How the Top 50 College Football Programs Got Their Nicknames
It's all about nicknames.
This list runs down how each top-50 team got their nickname, from the Sun Devils to the Wolverines.
There are multiple "Tigers" and "Bears" scattered across the college football landscape, but none of them garnered their nicknames the same way.
Some were decided by student vote, others just by natural usage, but however it came to be, the origins can be found here.
50. Arizona State Sun Devils
Sparky became the mascot for ASU in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII.
A sun devil is a weather phenomenon, also known as a whirlwind, or a "dust devil" without the dust.
Apparently, being known as a "Sun Devil" is just a bit cleaner than the other.
Sparky the mascot was drawn and created by Bert Anthony, a former employee of Disney.
49. USF Bulls
USF's decision to use "Bulls" as their mascot was fraught with controversy.
According to this article, the idea of using the Golden Brahman as a mascot was first propagated in the early '60s.
A vote was held to determine the mascot with these five choices: the Buccaneer, the Golden Brahman, the Olympian, the Cougar and the Golden Eagle.
The Buccaneer won, but a nearby school was thought to have the same nickname, so Golden Brahmans won.
It was later determined that the other school's nickname was actually "Pirates," and Buccaneer was going to be adopted.
After a hue and cry was raised, "Golden Brahman" stuck until 1982, when the university changed the name to "Bulls" for marketing and advertising reasons.
48. Mississippi State Bulldogs
This one is a bit confusing.
Mississippi State was known as "Bulldogs," "Aggies" and "Maroons" interchangeably for the early part of the last century.
However, according to State lore, after a win over Mississippi in 1905, references were made to the team's "Bulldog" style of play.
This led to the use of the nickname, and in 1935, the first Bulldog mascot was adopted, and the first "Bully" became part of the squad.
Sadly, his career was cut short when a campus bus tragically ended his life, but the nickname stuck.
47. Cincinnati Bearcats
This one is interesting.
The name first came into being at a game between Cincy and Kentucky in 1914.
The Wildcats were a tough draw, but the Cincy cheerleaders were undaunted.
One enterprising soul, cheerleader Norman "Pat" Lyon, started to chant: "They may be Wildcats, but we have a Baehr-cat on our side."
Cincinnati had a fullback by the name of Leonard K. "Teddy" Baehr, who must have been playing well at the time.
The crowd started using the cheer, the Bearcats won and the win was memorialized in a cartoon published in the student newspaper.
"Bearcats" caught on and stuck.
46. Miami Hurricanes
The Miami team nickname originated around the time of a brutal hurricane in 1926.
Nobody is sure the exact reason for the choice of name, whether the team wanted to sweep away opponents like a hurricane or if the actual event birthed the name, but it stuck.
Sebastian the Ibis fits in because the ibis is the first bird to return after a hurricane, and the last to leave.
45. Houston Cougars
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Case Keenum and Kevin Sumlin are gone, along with the Cougs' chances at finishing in the top 10 once again.
Also unfortunate for the Cougars, their nickname came from another school.
Former Washington State coach and physical education instructor at Houston John R. Bender liked the WSU nickname "Cougars," and it stuck at Houston.
44. Texas Tech Red Raiders
TTU's original nickname was the "Matadors."
In the early 1930's, the name was changed to Red Raiders due to a journalist's use of the term.
In 1932, the Red Raiders defeated Loyola Marymount, who was favored, and a Los Angeles writer stated in his column that TTU played like "Red Raiders."
In an alternate possibility, Collier Parris of the Lubbock Avalance-Journal wrote: "The Red Raiders from Texas Tech, terror of the Southwest this year, swooped into the New Mexico University camp today."
Either way, the nickname stuck, and by 1936, was adopted as the official moniker.
43. Texas A&M Aggies
Rumor has it that the Aggies have a pretty violent origin.
"...when Lawrence Sullivan Ross became President of the Agricultural and Mechanical College, it was under the threat of being shut down. Lucky, Governor Ross would not have this and he went down to the Legislature and fought to keep his school open. He got so angry that he punched a senator over the issue. From then on, we have been known as the “Fighting Farmers” that later became the “Fighting Aggies.”
