Commentary

Off to college: Which name's got game?

Updated: May 18, 2009, 4:56 PM ET
By Josh Pahigian | Special to ESPN SportsTravel


• Photo gallery: Best team nicknames in college basketball


At every level of play our American sports world is rife with creative team names that may make perfect sense to locals but often leave out-of-towners wondering, "What in the world does that mean?"

From the Ravens of the NFL (named after the poem by Baltimore literary icon Edgar Allan Poe) to the Lugnuts of minor league baseball (offered as a tribute to the Oldsmobile company founded in the team's hometown of Lansing, Mich.), examples can be found in every sport.

Indeed, the list of quirky team names seems entrenched at the lowest levels of competition, where local sponsors slap their company tags across the backs of rec-leaguers.

Clearly, though, the fun-loving college ranks offer the most fertile environment for an inventive nickname to germinate, grow and, in many cases, take on a life of its own.

And there is an explanation for such colorful nicknames as the Trolls, Cobber and Banana Slugs on campuses across the country … or at least we think so.

"The better nicknames illustrate one or two things about a school – something fierce that will strike fear in the hearts of opposing teams and/or something local," said Adam Joshua Smargon, whose Web site tracks the ever-evolving monikers associated with more than a thousand U.S. colleges and universities.

Smargon went on to offer his take on why the college game, in particular, lends itself to imaginatively named teams that help galvanize their communities.

"When you're attending a college game," he said, "if you are or were a student there, when the athletes take the field or court it feels as if they are taking it for you. You feel as though you have a lot in common with them and you continue to have that connection for life.

"The nickname is a connection not just to athletics, but to the university as a whole."

At the outset of the college hoops season we'll profile those uniquely named teams that fans may not readily identify, unless, of course, they have a special connection to one of the schools.

Here now is our Travel Ten of the very best nicknames (listed in alphabetical order) for colleges with basketball squads, as well as some honorable mentions:

1. Banana Slugs
University of California-Santa Cruz

After serving as the unofficial nickname of UC-Santa Cruz for nearly two decades, the slippery, slimy, yellow creature known as the Banana Slug became the university's official namesake in 1986.

Somewhat ironically, it was not without a fight that the most passive of college mascots ascended to its rightful place of honor at UCSC. The story goes something like this:

Since the time of its founding in 1965, UCSC offered co-ed and intramural athletics, and most student teams quickly came to identify with the colorful mollusks that could be found dotting the lush redwoods around campus. But when the university decided that five of its teams would begin play at the NCAA Division III level in 1980, the chancellor and a small group of athletes and coaches decided that the Sea Lion would be a nobler mascot.

The student body did not agree and advocated fiercely on behalf of the loveable Banana Slug. After five years of debate, the students finally prevailed. Ever since the Banana Slug has symbolized the pensive dignity with which UCSC athletes carry themselves. And today, Sammy Slug is a popular courtside presence as the men and women Slugs take the floor.

2. Cobbers
Concordia College (Moorhead, Minn.)

Another yellow and similarly beloved team mascot is the Cobber, which is represented in the Concordia athletic department emblem as a snarling ear of corn, wearing a handsome maroon sweater and a green husk for trousers.

Though this is one fierce ear of corn, it is impossible to look at the Cobber and not shuckle, er, chuckle. After all, how fierce can a corncob be? But that's what makes the Cobber special; it symbolizes not only Concordia's athletic spirit, but its overall good sense of humor.

Concordia was founded in 1891 and has been identified with the cob since its earliest days. But it wasn't always such a happy marriage. Originally Concordia's campus was surrounded by cornfields, and when students would head into downtown Moorhead they would be derisively called "corncobs." The students at rival Hope Academy even had a mocking "corncobs" chant they would break into whenever the two student bodies had occasion to mingle.

With time, however, what originated as a slur was embraced by the students of Concordia, to the point where today the Cobber nickname is one the college's students and athletes carry proudly.

3. Geoducks
The Evergreen State College (Olympia, Wash.)

Now before you start "clamoring" that this Travel Ten is unfairly biased toward mollusks, consider the following facts about the shelly-bellied bivalve after which the athletes of this Puget Sound school model themselves.

The geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck) is the largest burrowing clam in the world, maturing to an average weight of three pounds and sometimes growing as large as 15 pounds. It has long been reputed to have the properties of an aphrodisiac, owing to its long and, some would say, phallic-looking siphon. And it can live 150 years. What does all that have to do with college basketball, you ask?

