This is a guest post from political scientist and mascotologist Tobin Grant. The image is mine.
Since I like being part of an NCAA bracket pool but hate to lose money, I’ve often entered a “mascot” bracket because most people let me put in for free. Consider it the worst possible bracket.
Slate put up its own take on whose university would beat whose in a real fight. The real fun in all this is figuring out what some of the weirder nicknames are. In grad school some friends and I took this a little too seriously. We came up with a general ranking from winner to loser nicknames:
Supernatural (Demon Deacons is the highest, drawing upon both good and evil)
Acts of God (e.g., Hurricanes)
People with Weapons—Ranked from most lethal (e.g., Mountaineers with rifle) to least lethal (e.g., Gaels, Seminoles)
Large carnivores, though sometimes these can kill a human with a weapon
Unarmed people (e.g., Boilermakers, Hoosiers)
Other animals, ranked from Large Herbivores (e.g., Longhorns), Small Carnivores (e.g., Wildcats), Raptors, and other small animals
Inanimate objects. (e.g., Buckeyes)
Colors and other adjectives (e.g., Orange, Crimson)
Sometimes you can’t figure it out from a team’s name or tradition. No one—I mean no one—can give a definitive definition of a “hoya.” It’s lost in history, just like a Virginia Tech “hokie” or Virginia “wahoo.” Apparently students in the Commonwealth like weird cheers and think they make great nicknames. In our rankings, we use the original meaning of the nickname. Occasionally, a mascot is used to figure things out.
Here are some of the more interesting ones in this year’s tourney:
St. Bonaventure Bonnies are just short for the name of the school. Being known as a lovely lass isn’t the best name, but it’s better than one of the least PC names ever: The St. Bonaventure Brown Indians (1927-1992).
St. Louis University Billikens is a classic early nickname. In the early 1900’s, one of the first trademark dolls was the Billiken. Made in St. Louis, it was a kind of good luck doll. Very creepy looking—kind of a mix between a fat Buddah and an elf. Apparently the football coach also looked like a fat Buddah and an elf, so he and the team started being called the Billikens.
Duke Blue Devils aren’t really devils. They’re named after a World War I French fighting group that was touring the U.S. for the war effort. Ever notice the little mustache and cape on the mascot? Now you know why. On the nickname ranking, this drops Duke from supernatural down to armed humans—though as a French WWI soldier, they’re arguably even lower. Relatedly: DePaul Blue Demons aren’t really demons—they used to have big blue “D”’s on their jerseys. Blue D-Men. Get it?
Both Missouri Tigers and Kansas Jayhawks are named for armed groups that fought before/during the Civil War. The Jayhawks were free state armed groups; the Tigers were a militia in Columbia that organized to defend against confederate raiders. Both Tigers and Jayhawks later came to mean anyone from the respective states. In the pool, both are treated like armed humans, not animals (this avoids having to figure out what a jayhawk would really be).
North Carolina Tarheels is also a civil war reference for their resistance to retreat (but this is debated).
Long Beach 49ers. It’s partially a reference to the gold rush, but really it’s because the school was founded in 1949.
Wisconsin Badgers. Not the animal. Wisconsin lead miners working in Galena, IL used to live in homes carved in the hillside, so they were nicknamed “badgers.” It was derogatory but it stuck.
Michigan Wolverines. Since no wolverine ever lived in Michigan, it’s a mystery. Most common explanation was that it, too, was a derogatory name given to Michiganders by Ohio during a dispute over the Michigan-Ohio border (wolverines are known for their appetite and fierceness). Ohio won, by the way, if you consider Toledo a victory.
Vanderbilt Commodores. This is reference to Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made his money in shipping and was known as the Commodore. Not frightening at first blush, but I’m guessing Vanderbilt had more power than all the Earth’s bears, wildcats, and eagles combined.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Simple: the school’s set on some hills. The former teaching college used to go by the Pedagogues.
Wichita State Shockers. Like a cornhusker but for wheat. They shock the wheat. Shockers. Get it?
One thing I’ve learned looking at nicknames for years: The best nicknames were chosen in the 1920’s; the worst were chosen by committees who decided the originals weren’t PC (which they often weren’t). Case in point: Wheaton College (Illinois). Students latched on to the Crusaders, which caused real problems when students went to the middle east. So, the school changes it to Thunder! As a friend put it, it’s the only thing that scares people but can’t actually hurt you. The college has now introduced a mascot Tor, a mastodon (long story). The name Tor is supposedly short for “stertorous.” The college says that stertorous is “a synonym for loud and cacophonous and also meaning heavy snoring” but it really means ONLY a snoring sound and when it doesn’t, the “loud and cacophonous” sound is usually something like flatulence, not thunder. Leave it to a committee to give us a sound with no fury as a nickname and name the mascot after snoring. But I digress.
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