11 NCAA Team Name Origins That You Never Knew

Among the elements that make college basketball a phenomenon are the teams that had likewise carved their identity into mainstream…

Damien Filbert


Among the elements that make college basketball a phenomenon are the teams that had likewise carved their identity into mainstream popularity. Case in point: Duke and North Carolina. Those two schools’ names have been welded into each other’s for as long we can remember that when one says Blue Devils, the other would conjure up images of Tar Heels instinctively.

Of course, that other one would have difficulty forming an image of Tar Heels in his imagination because seriously, what are Tar Heels?

Or to put it more generally, how did some of the most popular college teams came up with their monikers? Where did they get them? Let’s take a look at 11 of them.

Indiana Hoosier

From Hoosier’s men to Hoosier’s nest, Indiana University sure has an interesting nickname.

Image courtesy of ESPN
Way before Bob Knight started hurling chairs across the hardcourt, the term Hoosier has long been in usage. Though there is really no exact and binding description of what a Hoosier is, it is widely regarded as a term that refers to people, institutions, or anything related to the state of Indiana.

The origin of the term is not definite as far as the agreement of most people is concerned but theories are in no short supply. One popular story is that of a certain Samuel Hoosier who hired men from Indiana to build a canal in the Ohio River. These men were then called Hoosier’s Men which eventually became “Hoosier” to refer not only to the workers but also to all of Indiana’s citizens.

The term’s use became more abundant in the 1830 when John Finley of Richmond, Indiana, wrote a poem titled The Hoosier’s Nest. The poem was copied many times over even reaching other countries.

Duke Blue Devils

Duke could have been called The Polar Bears or The Blue Warriors.

Duke Blue Evils
Image courtesy of topbet.eu
What fueled Duke’s inspiration of naming its athletic teams Blue Devils is not their sheer luciferian desire to beat the hell out of rival North Carolina. Instead, it was derived from a French Military squad called the Chasseurs Alpins. Because of the squad’s unique uniforms, they were given the nickname les diables bleus which in English is The Blue Devils.

The name Blue Devils was chosen by campus student leaders and editors of the school’s publications from a list that included the likes of Blue Titans, Blue Eagles, Polar Bears, Royal Blazes, or Blue Warriors. This happened during the 1922-1923 academic year; the time when World War I was about to end and the school was welcoming back returning veterans. This erased some of the lingering suggestions that the name Blue Devils was anti-religious. Though the use of the moniker was not official during its first year, the use continued until it got stuck into permanency.

Miami (FL) Hurricanes

The University of Miami named their team after their state’s most hated visitors.

Miami FL Hurricanes
Image courtesy of Operation Sports
Most people ask how hurricanes got their names. This time we ask, how did the University of Miami get their athletic team name?

We all know that Florida gets hit by hurricanes as if Mother Nature is sending its residents an eviction notice out of habit. But while it is easy to assume that the folks from the University of Miami chose Hurricanes not only because of its aptness to their weather, it is not the reason.

A suggested origin of the moniker’s choice goes back to the time when the school had just opened just a few days after a huge hurricane hit the area. To remember this unforgiving disaster, the school decided to name their athletic teams Hurricanes.

Another report tells of a player who suggested Hurricanes as their school’s team nickname after hearing rumors that officials of the university wanted it named after a local flower. This player clearly does not want to be part of a team named Miami Black-Eyed Susans nor Miami Sonja Sunflowers.

Michigan Wolverines

the Ohioans made Michiganians to call themselves Wolverines.

Michigan Wolverines
Adapted from the nickname of their state, the University of Michigan bears the moniker Wolverine.

Some people reason that no one from Michigan had originally thought of calling themselves wolverines. That is until the Ohioans likened them to these miniature bears that have a ruthless appetite for squirrel meat.

Knowing how it developed takes one back to a territorial dispute between the Michiganians and Ohioans (these two really need nicknames) in 1835. People from Ohio around this time had heard swirling rumors that Michiganians are the kind whose behaviors are comparable to that of the vicious and bloodthirsty Wolverines.

The University of Michigan Wolverines men’s basketball program rose into higher heights of national prominence during the Fab Five era when the team was consisted of five freshmen (Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson) which took them into two national championship appearances in 1992 and 1993. The school won their only NCAA national title in 1989.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

Even in a loss, a school can have something good, like a new sports moniker.

Gonzaga Bulldogs
In 1921, Gonzaga was invited to play a football match in Christmas bowl in San Diego against the West Virginia University. It was not the type of game that would get remembered and be written down into the annals of Gonzaga sports history as they got beaten soundly, 24-0.

However, that game became significant when tracing the roots of how Gonzaga got their Bulldogs label.

On the sideline during that game was a San Diego sportswriter who compared the tenacity and persistence of the Gonzaga squad to that of a Bulldog’s. Gonzaga’s varsity teams adapted the moniker and from then on were called the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Who knows what could have been Gonzaga’s sports teams called had that football team won?