Well, not too much. But you have to admit it's pretty hilarious that there's actually a group of fans out there in college basketball land rooting and chanting for "gooey ducks."

And the sophomoric sense of humor displayed in not just the name itself, but the opening lines of the school fight song, do much to capture the spirit of smaller-time college athletics:

Go, Geoducks, go,
Through the mud and the sand,
Let's go.
Siphon high, squirt it out,
Swivel all about,
Let it all hang out.

4. Ichabods
Washburn University (Topeka, Kan.)

No, this nickname isn't a reference to Washington Irving's character Ichabod Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," but that wouldn't be a bad guess.

Actually, hard to believe though it may be, "Ichabod" was once a fairly common first name. And one gentleman by that handle – Ichabod Washburn, a prominent 19th century church deacon, industrialist and philanthropist – played a leading role in founding not one, but two American universities: Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., and Washburn University.

While the basketball players in Worcester identify themselves as Engineers, the beneficiaries of Washburn's vision in Topeka call themselves the Ichabods. (The Washburn women's team is known as the Lady Blues.)

Washburn also features the Ichabod as a mascot. The bookish fellow wearing a tuxedo is a tradition dating to 1938, when the student yearbook introduced a sketch drawn by alumnus Bradbury Thompson and included a blurb that described the Ichabod thusly:

He has courage and enthusiasm as shown by his brisk walk. He is democratic and courteous, for he tips his hat as he passes. Sincere in his search for truth and knowledge, he studiously carries a book under his arm. His friendly smile makes you like him. He is neatly dressed and he fits well into his generation … but adapts himself with equal ease to any change in life.

5. Keelhaulers
California Maritime Academy (Vallejo)

If the better college nicknames are the ones that not only reference their school's specialty but also project a menacing edge that strikes fear in the hearts of opponents, then the Keelhaulers of Cal Maritime score high. The school's trademark is preparing students for a variety of nautical careers.

Keelhauling was once a common form of punishment in the British and Dutch navies. According to the practice, an insubordinate sailor would be tied to a rope and dragged under the barnacle-encrusted keel of the ship, from one side to the other. He would emerge (if he indeed survived the experience) presumably humbled and weary – just as the Keelhaulers of Cal Maritime hope to leave their California Pacific Conference opponents after games.

6. Ladies and Gents
Centenary College of Louisiana (Shreveport)

According to Centenary lore, the college first adopted the Gents handle – in spirit, if not yet officially – back in 1921. While still playing under the rough-and-tumble "Ironsides" nickname that year, the football team got into a most ungentlemanly scrum with an opposing team. And so, before the squad could take the field for its next game, college president George Sexton called the players aside and told them that if they knew what was good for them, they'd better start acting like gentlemen. The players took the president's words to heart and their new mantra eventually became their team name.

When the college began fielding women's teams in the 1960s, the Ladies nickname was born, giving Centenary a pair of teams that by virtue of their nomenclature remind their players, fans and opponents of their sound stock and sportsmanship.

"The uniqueness of our nicknames reflects the uniqueness of the educational experience provided by the College," said former Centenary sports information director David Pratt. "We are proud to be Ladies and Gents. When people hear those names, they immediately think only of Centenary."

Last season Centenary introduced a new mascot that will represent the school in addition to its nickname – a 2-year-old Catahoula puppy named Skeeter that the college adopted from a nearby animal rescue organization.

7. Profs
Rowan University (Glassboro, N.J.)

Here's another team nickname that does well to express the specialty of the academic community. In honor of the wise, old professors who touch the lives of so many students, Rowan University offers a hoops team named the Profs and an owl of a mascot dubbed "Whoo RU."

On both counts these traditions make sense.

Rowan has a proud history of educating future educators, dating back to its early days as Glassboro Normal School, then as New Jersey's State Teacher's College at Glassboro. But let's face it, a scholarly looking man or woman couldn't possibly make for much of a courtside rabble rouser, no matter how creative the marketing whiz kids might get with the costume. So, the owl, a longtime symbol of scholarly acumen, personifies the moniker magnificently.

8. Stormy Petrels
Oglethorpe University (Atlanta)

What the heck is a Stormy Petrel, you ask? Well, if you were a sailor back in the day you might know. The stormy petrel (pronounced idiosyncratically pea-trel at Oglethorpe) is a type of sea bird that, according to nautical legend, roosts on ships when it senses bad weather is on the way.

