It’s college football season here in South Carolina, and the neighborhoods are decked out in orange flags with pawprints on them. These paws represent Clemson’s football team, a powerhouse squad known as…the Tigers. When I got here, it seemed silly to me that we selected an Asian felid to represent our state’s college teams, and then, the more I thought on it, the more I came to realize that the whole country is filled with terrible mascot choices, and that no-one is doing anything about it. So I correct them here.
I have experience in the matter, as an alumnus of the schools with the best and worst nicknames in the NCAA. The Dartmouth Big Green, which came after we stopped with the Indian and couldn’t agree on anything else, satisfies no-one and says nothing. We should be the Moose. On the other hand, the University of California, Santa Cruz Banana Slugs honor a dramatic animal that is common on campus, that is unique to the region, and that is impervious to almost all predators. As a bonus, the name came as a result of student activism, which is, by far, the most popular sport at UCSC.
I’m only doing the two most prominent public institutions in each state. Public schools’ mascots are presumably supposed to represent the whole state, not just the university. Some places have more than two big schools, but I have neither the time nor the energy to evaluate all the SUNYs or whatever.
In a couple places I’m claiming names from professional teams. Pro sports franchises move all the time, which is how we got the LA Lakers and Utah Jazz. A state’s public universities cannot move by definition, and therefore deserve the best names. Also, I’m limiting names to one state. There are six or eight states that could take Bison, but in the end there can be only one.
University of Alabama Crimson Tide
Immediately, we get a nonsensical nickname (it started with red mud, apparently) with an elephant, somehow, also involved. Now, red tides are real things – they happen when toxic reddish algae proliferate in a waterway that’s overloaded with nutrient pollution – but this isn’t what they were thinking of with the name. The Alabama Pollution are probably not going to rake in the donations necessary to equip next season’s linebackers.
Should be: Cottonmouths, both for the snake, and for the affliction that greets thousand of Alabama undergrads on Sunday mornings.
Auburn University Tigers
Our first tiger. There are no tigers roaming the forests and swamps of Alabama. There is no connection between Auburn, or any American school, and Panthera tigris. Tigers are a lazy choice by people who want a large fierce predator and use the first to come to mind. We will run into this problem again.
Should be: Eagles. They chant “War Eagle” at games and keep an actual eagle around as a mascot. There are certainly eagles in Alabama. Honestly, it’s perfect.
University of Alaska, Fairbanks Nanooks
This is an Inuit word for Polar bear. Polar bears, one of the few animals so large and fierce that they actively hunt and eat people, live in Alaska. It’s perfect.
Should be: Nanooks
University of Alaska, Anchorage Seawolves
In the Pacific Northwest, there are wolves that swim between islands, eat seals, and so on. Again, it’s perfect. I would expect nothing less from Alaska, a state rich in awesome nature.
Should be: Seawolves
Could be: Gyrfalcons, Sea Eagles, Volcanoes, Brown Bears, Musk Ox, Earthquakes, Moose, Orcas…Alaska’s got a deep bench of nicknames. As we’ll see, not all states do.
University of Arizona Wildcats
Booooooooooooring. Bobcats live pretty much everywhere in the United States. Just as appropriate in New Hampshire and Kentucky. Not to take anything away from bobcats, which are a cool animal, but come on.
Should be: Jaguars. Americans can only find them in Arizona. They could even continue to colloquially call their teams “the Cats.”
Arizona State University Sun Devils
There is no story here – some students thought up “Sun Devils” in 1946 and so it was. No legend, nothing. They were the Owls before that, and sure – owls are strong and deadly and traditionally associated with academia. But cooler than owls are…
Should be: Trogons. Americans can only find them in Arizona.
Could be: Gila Monsters, Condors, Drought, Heat, Javelinas, Cacti
University of Arkansas Razorbacks
This is a wild pig, and while I am deducting a little credit for pigs’ being invasive, this actually works really well for Arkansas.
