Myth Trivia: Some college team names and their origins

The Alabama Crimson Tide meeting with President Barack Obama after winning the 2009 national championship. (White House photo, public domain via Wikipedia entry)

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina, January 6, 2015 — The football season is winding down, the Super Bowl is coming up, and the NCAA championships will soon be decided. Patriots, Packers, Utes and Blue Devils will all have fans in body paint and funny hats cheering them on.

We all know about the controversy surrounding the Redskins as the nickname for the NFL team in Washington, but where do we get the terms of endearment for many of our famous universities?

In college football, the Clemson Tigers rank No. 1 and are undefeated. The name “Tigers” presents no problems, which solves half of the debate, but Alabama is another story. The football program is legendary, so how exactly does the name “Crimson Tide” strike fear into the hearts of opponents?

Therein lies the start of our trivia exploration for today.

1. Crimson Tide: In the early days, newspapers simply called the University of Alabama football team the “varsity” or the “Crimson White” because of the school colors. By 1906, headline writers employed the term “Thin Red Line,” which was popular until Hugh Roberts, sports editor of the Birmingham Age-Herald, coined the term “Crimson Tide” in describing the Alabama-Auburn game of 1907.

Today the Alabama/Auburn rivalry is among the most intense in college football, although the game in 1907 was the last time the two teams faced each other until 1948.

The Tigers of Auburn were heavily favored in 1907, but Alabama held them to a 6-6 tie in a rain-drenched game played in Alabama’s red mud. Thus the “Thin Red Line” became the “Crimson Tide” and has remained that way since.

The 1930 Alabama/Mississippi game is credited for coming up with the elephant as team mascot. Alabama was known for the size of its massive players, so ‘Bama head coach Wallace Wade played his second string in the first quarter.

When the quarter ended, sports writer Everett Strupper of the Atlanta Journal described the entrance of the first string onto the field by writing, “At the end of the quarter, the earth started to tremble, there was a distant rumble that continued to grow. Some excited fan in the stands bellowed, ‘Hold your horses, the elephants are coming,’ and out stamped this Alabama varsity.”

Of course the name “Red Elephants” was quickly popularized since “White Elephants” would have had an entirely different connotation.

2. Nittany Lions: Another storied football program is that of Penn State, but why, you ask, are they called the “Nittany Lions”?

Basically, the Nittany Lion is nothing more than a mountain lion or cougar or puma or panther. But then again, why would any college want to simply be “ordinary”?

Give baseball credit for the nickname when Penn State was scheduled to play Princeton in 1907. Princeton’s team mascot was a Bengal tiger, which was said to be a sign of ferocity.

Not to be outdone, Harrison D. “Joe” Mason quickly came up with the Nittany Lion, which was said to be even more dangerous than a tiger.

Mountain lions were common in central Pennsylvania until the 1880s, and the name “Nittany” refers to Mount Nittany, a well-known landmark in the center of the state.

As Mason put it, any team could just be a “lion” but a “Nittany Lion” was unique and a name no other team could claim.

3. Hokies: This one belongs to Virginia Tech and you have to wonder why the team mascot isn’t called “Pokey.”

Many people believe a “Hokie” is a reference to the turkeys that are raised in Virginia. Actually, Virginia Tech was founded as a land grant institution in 1872, and over the years its various names were extremely long. Eventually the name was shortened to VPI and a contest was held to choose a new team yell.

O.M. Stull won the $5 prize in 1896 for these words:

Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy.
Techs, Techs, V.P.I.
Sola-Rex, Sola-Rah.
Polytechs – Vir-gin-ia.
Rae, Ri, V.P.I.

Later the words “Team, team, team” were added, as was the letter “e” to Hokie.

Oddly enough, though Stull thought he had made up the word “Hokie,” a retired Tech English professor claims it has existed since 1842 as a term meaning “hooray” or something similar..

Even so, the team mascot is, indeed, a turkey, and Virginia Tech is also known as the “Gobblers.”

Now, what about the “Salukis”? Or the “Fighting Artichoke”? The University of California-Santa Cruz is called the “Banana Slugs” while the North Carolina School of the Arts is the “Fighting Pickles.”

But, in case you haven’t heard, Rhode Island School of Design takes top honors. Each team is named after some facet of male genitalia. The basketball team is the “Balls.” Of course, the cheerleading squad is called the “Jockstraps” because they “support the Balls.”

The hockey team is known as the “Nads” which, naturally, leads to the popular team yell, “Go Nads!”

Suffice it to say, we’ll leave the team mascot to your imagination.

Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

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