Sports nicknames

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

There's nothing more disappointing than a lack of originality, so frankly, my hat is off to any school that manages something besides your basic Eagles, Tigers, Bears menagerie as an identity. Besides, the very real possibility of a Bulldogs vs. Bulldogs matchup is a sportswriter's nightmare.

While consolidation will take some of these out of play, Iowa has of late had 18 high schools nicknamed Tigers, 18 Warriors, 17 Wildcats, 16 Eagles, 16 Trojans, 15 Bulldogs, 15 Hawks, 13 Panthers, 12 Panthers, et. al.

Indians, Chiefs and Braves used to be a primo choice, but in these politically correct times, are falling out of fashion. And with online colleges taking over, what the heck are they supposed to come up with for nicknames? The Fighting Keystrikers? The Thundering Mouse? The Laptoppers?

In these parts, oddly enough, weather is an inspiration. Storm Lake (one of only a handful of schools with name unique in Iowa) is the Tornadoes and neighboring Alta the Cyclones. Perhaps grads should be recruited by the Simpson Storm.

Nicknames among Iowa high schools range from the creatively spelled (Grayhounds) to the downright uncivilized (Savages). Three have some form of the Dutch ethnicity for their name. Where are the Bouncing Czechs or the Swiss Cheeses? Though Iowa is a long way from a pole, you have a Polar Bears team; and while it is about as far as you can conceivably get from an ocean, you have Pirates, Buccaneers, Admirals and Clippers. Plagiarism of our college teams runs rampant also - Iowa City Little Hawks, Ames Little Cyclones and Cedar Falls Panthers. Sorry Drake, no Little Bullpuppies.

The most unusual name? Most might say the Orabs (an invented word that comes from the school colors, Orange And Black). My personal choice would be the Nikes of Notre Dame. They might they get a sweet shoe endorsement deal, but the nickname is actually in honor of the Greek goddess of victory, and a one of a kind choice in the nation.

What about our big state universities? What in the world is a "Hawkeye," anyway, and how in heck does a team with the name "Cyclones" end up with a guy (or gal?) in a bird suit as the mascot?

Apparently, Iowa's name dates to the hero in the 1820s James Fenimore Cooper novel, "The Last of the Mohicans." The mascot, Herky the Hawk(eye) was first seen in a cartoon drawn in 1948 by a journalism prof.

Early on, Iowa State adopted its colors of cardinal and gold, and its nickname informally became the Cardinals. In 1895, several tornadoes struck the midwest and did heavy damage, and when the Iowa State football team rolled into Northwestern and whipped them 36-0, a creative Chicago sportswriter penned the headline "Struck by a Cyclone: It Comes from Iowa and Devastates Evanston Town." The name Cyclones stuck. Students tried for some time to create a mascot, but found "you couldn't stuff a Cyclone." So in '54 they borrowed from the cardinal color to create a redbird mascot, and named him Cy, of course, short for Cylones.

The ink-stained scribes had a hand in naming our local Buena Vista University identity as well. Local sportswriters found that "Buena Vistans" took up too much space in their headlines and started shortening it to "BVers" Say that out loud a couple of times, and you can see how the transition to "Beavers" happened. The school paper opined that the hard working critter was as good as any to represent the school. The costumed mascot over the years was known as Mr. Chips, Chipper and Bucky, but eventually Buford T. Beaver (the T for "the") won out.

People tend to tease BV for its nickname at times, for anatomical reasons we need not go into. But as nicknames go, it kicks the crap out of a lot of inexplicable choices on campuses around the country. Consider:

UC Santa Cruz "Banana Slugs," Scottsdale Community College "Fighting Artichokes" or the North Carolina School of the Arts "Fighting Pickles." Centurian College "Gentlemen" could never be called for a foul. Rhode Island School of Design's basketball team is nicknamed The Balls, and their slogan is, "When the heat is on, The Balls stick together." I am not making this up.

Some are just plain head-scratchers. Like the St. Louis Billikens. I had to look it up. - A billiken is an elf-like charm doll that apparently looks a lot like an early football coach at the school. And what in the world is a Hoya? (Georgetown). Near as I can tell, it is a Latin term that means either "what rocks" or "wet rocks" depending on who you trust to translate. Anybody know what a "Nittany" Lion is? Not really - possibly a reference to an Indian Princess Nita-Anee, or an ancient term for a mountain peak. Long Beach State baseball is named "The Dirt Bags" because they used to practice on a dirt lot before a game, so hardworking players arrived covered head to foot in topsoil. There are all kinds of explanations for North Carolina's "Tarheels," trying hard not to look like the racist term it may well be. If you thought Boilermakers was an odd name, consider Purdue previously used "Cornfield Sailors" and "Pumpkin Shuckers."

The good animals were taken, so Columbia College went with "Fighting Koalas," and Delaware with "Fighting Blue Hens." University of Irvine's mascot is "Peter the Anteater." Shudder.

Some schools just didn't put in much effort and went with a color: Stanford Cardinal, McDaniels' Green Terror, Alabama's Crimson Tide. Niagara chose "Purple Eagles," something you aren't likely to see in nature unless you've been drinking heavily. Same with Stoney Brook's "Seawolves." Sam Houston State earns no spelling points for "Bearkats," or VMI for "Keydets."

Evansville's role model mascot is... a gambler? Stetson U's name is "The Hatters" as in the Texas guy who made cowboy hats stylish... but the school is in Florida, where only girls at spring break wet t-shirt contests wear cowboy hats. The University of Arkansas at Monticello Cotton Blossoms likely don't inspire a lot of terror in opponents.

A lot of schools tend to use animal mascots at football games, which has to rather confuse an animal, which really should be back home on the sofa, on the farm or in the woods where it belongs.

BVU has a stuffed real Beaver that once terrorized a local golf course, but a live one would only gnaw on the basketball bleachers. I'm not a fan of animals in football in general, but if I had to pick a winner, it would be Colorado's Ralphie the buffalo. (Who is a girl bison, by the way.) A ton of ticked off muscle that can sprint 25 miles an hour running loose in the middle of a packed stadium of screaming, milling people - what could go wrong?

In second place is Bevo the Longhorn, who could also take out the entire pep band in one lunge. In third is Louisiana State's Mike the Tiger (VI), a 500+ pound Bengal-Siberian who could rip an offensive lineman's head off and call it Saturday brunch. N-n-n-nice kitty.

A few notches south on the food chain, schools have live horses, birds and dogs, but leading the pet pack is collie Reveille VIII at Texas A&M, who is addressed as "ma'am," by the cadets, who she officially outranks. Miss Rev. travels in her own first-class airliner seat, is dressed in velvet and sleeps and attends classes with her lead handler - tradition is that if she barks during any class, the professor must dismiss the students for the rest of the day. Heck, I'm majoring in whatever the dog takes.

Baylor has two bears, Southern U a jaguar, lions Leo and Una patrol the University of North Alabama, Arkansas boasts a "razorback" hog, North Carolina and Colorado State feature rams Ramses and Cam the Ram, Air Force rocks a falcon and Auburn an eagle. We're even turning some of our players into animals now - i.e., the deposed Honey Badger. It turned out the real badger was smarter.

It's always the tough animals who get the glory jobs. The rest of the nonviolent animal kingdom really needs a good sports agent.

How long before we see Cindy the Squirrel, Billy the baby bunny, Perky the Parakeet, Jasmine the Gerbil, or Belinda Butterfly flexing their wild kingdom muscles to inspire rabid college football crowds?