Should be: Razorbacks
Arkansas State University Red Wolves
This SHOULD be cool – red wolves are the South’s own wolves, native here and nowhere else. But red wolves have been extirpated from Arkansas. You don’t want a mascot that you eliminated from your state in real life.
Should be: Paddlefish. Check these things out. Severely underrated.
University of California, Berkeley Golden Bears
This is a subspecies of the grizzly, the one that’s on the state flag. The last one in California was seen almost a hundred years ago. Again, don’t extirpate an animal and then make it your sigil.
Should be: Sea Lions.
University of California, Los Angeles Bruins
You could argue that this could be black bears. I saw dozens of them when I lived in California. But for California, what would be better than…
Should be: Earthquakes
Could be: Fires, Condors, Quails, Mudslides, Cougars, Protestors, Paparazzi
Colorado University Buffaloes
Strong…but “buffalo” is not the preferred nomenclature. Plus another more appropriate state has taken bison.
Should be: Avalanche
Colorado State University Rams
I assume this is a bighorn sheep. If so, a masterful choice.
Should be: Rams
Could be: Moguls
University of Connecticut “UConn” Huskies
YES. I love a good pun even more than I love geographically appropriate mascots.
Should be: Huskies
Central Connecticut State University Blue Devils
Did you know? “Blue Devils” used to be a term for depression.
Should be: Oaks. In colonial times, patriots hid their Royal Charter in an old oak tree as a step toward independence. A proud moment in Connecticut history.
Could be: Hedge Funders, Antiquers, Yachters, Nutmeggers
Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens
It seems silly to name yourself after a species that exists to be eaten. In the meantime, there should be an annual Chicken Bowl with the University of South Carolina, just as UConn should play Washington to determine who’s the King of the Huskies.
Should be: Horseshoe Crabs. I’m well aware that Delaware has the biggest spawning area on earth for this living fossil.
Delaware State University Hornets
Well. It’s a little state, and not enough teams go invertebrate. Sure.
Should be: Hornets
Could be: Tax Evaders
Under the radar, Florida has some huge universities. Central Florida has 60,000 students! Florida International has 54,000! And both have weak nicknames. But I’m going with the state’s flagship schools.
University of Florida Gators
Should be: Gators
Florida State University Seminoles
Hmmmmmmboy. Here we go. It is borderline impossible for a school to have a Native name and do it well. I’m aware that FSU works with the Seminole tribe and has their support in this matter and so on, and that’s good, I respect the institution’s effort. However, I’m also aware of the Tomahawk Chop/War Chant thing that their fans do. I don’t think you can have it both ways, and I don’t think that the institution can keep 40,000 college students respectful no matter how hard it tries. So I can’t support the Seminole name.
Should be: Coral Snakes
Could be: Invaders, Florida Men/Women, Yearlings, Manatees,
University of Georgia Bulldogs
Like the Wildcats, but tamer.
Should be: the Athenians. UGA’s in Athens, a cultural center for the South just as the Greek version was for classical Attica.
On which note, it has always bewildered me that no schools choose to honor the Greeks that founded our civilization, as opposed to their less-cultured conquerors from Sparta. Also, while they aren’t on this list, any school that decides to be the Trojans is taking the name of the most famous losers in the history of the West.
Georgia Tech Hornets
Meh. The school’s in Atlanta, so…
Should be: Phoenix
Could be: Traffic, Devils, Fiddlers
University of Hawaii, Hilo Vulcans
I like this, but shouldn’t they use a Hawaiian term, not a Roman one?
Should be: Lua Pele, as long as that this doesn’t stoke any sort of cultural problem. The Magma, otherwise.
University of Hawaii, Manoa Rainbow Warriors
This comes from a nifty probably-true story that a rainbow appeared as Hawaii beat Oregon State. So, sure.
Should be: Rainbow Warriors.
