Unusual College and University Nicknames

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Several colleges and universities have nicknames for their athletic teams that are unique or strange and puzzling. Here are the stories behind five of them.

Many universities and colleges share common nicknames and/or mascots. Over 70 American schools use Eagles or Golden Eagles; nearly 50 use Tigers; and, 30 have Warriors as part of their nicknames. Add in other common names such as Lions, Bears and Bulldogs and one ends up with a large list of duplications.

However, some schools use (or have used) nicknames that are distinctive.

University of Nebraska Bugeaters

The University of Nebraska’s athletic teams are known today as the “Cornhuskers” (an unique nickname in itself), but it wasn’t always so. From 1892 until the turn of the century, the “Bugeaters” was used as a nickname. This term did not refer to the dietary habits of the athletes, but actually to a graceful, nocturnal, insect-devouring bird known as the Nighthawk or Bull-Bat.

In 1900 a local sportswriter, noting that “bugeaters” was also a slur used by outsiders to describe Nebraska residents, searched for a new name. He chose “Cornhuskers” which had recently been dropped by the University of Iowa in favor of “Hawkeyes.” The name soon caught on with Nebraska followers.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

At first glance this name doesn’t seem that unusual. Everybody knows who Irishmen are. But, how did a school founded by a Catholic Society with French roots (the Jesuits) and with a French name become the “Fighting Irish?” Shouldn’t they be the “Fighting French” or the “Fighting Gauls?”

Even the University’s website is unsure where “Fighting Irish” came from. Among several theories is that “Irish“ was used originally by opposing Northwestern fans as a derogatory term. Another, that it came from the 1909 football game against Michigan when a Notre Dame player rallied his many Irish teammates by supposedly yelling “You’re all Irish and you’re not fighting worth a lick.”

Regardless of its original source, New York Daily News columnist Francis Wallace, a Notre Dame grad, took these early legends and popularized them in the 1920s. He also frequently compared the rugged Notre Dame football teams of that time to the Civil War and the Union Army’s Irish Brigade which had been dubbed “The Fighting Irish.” The name soon replaced the previously used Ramblers.

Manhattan College Jaspers

This small Catholic school in Riverdale, New York, can trace the origins of its nickname back to the 1880s and Brother Jasper of Mary, F.S.C., a faculty member who introduced baseball to the school and became the team’s first coach. According to a story which has never been definitely proven, Brother Jasper may also have originated baseball’s seventh inning stretch.

Besides being a teacher and coach, the good Brother was also the Prefect of Discipline, which meant that he was responsible for the behavior of Manhattan’s students. Allegedly, during one particularly hard fought game, with the fans becoming edgy as Manhattan came to bat in the seventh inning, Brother Jasper called time-out and told the students to stand up and unwind. The practice was soon copied by the New York Giants and later other major league teams.

Virginia Military Institute Keydets

VMI’s mascot has been a kangaroo since 1947, but a “keydet” is definitely not a type of marsupial. So, what or who is it? Like Notre Dame, even VMI’s website is not sure how the term originated, but does confirm that it replaced the earlier used “Flying Squadron” and other nicknames during the 1930s.

VMI has often been called “The West Point of the South” and, like its counterpart, its students are known as cadets. Thus, it has been argued that “keydets” is simply a Southern pronunciation of “cadets.” On the other hand, the U. S. Military Academy claims that it was a word used to denote the gray of the standard uniform of its own and VMI’s students.

Southern Illinois Salukis

Until 1951 SIU athletic teams were simply known as the “Maroons” after one of the school’s colors. That year students and faculty voted to change the bland nickname to “Salukis,” a hunting dog, similar to a greyhound or whippet, whose origins can be traced back to the royalty of Ancient Egypt and beyond.

Besides comparing SIU athletes to swiftness and grace, the name “Salukis” may have other symbolic meanings. The lower part of Illinois where Southern Illinois University is located has long been called “Little Egypt” because its land supposedly is as rich as that of the Nile delta. Many of the towns in the region also have Egyptian names, including Cairo (pronounced Ka-ro).