Most college football fans know that the Oklahoma Sooners got their name from the land runs of the 1890s, when the wiliest settlers snuck across the starting line and claimed their lots a day or so sooner than they should have. But who can say for sure why Indianans are Hoosiers? Or how the athletes at St. Louis University got to be Billikens? Or what in the name of Pat Ewing a "Hoya" might be?
The answers are in What's in a Nickname? ($12.95), a delightful 208-page directory of college nicknames compiled by Ray Franks and his staff at their "Publishing Ranch" in Amarillo, Texas, where they also put out the annual editions of the National Directory of College Athletics. There are entries for 1,200 nicknames, from junior and senior colleges alike, most illustrated with small logos.
The origins of many of the names weren't easy to pin down; some, in fact, never were. Nobody knows, for example, how the term "Hoosier" originated. Franks puts his money on a canal builder along the Ohio, Sam Hoosier, whose Indiana workers would holler his name when brawling with Kentuckians. A billiken, says Franks, started out as an Alaskan good luck charm and became known as "the god of things as they should be." Then in 1910 a St. Louis sportswriter noted that the university's respected football coach, John (Moonface) Bender, was godlike, thus Bender's Billikens. The baseball team at Georgetown used to be called the Stonewalls, perhaps after the wall near M Street. A student dubbed it "Hoya Saxa" (what rocks in Latin and Greek), and the Stonewalls became Hoyas. The name "Boilermakers" was meant to deride the Purdue football team in 1889, but it sounded better than the team's standard nicknames—including Hayseeds, Cornfield Sailors and Pumpkin Shuckers—and came to be accepted.
The most common nicknames are Eagles (72 teams) and Tigers (68), followed by Cougars and Bulldogs. Bears are 10th, but only the Baylor version started out in a circus. It was abandoned in the 1920s and taken in by a Baylor student who named it "Joe College" and arranged to care for it in lieu of paying tuition.
Some entries are obvious. How could the University of Dayton, located in the hometown of the Wright Brothers, be anything but the Flyers? Or Stetson U anything but the Hatters?
As for the trivial, Nazareth College in Kalamazoo calls its teams the Moles because the school's buildings are connected by tunnels, and Tufts's Jumbos are named for P.T. Barnum's star elephant, which ended up at Tufts for stuffing after it was hit by a freight train.
Addressing the nickname of one noted southern university, Franks duly notes that its moniker first appeared in 1917 in local newspapers. However, he completely ignores the question, "Just what is a Crimson Tide, anyway?"