Could be: Waves, Breaks, Sharks
This is my favorite nickname on this list. I cannot believe that a school went with Vandals. I assume they meant the Germanic tribe? I don’t even want to know how it happened. Do the students tear down the goalposts after every game? We’ll move on.
Should be: Vandals
Boise State University Broncos
Again, why go with a tame animal when you could be…
Should be: Elk. Wapiti works too.
Could be: Militia
University of Illinois, Champaign Fighting Illini
Again with the Native names. What still remains of the Illinois Confederation calls itself the Peoria Tribe and lives in Oklahoma. Time to change.
Should be: Reapers
University of Illinois, Chicago Flames
I like the history. A little skeptical, considering it was a disaster for the city, but most nicknames center around destruction, so…
Should be: Flames
University of Indiana Hoosiers
Apparently this is an old word for redneck. And even if you note that most people don’t think of it that way anymore, it more or less means The Indiana Indianans.
Should be: I don’t know what Indiana has going for it. Deer? Corn? There’s the Indiana Bat. Let’s go with the Bats. But I’m open to suggestions.
Back in the old days it took considerable skill and strength to make a functioning industrial boiler. And Purdue is an engineering school. I like this.
Should be: Boilermakers
University of Iowa Hawkeyes
The logo is a bird, and yet the name comes from newspapers that were themselves named after the Sauk leader Black Hawk. All pretty convoluted. And if you think that Black Hawk won his war, you don’t know much American history.
Should be: Hail
Iowa State University Cyclones
Should be: Cyclones
Could be: Caucuses, Pesticide, Monoculture
University of Kansas Jayhawks
I was going to make fun of this for not being a real bird, but then I found that it comes from insurgents in the messy pre-Civil War struggle against slavery. Also the whole Rock Chalk Jayhawk thing is fantastic. And the Jayhawks were a great, great band. So we’ll go with it.
Should be: Jayhawks.
Kansas State University Wildcats
No wildcats for anyone.
Should be: Meadowlarks. A beautiful, musical bird with a fine sporting heritage.
Could be: Horizon. I’ve driven Kansas.
University of Kentucky Wildcats
Should be: Miners
University of Louisville Cardinals
As noted in the Birdist link (above), this is the state bird of way too many states. Works okay here though.
Should be: Cardinals, I suppose.
Louisiana State University Tigers
So many Tigers and Wildcats, but hardly any Lions.
Should be: Hurricanes
University of Louisiana, Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
Should be: Herons
Could be: Gators, Flood, Pelicans
University of Maine, Orono Black Bears
A great American animal that should get more attention. They’re all over the country, but we’ll let this stick as Ursus americanus goes strangely unused elsewhere.
Should be: Black Bears
University of Southern Maine Huskies
Should be: Puffins
Could be: Lobsters, Loggers, Loons
University of Maryland Terrapins
Not only original and place-appropriate, the Terrapins have given us one of the great slogans in college sports. Fear the Turtle.
Should be: Terrapins.
Towson University Tigers
Again, Tigers are right out.
Should be: Crabs
University of Massachusetts Minutemen
A nice choice.
Should be: Minutemen
UMass Lowell River Hawks
Presumably these are ospreys, which live just about everywhere. But, like black bears, they don’t get much play, so this is fine.
Should be: Ospreys. Why not use the real name?
Could be: Athenians, Whalers, Blight
University of Michigan Wolverines
All but extinct in Michigan. But they can keep Wolverines – it’s an awesome creature – on the condition that Michigan fosters its wolverine population.
Should be: Wolverines
Michigan State University Spartans
Again, why go with the anti-intellectual side of the Peloponnesian War?
Should be: Drive
University of Minnesota Golden Gophers
This is the silliest nickname in Division One. I love it almost as much as the Vandals. I’m not looking up the story behind Golden Gophers, just the fact that it is exists is wonderful enough.
Should be: Golden Gophers, by Dr. Seuss
St Cloud State University Huskies
Huskies are adorable dogs and pull sleds fast, but why them and not the Wolves? Minnesota is the only state in the Lower 48 where wolves were never extirpated.
