Rare, Unusual College and University Nicknames

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Many universities and colleges share common nicknames such as Eagles, Tigers, Lions, Warriors, Bulldogs or variations of them. Others have names that are truly unique.

Several colleges and universities use nicknames for their athletic teams and students that have traditional, historical or regional significance. Here are the stories behind five of them.

Wichita State University Shockers

A blogger writing in 2016 was not pleased with WSU’s nickname: “When the Wichita State athletic department chose the name ‘Shockers’ they probably envisioned it meaning something to the tune of ‘shocking the competition‘……In fact, the name ‘shocker’ [is a gang term and symbol.]”

Obviously, the writer either had his tongue firmly in cheek or has never lived near a rural area. The name simply reflects the Kansas school’s heritage. Early students often earned money by shocking, or harvesting, wheat in nearby fields and early football games were played on a former wheat field. In 1904 a student, R.J. Kirk, came up with the nickname “Wheat Shockers.” Although the name was never officially adopted by the university, it caught on and was later shortened to Shockers.

University of Oklahoma Sooners

At noon on April 22, 1889, much of the Indian Territory which is now Oklahoma was officially opened to outside settlement in what is known as the “Oklahoma Land Run.” Although in theory all new land claimants were to enter the region at the same time, in practice some land speculators, persons with political pull, and outright cheats entered ahead of time. These individuals came to be known as “sooners.“

In 1908, ten years after the University of Oklahoma was founded, the school officially adopted the nickname of “Sooners.” Prior to that time, OU athletic teams had been called the “Rough Riders” or “Boomers” — the latter name, itself, connected to the land rush and still prominent today in school tradition.

University of Richmond Spiders

From 1876 to 1893, this Virginia school used the nickname “Colts” for its athletic teams because they played like an “energetic group of young colts.” However, that changed during the summer of 1893 when an amateur baseball team comprised of University of Richmond athletes and some city residents was formed. Among the best players was pitcher Puss Ellyson, a young man with long, lanky arms and legs and a high kick.

A writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Ragland Chesterman, was so impressed with the student pitcher’s physical shape and style of pitching that he compared him to that “clever, creeping insect,” the spider. Soon the name was applied to the entire team and then to the University’s athletic teams where it continues to this day.

University of North Carolina Tarheels

For much of its early history, the colony and later state of North Carolina was known for its manufacture of tar, pitch and turpentine from the area’s numerous pine forests. The making of these products was messy and it was only natural that many workers would end up with tar on various parts of their bodies, particularly the bottoms of their feet.

By the 1840s North Carolinians were disparagingly called “tar boilers” and “tar heels.” According to legend, the last term gained respect during the Civil War when after a North Carolina unit fought exceedingly well, General Robert E. Lee allegedly exclaimed “God bless the Tar Heel boys.” Building on this pride, a group of UNC students in 1893 founded a school newspaper and called it “The Tar Heels.” The name quickly “stuck.”

University Of Maryland Terrapins

Until 1932 this school’s athletic teams were known as the “Old Liners“ — a name whose own origins are hazy. In that year the school newspaper encouraged the creation of a new nickname and mascot. Dr. H. C. Byrd, who was a football coach at the time and later would become University President, suggested one that he was familiar with from his boyhood days in Crisfield, Maryland, on Chesapeake Bay.

Byrd’s suggestion was the Diamondback terrapin, a smallish snapping turtle found in brackish waters along the East Coast. Since, the newspaper was, by coincidence, already called The Diamond, it readily agreed that “Terrapins” would be a great name and the idea was further sealed when the Class of 1933 presented the school a 1000 pound bronze replica of a Diamondback terrapin, named Testudo, as its graduation gift.