While watching my beloved Oklahoma Sooners dismantle their hated archival, the Oklahoma State Cowboys this past Saturday afternoon, I got to thinking about the many people who have asked me what a Sooner is (or was). That led me to think about a number of college teams who got their names from 19th century events, people, or things.
The first college football game was played between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869, so it is easy to see why many of the nicknames that developed on college campuses are related to that era. For example, the Sooners got their name from those impatient (and often dishonest) people who got a jump on their opposition in the Great Land Rush of 1889. OU started football in 1895; 12 years before statehood was even granted.
One of Oklahoma's conference rivals is Kansas University. KU goes by the moniker of Jayhawks. During the "Bleeding Kansas" years before statehood was granted, Kansas free-soilers were tabbed as jayhawkers for their guerrilla tactics. Kansas University is also located in Lawrence, Kansas, which was the strong hold of free-state activity and the target of proslavery Missourians before the Civil War and during war.
One story about how the University of North Carolina received the nickname Tarheels is attributed to their steadfastness in battle during the Civil War. It was claimed that Tarheels got their name because they stuck where General Lee placed them. The Louisiana State University Tigers also can attribute their name to the Civil War. During the war there were a couple of brigades from the Pelican state that were called Louisiana Tigers. Many of the men in those units were from the docks of New Orleans and were of the roughest sort; reportedly they fought like tigers even before getting into battle.
One team that got their nickname in the 20th century but had ties to the Civil War, is the University of Mississippi Rebels. During the war all of one company in a Mississippi regiment was made up of university students. When a contest was issued in 1936 to give a nickname to the team, "Rebels" won by an overwhelming majority to honor those that had served during the war from the state. The nickname remains, but traditions such as waving the Confederate battle flag at games and the old mascot "Colonel Reb," have all but gone with the wind.
The University of Tennessee Volunteers are named for that state's commitment to the call to armed service, especially in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, both of which saw large numbers of Tennesseeans participate. The South Carolina Gamecocks name goes back into the 18th century to honor native South Carolina Revolutionary War hero Thomas Sumter, who was known as the "Gamecock" for his boldness, daring, and courage. I found out that the Wisconsin Badgers got their name from lead miners in the 1820s, rather than for the borrowing ferocious animal. The Michigan Woverines were also not named so much for the animal than for the border dispute between Michigan and Ohio in the 1830s. No wonder Michigan and Ohio State usually makes for such a great game....the hate goes way back.
The next time you set down to watch an afternoon of college football explore the team's nicknames....there may be more to thos names than you realize.