Should be: Wolves
Could be: Blizzard, Hot Dish, Nice
“Ol’ Miss” Rebels
“Rebels” is a pretty horrifying pick for a school best known, nationwide, for its fight to deny admission to black students. Until just recently, the Colonel Reb mascot was an extremely antebellum-looking man who, if he was a real person, would have probably owned slaves.
To those who imagine that the war was about states’ rights…the right those states rebelled to protect was the right to enslave other people.
Ol’ Miss has halfheartedly tried to change it, and Colonel Reb is now a bear…and yet they’re not calling the teams the Bears. What could the bear be rebelling against? Tupelo honey prices?
All this aside, Ole Miss used to be called the Flood, which would be perfect.
Should be: Flood
Mississippi State University Bulldogs
Should be: Kites
University of Missouri Tigers
Should be: Explorers. Lewis and Clark, and many others, started their expedition in Missouri.
Missouri State University Bears and Lady Bears
Let me take a moment to say that “Lady Bears,” just like Lady Vols, is pretty sexist.
Should be: Ozark Hellbenders. Check them out.
Montana Grizzlies/Lady Grizz
Aside from the Lady thing this is perfect.
Should be: Grizzlies. Just the Grizzlies.
Montana State University Wildcats
Should be: Trout
Could be: Glaciers, Antelope, Trumpeter Swans
University of Nebraska, Lincoln Cornhuskers
I’ve husked some corn myself. It’s not that hard.
Should be: Blizzard
University of Nebraska, Omaha Mavericks
This is a calf, and also what politicians like to call themselves to defend their rudeness after they say inappropriate things.
Should be: Prairie Falcons
University of Nevada, Las Vegas Running Rebels
There’s a long story here, but suffice it to say that the Running Rebel shares the same racist roots as Ol’ Miss’s Ol’ Bigot. Also it has almost nothing to do with Nevada.
Should be: Gamblers
University of Nevada, Reno Wolfpack
There are no wolves in Nevada.
Could be: Heat, Gangsters, Loan Sharks, Desperation, $3.99 Steaks, Drought, Miners
University of New Hampshire Wildcats
My home state. Sigh.
Should be: Granite
Plymouth State University Panthers
There are no panthers of any kind anywhere near New Hampshire.
Should be: Porcupines
Could be: Old Men, Libertarians, Curmudgeons, Primaries, Exposure
Rutgers University Scarlet Knights
What is this, even? Scarlet Knight sounds like a term for a weaponized virus.
Should be: Devils
Montclair State University Red Hawks
Red-tailed Hawks? Red-shouldered Hawks? Fine either way.
Should be: Red Hawks, I suppose.
Could be: Sewage, Warblers, Traffic, Toll Plazas
University of New Mexico Lobos
They reintroduced Mexican Wolves there! They’re not doing that well, but hey, neither are UNM’s teams. Let us honor the effort.
Should be: Lobos
New Mexico State University Aggies
Why not call them Farmers instead of Aggies?
Should be: Falcons. In the US, Aplomado Falcons are only found in New Mexico and West Texas
University of Buffalo Bulls
Should be: Buffalos. I would root for the Buffalo Buffalos.
Stony Brook Seawolves
Those awesome Alaskan wolves don’t swim to Long Island.
Should be: Dogfish
I find it strange that New York doesn’t have any college sports to speak of other than Syracuse and its Orangemen.
University of North Carolina Tarheels
This is from the days when North Carolinians first set about turning their forests into naval products like tar, and the workers would get their heels dirty. While I’m an environmentalist, this seems fine. On a related note, you should read Serena.
Should be: Tarheels
North Carolina State University Wolfpack
They’ve reintroduced red wolves in North Carolina. Until the program folds (soon, I expect) I support this name.
