avoid confusion. To this day Stanford has no official mascot however a member of the Stanford marching band continues the tradition of wearing a costume designed like a redwood tree. The tree is based on El Palo Alto which is believed to be over 1,000 year old and is depicted on the Stanford logo. At least for all Stanford fans it will be really easy to pick the right swatch when trying to paint your man-cave.

Delta State University Fighting Okra
 When one takes the court or the field it can be difficult to garner excitement for the “Statesmen”. It sounds more like a golf club society than a college mascot but sadly the teams of Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi wear it proudly. In the late 1980s the baseball and basketball players of Delta State were discussing how embarrassing and un-fearful a Fighting Statesmen was to their opponents. They all agreed that an alternative needed to be developed which was mean and maintained the school color, green. Bob Black a pitcher for Delta State suggested Okra because of its color and toughness. It was not long until baseball players who attended basketball games were chanting, Okra, Okra, Okra and from there the Fighting Okra of Delta State University developed. As something only college students could conjure up the costume depicts a giant Okra with an angry look on its face and boxing gloves. Tragically the university refuses to recognize the Fighting Okra as their official mascot but in the mid-1990s the student body elected to adopt the Okra as their unofficial university mascot. From there the popularity of the Fighting Okra grew exponentially with all kinds of merchandise available for purchase as well as folktales and legends about the “true” origin of the Okra. The most commonly told on involved a stubborn okra plant which grew near first base on the university field. However every time the okra was cut down to practice or play baseball the okra would spring back to life the following day. Although not an official team name for the university it is well worth learning the history behind the most feared vegetable in all of sports.

Indiana Hoosiers
Growing up in Indiana it was difficult to answer the question, what is a Hoosier? Because to be honest it sounds like a pretty silly word, almost made up but what could it possible mean? The number of possible legends and stories of the words etymology is too much to bear. Three stories involve men with the last name Hoosier. There was Harry Hoosier, a black Methodist minister, who evangelized throughout the frontier around 1800. Being one of the great preachers of his day his followers famously became known as “Hoosiers.” There was also Samuel Hoosier who was a contractor for the construction of the Louisville and Portland Canal in the late 1820s. Samuel was known for preferring to hire Indiana workers who quickly became known as “Hoosier men”. And finally a similar story as with Samuel Hoosier there was another contractor named Robert Hoosier whose employees had asked him if they could work on the new National Road being built in the Richmond, Indiana area. The federal foreman in charge of the project referred to those men working on the project as “Hoosiers.” Aside from these stories of men with the last name Hoosier, one historian of the Indiana Historical Society believes the word “Hoosier” was defined in the nineteenth-century as woodsmen or rough hill person. He believes the word comes from the Cumberland dialect of England which is “hoozer.” The word “hoozer” means anything unusually large, such as a hill. So from the word “hoozer” the people of Southern Indiana especially became known as “hoozers” and eventually “Hoosiers”. Where ever the term comes from it never has really given an Indiana native a great since of identity. Most of the time we try to ignore the question of “what is a hoosier” and focus on basketball or racing, things our state is normally pretty good at.

UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs
 When you first enter the Thimann Hall lecture building you will find a statute on the outside commemorating a sea lion. This was the mascot chosen in 1981 when UCSC started to first participate in collegiate sports. However long before the sea lion was selected the banana slug was the common mascot used in all campus coed sporting events. Even despite the university embracing the sea lion the student body would continue to chant for the slugs.  Quickly the student body rejected the notion of a fighting sea lion. In 1986, students rejecting the idea of a sea lion offered up a banana slug as apparently a better alternative. After a student vote was made to officially accept the banana slug as the official mascot of the school. The chancellor refused to honor the vote believing the athletes should choose the mascot. The athletes upheld the students’ choice and the banana slug was chosen as the official mascot of UCSC. The popularity of the Banana Slug mascot is so wide spread that ESPN voted it as the best team mascot name. Nice work UCSC, way to slug it up.

Akron Zips
The stories behind the names and mascots of universities and colleges can be unique and humorous. For the University of Akron there team name was selected from a contest back in 1925 by Margaret Hamlin who submitted “Zippers”. By the 1950s the school was seeking a mascot to represent the school. In steps All-American Akron diver Bob Savoy recommended the kangaroo and it was approved by the student council. Despite the initial resistance to the kangaroo it was eventually accepted and named “Zippy”. In fact Zippy is so widely accepted now that he won the 2007 Capital One Mascot of the Year award. Despite probably never seeing a kangaroo in real life, you have to love how popular their mascot has become.

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