This quote is from the TAMU site.
42. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
According to the Tech website, there are conflicting accounts as to where this nickname originated.
The most likely appears to be that newspapers used the term "Yellowjackets" to refer to Tech supporters and the color of their dress.
This eventually was adopted as the nickname, and "Buzz" the mascot and today's usage grew from there.
41. Cal Golden Bears
The Golden Bears' moniker has been around for a long time, since 1895 to be exact.
In that year, the Cal track and field team was making a swing across the country for eight meets with teams from the East and Midwest.
Regent Arthur Rodgers commissioned a banner featuring a Golden Bear, the track team won five out of the eight meets and the title was immortalized in a song by Professor Charles Mills Gayley.
The name has been around ever since.
40. Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa is called the Hawkeye State, and Iowa adopted this name for its team.
However, opinions differ as to where this came from.
Jame Fenimore Cooper's classic novel, The Deerslayer, featured a protagonist named "Hawkeye." Many would tell you this is where the name originated.
Others claim the name was a tribute to Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk Native American tribe.
Opinion seems to be pretty evenly divided.
So, the school got its nickname from the state, but we are not sure exactly which story about the state's nickname is true.
39. Iowa State Cyclones
Back in 1895, Iowa was apparently struck by an unusually high number of "Cyclones."
These are also known as tornadoes, for those of you who were wondering.
When ISU upset Northwestern that season, the Chicago Tribune ran an article titled "Struck by a Cyclone: It Comes from Iowa and Devastates Evanston Town."
The article went on to state: "Northwestern might as well have tried to play football with an Iowa cyclone as with the Iowa team it met yesterday."
The name was adopted shortly thereafter and is still being used today.
38. Southern Miss Golden Eagles
In 1940, the Southern Miss student body voted to name their teams the "Confederates."
In '72, another vote was held to change the name for obvious reasons of sensitivity, and "Golden Eagles" won the vote.
Hence, we have the current team name and the mascot named, I kid you not, Seymour d'Campus.
37. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
In 1925, Rutgers adopted the nickname for its teams of "Chanticleers" and homage to a rooster from a medieval story, Reynard the Fox.
This, of course, led to some controversy, as many thought the name associated the team with "Being chicken."
The mascot was changed to its current name and state in 1955 after a vote, beating out other contenders such as "Queensmen," the "Scarlet," the "Red Lions," the "Redmen" and the "Flying Dutchmen."
36. Florida Gators
The two best stories regarding the origination of the "Gator" nickname are somewhat at odds with each other.
Most Gator fans would point you to Phillip Miller, a store owner in Gainesville in the early 1900's, who started selling gator pennants, and the nickname stuck.
The alternate story seems to be that the first captain of the Gators football team, Roy Corbett, identified the nickname as originating with one Bo-Gator Storter, a center on the team.
Whichever you accept, the name stuck, and it is one of the best nicknames in the sport.
35. North Carolina State Wolfpack
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This one is great.
According to the school's athletic website, "Wolfpack" originated with a "disgruntled fan."
When N.C. State went through some lean years in the '20's, this fan wrote a letter to the school newspaper, stating that the football players "acted like a wolfpack."
It stuck and was officially adopted in 1947.
On a side note, quarterback Mike Glennon is legit.
34. Baylor Bears
Baylor actually has live bears on campus as part of their "Bear Program."
This tradition has its roots in 1914, when students voted the bear in as the school mascot.
In 1917, the school got its first live bear mascot, and the name stuck.
33. Penn State Nittany Lions
Don't know what a "Nittany Lion" is?
No problem; it was made up.
Harrison D. Mason and his baseball teammates from PSU were at Princeton for a baseball game in 1904.
The team was shown a statue of Princeton's famous Tiger mascot "as an indication of the merciless treatment they could expect on the field."
PSU had no mascot, so Mason made one up on the spot, telling their hosts about the fierce "nittany lion" who could apparently take out even a tiger.
PSU beat Princeton that day, and the nickname gathered more and more support, never even needing a vote to be accepted as the official mascot.