Thus, seeing a stormy petrel hunkering down aboard their vessel wasn't entirely a good omen for sailors. But it wasn't an altogether bad one either, because the bird at least gave the seamen some forewarning.

So how did the stormy petrel get hooked up with Oglethorpe University? The answer can be found in the story of a man and his bird.

According to lore, university founder, James Oglethorpe – who also happened to found the state of Georgia – was crossing the Atlantic in 1732 when he developed quite a fondness for a fearless stormy petrel that landed on his ship and hitched a ride all the way to America.

Today, Petey the Stormy Petrel is the big bird on campus at Oglethorpe, and he's a big bird indeed. While real stormy petrels are tiny, measuring just five inches to 10 inches from beak to tail feathers' end, Petey stands seven feet tall.

"Oglethorpe delights in the uniqueness of our mascot and the bevy of, 'What in the world is a stormy petrel?' questions faculty and staff field from outsiders," said university spokesperson Hoyt Young. "Once explained to its origins, these same outsiders typically respond, 'That's a fantastic nickname.'"

9. Student Princes
Heidelberg College (Tiffin, Ohio)

Heidelberg's history dates to 1850, when it was founded by followers of the German Reformed Church (now known as the United Church of Christ). Originally the school's athletes were known as the Cardinals, before a serendipitous turn of events in 1926 forever altered the college's identity.

Heidelberg alumni director Edwin Butcher was walking through downtown Tiffin one day when he noticed the marquee on the town theater promoting a movie titled "The Student Prince." As Butcher would soon discover, the picture was about a prince who attended Heidelberg University in Germany and, after some initial trepidation, overcame his shyness to thrive socially and academically.

After leaving the theater, Butcher began referring to the athletes at his Heidelberg as "student princes," and the nickname was well received. First it appeared in campus publications. Then students and sports writers began using it. And finally the players came to view themselves as Student Princes.

10. Trolls
Trinity Christian College (Palos Heights, Ill.)

There may be two competing theories as to how Trinity Christian College came by its unique nickname. But there's no debating that Trinity's Troll is one of the most menacing mascots in college hoops.

He's got a big, blue head, a deviously furrowed brow and a grimacing mug. And, yet, by all accounts, he's a friendly and popular fellow on campus.

The story of how an upstanding Christian college got hooked up with such a motley fellow began in 1959. Well, the first story does. According to this theory of troll evolution the students created an acronym by borrowing letters from Trinity College students.

Other voices in Trinity history insist, however, that the nickname was born in 1966 on the eve of Trinity's first ever intercollegiate basketball game. At that time, the college president sought an alliterative nickname to characterize the new team and after flipping through a dictionary looking for words starting with "tr" settled on Troll, owing to the mythic troll's supernatural powers.

Still others say that the Troll is a nod to a creepy character sometimes spotted lurking under the 123rd Street Bridge in Palo Heights.


The Best of the Rest

Here are some other college nicknames that deserve praise for their originality and/or good humor:

Boll Weevils
University of Arkansas-Monticello, men's team

Bridges
Brooklyn College-City University of New York

Cotton Blossoms
The University of Arkansas-Monticello, women's team

Gorillas
Pittsburg State University (Pittsburg, Kan.)

Gorlocks
Webster University (St. Louis)

Koalas
Columbia College (Columbia, S.C.)

Lemmings
Bryant & Stratton College-Cleveland Campus (Ohio)

Lord Jeffs
Amherst College (Amherst, Mass.)

Moundbuilders
Southwestern College (Winfield, Kan.)

Muleriders
Southern Arkansas University (Magnolia, Ark.)

Poets
Whittier College (Whittier, Calif.)

Scorpions
University of Texas-Brownsville

Squirrels
Mary Baldwin College (Staunton, Va.)

Thunderbolts
Simmons College (Boston)

White Mules
Colby College (Waterville, Maine)


Personal Biases

And, finally, here are the monikers of the four schools with which your humble author has been or is still affiliated, all of which are fielding teams on the college hardwood this winter:

Crusaders
The College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, Mass.)
My undergraduate school

Engineers
Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Worcester, Mass.)
My first job out of college

Lions
Emerson College (Boston)
My graduate school

Nor'easters
University of New England (Biddeford, Maine)
My present place of employment

Josh Pahigian is the author of several travel guides, including "101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out."

• Photo gallery: Best team nicknames in college basketball

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