Syracuse Orange

How Syracuse got its teams named after a color.

Syracuse Orange
Image courtesy of Flickr
Under the category of Schools Which Nicknamed Itself after a Color is Syracuse University. Known today as the Syracuse Orange, the school got it’s moniker from their official color.

Orange was not really the school’s original official color. It was rose pink and pea green then but due to its unpopularity, the university changed it to orange which symbolizes the golden apples of Hesperia and also reflects the story of the sunrise and hope for a golden future.

The varsity teams of the school were referred to as Orangemen and Orangewomen until 2004 when the school changed it to Orange citing gender neutrality as the reason.

The Syracuse Orange last won the NCAA men’s basketball national championship in 2003 when they were led by Carmelo Anthony.

Florida Gators

A story of father, son and a company manager who has no idea what an alligator is.

Florida Gators
Phillip Miller, a local store owner in Gainesville near the University of Florida’s campus once visited his son, Austin, in 1907. Austin was currently studying then in the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Phillip’s visit also took him to the Michie Company, which was a known seller of law books. The company also sold school pennants which gave Phillip an idea to make one for the University of Florida.

It sounded like a very good business opportunity. But there’s a problem. The University of Florida did not have a moniker back then. With his own eureka moment, Austin suggested to his father and to the Michie manager to use an alligator as the school’s mascot. The idea hit another obstacle when the manager admitted he had no idea what an alligator is. So Austin went to the University of Virginia’s library to get an image of an alligator that he could show to the manager.

Just in time for the beginning of the 1908 school year, Phillip’s orange and blue pennants went on sale which turned out to be a hit and eventually led into the Gators being the school’s official moniker.

Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State could have been the Michigan State Staters.

Michigan State Spartans
Perhaps the toughest breeds of humans in history, the Spartans were a group of people in ancient Greece that gained a fearsome reputation because of their ability to cause carnage to any enemy.

It is not a far-flung idea that the name Spartans itself would be used as a moniker of sports teams. Such is the case with Michigan State. But before they were called the Spartans, the school’s sports teams were called the Aggies. Then in 1925, the school changed its name to Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science and a contest was held in search of a new team moniker. The winning entry was Staters.

Sportswriters of two local newspapers thought that the winning name was lame and unappealing especially when put on paper so they searched the losing entries for another that sounds better. They chose Spartans from the list and thus the rest is history.

North Carolina Tar Heels

The University of North Carolina got its moniker from its home state’s best export.

North Carolina Tar Heels
Tar was one of the most sought after materials in the 1800s because it prevents wooden ships from rot. It is made from burning pine trees and North Carolina has a vast forest filled with this kind of timbers. It’s quite easy to derive where the Tar in Tar Heels originated. So how about the Heel part?

There is one story going back to the days of the American Revolutionary War when British troops had their feet covered with tar after crossing a river filled with it in North Carolina thus the term Tar Heels.

Kansas State Wildcats

Three coaches, three name changes.

Kansas State Wildcats
Other schools’ stories of how their athletic teams got their nicknames are like an embellished folklore or a history lecture. This is not the same with the Kansas State University’s version of how they came up with their own.

Kansas State got their Wildcats label not from someone associated with the university getting eaten alive by a wildcat. The origin of the Wildcats moniker can be traced from a series of football coaches’ moves.

In 1915, football coach John Bender gave his team the Wildcats nickname. The naming was short-lived as it only lasted for a season. The same length of Bender’s coaching stint.

Then in 1917, under new coach Z.G. Clevenger, the team changed its nickname to Farmers. Perhaps realizing that the Farmers label intimidates no one, the team’s coach in 1920, Charles Bachman, renamed the team Wildcats. Since then, the Kansas State University’s sports teams were known by that nickname.

Butler Bulldogs

A wandering fraternity mascot inspired Butler to call themselves Bulldogs.

Butler Bulldogs
Christians. That was how Butler University’s sports teams were referred to before 1919. So what happened that year which changed the way people call Butler?

During that year, Butler was taking a beating on the football field losing many games. With the status of their team plunging into hopeless levels, the school’s followers vented their weariness on the team’s nickname. Enter Butler’s school paper Collegian editor Alex Cavins and his staff.

The group though that the school must come up with something that would give spark to the team, something that could elevate their morale. While in the middle of discussion, a Butler fraternity’s bulldog mascot named Shimmy entered the Collegian office and inspired Cavins. The next release of the Collegian showed a drawing of Shimmy the bulldog going after a figure labelled as John the Baptist, which was a representation of Butler’s next opponent, Franklin Baptists.

The Bulldog gimmick caught on and has been used by the school ever since.

So there you have it. That’s 11 schools with different stories on how each got their respective athletic teams’ nicknames. Looking at these stories alone tells how deep the tradition is of each school not to mention the history that comes along with it. This in part reflects how passionate the country is with college sports. It will once again be in full display this March when the NCAA Basketball season parades the best schools in the nation each competing in the annual staging of the March Madness.