32. BYU Cougars
BYU's mascot is a lovable cougar known as "Cosmo."
The origin of "Cougar" as the BYU nickname goes all the way back to the early 1920's.
Former coach Eugene L. Roberts chose the mascot, and the name stuck.
The Cougars even had live cats roaming the sidelines until the 1940's, and they made special appearances for big games up until the 1960's.
Now, BYU's only cougar on the sideline is Cosmo.
31. North Carolina Tar Heels
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The Tar Heels take their nickname from the state nickname.
Of course, nobody is entirely certain of its exact origination.
One explanation is that the state's exports of tar and pitch from the pine forests in the early years of its history led to the nickname.
Another is that a unit from the state in the Civil War stood its ground in battle, not giving an inch, as if it had tar on its heels.
And yet a third explanation is that during the Revolutionary War, the residents of the state poured tar in a river to slow the British advance.
Read about them on the UNC site here.
30. Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee is one of the universities that adopted its state nickname for its athletic teams.
Tennessee is known as "The Volunteer State," and has been since the War of 1812, according to the UT website.
"Tennessee acquired the name 'The Volunteer State' during the War of 1812. At the request of President James Madison, Gen. Andrew Jackson, who later became President himself, mustered 1,500 from his home state to fight at the Battle of New Orleans."
Not only does this one make sense, it's actually pretty cool.
29. Missouri Tigers
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Missouri's first football team was formed in 1890.
Shortly thereafter, the university adopted the nickname "Tigers" in honor of a group of militia from the state nicknamed "The Missouri Tigers."
On a side note, if you think the Tigers will melt in the SEC, think again.
James Franklin is the real deal and will help them to a decent finish in the conference.
28. Oklahoma State Cowboys
The Cowboys are so named in honor of "Pistol Pete" Eaton.
Eaton's story can be found here.
The cowboy tradition in the state helped contribute to the flavor of the nickname, but Eaton gives life to that mascot you see roaming around with the extra shiny head.
27. Boise State Broncos
Before they became the dominant force they have been for quite some time now, the Broncos were simply the humble Boise Junior College Broncos.
The nickname was chosen by the university, and while it did not strike fear into opponents back in those days, it certainly should today.
26. Louisville Cardinals
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The cardinal is the state bird of Kentucky.
According to the University of Louisville website, the bird was chosen for reasons of identification within the state.
I'm wondering how many students at the university actually know that the cardinal is the state bird.
25. Utah Utes
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Before 1972, Utah athletic programs used the name "Redskins" interchangeably with "Utes."
That year, the university decided to stick solely with "Utes," as the "Redskins" was considered an ethnic slur.
This is the name of the tribe of Native Americans for which the state of Utah is named, and the university has permission from the Ute tribe to use this nickname.
24. Kansas State Wildcats
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K-State went by "Aggies" until head coach Chief Bender changed the name to "Wildcats" in 1915.
This was then switched to "Farmers" in 1916, but head coach Charlie Bachman thankfully had the name changed back to "Wildcats" in 1920.
23. TCU Horned Frogs
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"Horned Frog" was first used at TCU as the name of their annual and was quickly adapted for use by athletic teams.
It has been around for awhile and is one of the most original titles in the game.
On a side note, a "horned frog" is actually a lizard.
22. Auburn Tigers
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According to this site, Auburn got their nickname from a poem.
Oliver Goldsmith's poem, The Deserted Village, features the line: "where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey..."
This was seized upon for the football team, and the name was born.
Read the link to get the skinny on the difference between "War Eagle" and the mascot as well.
21. Texas Longhorns
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The Texas football team was known as "The Varsity" prior to 1906, but a smattering of references to the name "Longhorn" by sportswriters can be found.
In 1906, "Longhorns" became official.
This was in reference to the cattle that were associated with Texas, and the courage, strength and tenacity that these particular animals display.
20. West Virginia Mountaineers
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The Mountaineers are named in honor of the proud people that have inhabited the grand mountains of the state for nearly three centuries.
The soaring mountains proved to be a beautiful home to the first brave trappers and hunters who entered the area, and they came to be known as "mountaineers."
19. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
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For a team with the history and tradition of Notre Dame, it's hard to believe that there is little clarity regarding the origin of their nickname.
From the opposing team's fans chanting the name, to a player calling out his teammates and even the press generalizing the term, explanations of all can be found here.
The most likely is that the press started using it and it stuck, but who knows?
18. Washington Huskies
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Thank God for the Huskies.
Prior to this name's adoption in 1922, the team had been known as "Vikings" and "Sun Dodgers."
The school put together a committee of students, coaches, faculty and alumni to come up with the name.
Malamute was another finalist, but "Husky" stuck.
17. Wisconsin Badgers
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In the late 1700's, the U.S. gained control of what is now Wisconsin.
During this time, miners began to work in the mineral-rich earth of the state.
Some of these miners used the mines they had dug as a sort of "den," so they were compared to the badger, and the nickname stuck around.
The state is known as "The Badger State," and though "Bucky" is the university's mascot, perhaps if he carried a pick-axe, it would be more appropriate.
16. Michigan State Spartans
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In 1925, the university held a contest to determine the new name of the MSU sports teams.
The name chosen was the unimaginative "Michigan Staters."
A local sportswriter was not happy with this title, so he took matters into his own hands, taking one of the other options, "Spartans," and using it in game recaps and eventually, headlines.
Nobody complained, so it hung around and remains to this day.
15. Stanford Cardinal
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Let's clear this up right now.
That stupid tree that dances around is not the Stanford mascot.
The school has no official mascot.
From 1930-72, the team was known as the "Indians."
At that time, it was decided to change the name out of respect for cultural issues, and the school went without an official nickname that stuck for eight years.
In 1981, the school president, Donald Kennedy, decided that the school would be represented by the color cardinal, hence the nickname.
14. South Carolina Gamecocks
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The team was first referred to as the "Game Cocks" in 1900.
in 1903, the Columbia morning newspaper, The State, used the condensed version, "Gamecocks," and the name has been around ever since.
The title refers to fighting birds, which is generally frowned upon, but the scrappy spirit of the creatures fits a tough football team.
The nickname was also one given to General Thomas Sumter, who was from South Carolina, British General Cornwallis.
13. Clemson Tigers
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According to tradition, the Tigers either earned their nickname from their striped socks or their first coach's affiliation with Auburn.
Walter Riggs had played at Auburn during his school days, and apparently brought his love of all things Tigers to Clemson.
Whichever explanation you choose to believe, these Tigers have got some pretty sweet uniforms.
12. Nebraska Cornhuskers
This fanbase is incredible.
They dress up as cobs of corn for pete's sake.
Prior to 1900, the team used such titles as "Old Gold Knights," "Antelopes," "Rattlesnake Boys" and the "Bugeaters."
After their first losing season in the decade in 1899, Charles Sherman, a Lincoln sportswriter, decided to start calling the team by its present name.
It stuck, the university adopted it and we can all be relieved that "Bugeaters" was not the moniker of choice.
11. Georgia Bulldogs
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Some would tell you that the Bulldogs copied their nickname from Yale due to strong ties between Georgia's founders and that venerable institution.
Others would tell you that a couple of writers started referring to the team as "Bulldogs" in 1920, and the name stuck.
Whatever the case may be, between UGA and Hairy, the Dawgs have two of the best mascots in the country.
10. Ohio State Buckeyes
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This one is fairly straightforward.
The state of Ohio was nicknamed "The Buckeye State" for the number of Buckeye trees that littered its landscape.
It only made sense for the state university to adopt the state nickname.
According to this site, Ohioans have been calling themselves "Buckeyes" since before the Civil War, which, by the way, is an oxymoron, unlike Jim Tressel, who was just a moron.
9. Virginia Tech Hokies
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Contrary to popular belief, the origin of the word "Hokie" had nothing to do with a turkey.
To be brief, the name of the school was changed in 1896 to "Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute."
This was obviously too long for the general populous, so they shortened it to VPI.
With a new name, a new school cheer was needed. A contest was held, and O. M. Stull won it with this little ditty:
Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy.
Techs, Techs, V.P.I.
Polytechs - Vir-gin-ia.
Rae, Ri, V.P.I.
Eventually an "e" was added to Hoki to form what we have today.
For a long time, until as recently as the late '70s, the team nickname was the "Gobblers."
At that time, the coach of the "Gobblers" did not like the image associated with the football team, which he believed to be football players gobbling their food, and so, he began promoting "Hokies."
8. Michigan Wolverines
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Finding a real live wolverine in the state of Michigan is akin to searching for Bigfoot.
The first verifiable sighting of said creature inside the state lines took place in 2004. There has never been a verified trapping of the wolverine inside the state, nor have any skeletal remains ever been found.
So it's difficult to figure out how the state came by its nickname.
There are several theories regarding how this happened, including that the French trappers that traded with the settlers of Michigan had appetites like the gluttonous creature, and also that the name could have come from the trading of wolverine pelts that took place at Sault Ste. Marie.
There is also the theory that the border conflict over the boundary of Michigan and Ohio spawned the name.
Whatever you choose to believe, this name has a colorful history which has been used as far back as the 1860's to refer to Michigan students.
7. Florida State Seminoles
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In 1947, Florida State adopted its nickname in honor of a tribe of Native Americans whose ancestors still live in the Everglades.
The tribe has given the school permission to use the name, and although it has not been without controversy, it has stuck through the years.
This one gets my vote for coolest pre-game ritual.
6. Arkansas Razorbacks
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There is only one team named Razorbacks in all of college football, and that distinction belongs to Arkansas.
Pre-1910, the team was known as the "Cardinal," but in 1909, football coach Hugo Bezdek is quoted as saying his team played like "a wild band of Razorback hogs."
The name caught on, and in 1910, it became official.
Now it's up to Tyler Wilson and crew to earn a place atop the SEC along with the Crimson Tide and Tigers.
5. Oregon Ducks
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In 1776, a band of Massachusetts farmers helped save George Washington and his troops from the British troops.
They garnered the nickname "webfoots" for their exploits in saving the storied general.
Many of their descendants settled in the Willamette Valley in what is now Oregon, and the state was originally nicknamed the "Webfoot State."
Oregon adopted this nickname for its teams.
Later on, this was changed to the "Ducks," which we have today, along with their fuzzy mascot.
4. Alabama Crimson Tide
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Alabama and Auburn played in 1907, but did not meet again until 1948.
In the last meeting before the hiatus, Hugh Roberts, editor of the Birmingham Age-Herald, described the Alabama team as "the Crimson Tide."
Prior to this, they had been known as "Crimson White" or "Thin Red Line."
After this, the name gained popularity until it was eventually adopted as the official nickname of the school's athletic teams.
3. Oklahoma Sooners
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It's a long story, which can be read in its entirety here.
What it boils down to is the fact that the U.S. government was granting land to settlers in 1889 in what is now the state of Oklahoma.
At noon of the day this land grant was to begin, the signal was given across a vast stratch of land, and settlers swarmed in to claim their share.
It only makes sense that those who left before they were supposed to were known as "Sooners."
These were generally people with another reason to be inside the territory, such as surveyors and railroad employees, and they took advantage of their position for their personal gain.
Of course, we are supposed to believe that this was a symbol of their "Progressivism" and that Sooners were "energetic individuals who travel ahead of the human procession."
2. USC Trojans
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In the early part of the last century, USC was at a serious disadvantage when it came to its football program.
Most of the schools they played were bigger and had better athletes.
On a side note, the names the team went by at the time, either "Methodists" or "Wesleyans," were not all that appealing.
USC's athletic director, Warrern Bovard, asked the L.A. Times sports editor to come up with an appropriate name for the team. He started using "Trojans," and the rest is history.
1. LSU Tigers
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LSU's nickname, while seemingly standard enough, has a little more to it than one might think at first glance.
The Tigers got their name in honor of two Louisiana brigades during the Civil War that fought so fiercely that they earned the moniker.
Great football team and a great nickname; some programs just have it all.