Should be: Wolfpack
University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks
They used to be the Fighting Sioux, but that prompted a lot of Fighting People, as you can guess, and now they’re the Fighting Hawks. Dull. Especially when you consider how before that, they were the Flickertails, a ground squirrel that lives in North Dakota. Why not return to their roots?
Should be: Flickertails
North Dakota State University Bison
Should be: Bison
The Ohio State University Buckeyes
There are indeed lots of buckeye trees in Ohio. And the desserts are delicious.
Should be: Buckeyes
University of Cincinnati Bearcats
Not a real animal. Not even a mythical animal. It comes from when they were playing Kentucky and had a good player named Baehr.
Should be: Legion. Cincinnatus was the Roman general who won his war and then returned to his farm instead of making himself a dictator. And if you wanted to have a mascot that symbolized winning, the Romans are the best classical choice you could make.
University of Oklahoma Sooners
So, Oklahoma was the last remnant of Indian Country, but of course that didn’t last too long, and the “Sooners” were the people who swarmed into the Unassigned Lands (as they were called) before they were legally allowed to be there. So really, the name memorializes some of the worst themes in American history.
Should be: Swallowtail Flycatchers
Oklahoma State University Cowboys
Ideal. A model for other states.
Should be: Cowboys
Could be: Dust.
University of Oregon Ducks
There’s a convoluted story behind this, one that starts with some revolutionary war heroes and ends with feathers on shoulder pads. Regardless, I like the distinctiveness of the Ducks.
Should be: Ducks
Oregon State University Beavers
Again, it’s nice to see something different.
Should be: Beavers
Could be: Rain, Volcanoes, Rogues, Steelhead, Artisans
Pennsylvania State University Nittany Lions
This is what the local mountain lions were called, back when there were mountain lions in Pennsylvania. That time is not now.
Should be: Rebels, actually. In this case honoring Pennsylvania’s proud contribution to our nation’s independence.
Temple University Owls
Should be: Owls
University of Rhode Island Rams
Should be: Weasels. Small but ferocious.
Rhode Island College Anchormen
Understandable, with Rhode Island’s maritime tradition, but I can only imagine how the college president felt when the Will Ferrell movie came out.
Should be: Anchormen. Just ride it out.
University of South Carolina Gamecocks
My taxes go to support this mascot, which honors an illegal form of animal abuse.
Should be: Wood Ducks
Again, I’ve never seen a tiger here.
Should be: Copperheads
University of South Dakota Coyotes
Pretty good. They’re nationwide (now), but some school should have them, and who better than South Dakota?
Should be: Coyotes
South Dakota State University Jackrabbits
I love this. Makes for a natural rivalry with USD.
Should be: Jackrabbits
Could be: Black-Footed Ferrets
University of Tennessee Volunteers
Lots of Tennesseans were so eager to get out of Tennessee that they volunteered to fight in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Respect for their courage. Disrespect for the nakedly imperialistic Mexican War.
Should be: Volunteers
Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders
The mascot is a horse, supposedly the one ridden by Nathan Bedford Forrest. He’s best known as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Sounds like a change is in order!
Should be: Twang. I love country music.
University of Texas Longhorns
An animal intended to be castrated, slaughtered, and eaten.
Should be: Armadillos
Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University Aggies
Full disclosure: this is the team I want to win the National Championship in football. But I do not quite understand what an Aggie actually is, as noted above. A farmer? A student at an Ag school? A paramilitary officer?
Should be: Whooping Cranes. TAMU does great wildlife work, and Texas’ avifauna is the richest in the country.
University of Utah Utes
Utah’s striven to do things right with regard to their nickname. They’ve partnered with the Ute tribe. They got rid of the supplementary Redskin nickname. The women’s teams are no longer the Lady Utes. And yet, as with FSU, I doubt that all 31,515 students live up to these noble institutional gestures. Best to keep the strong relationship with the Ute Tribe and call the teams something else.
Should be: Gulls. A flock of gulls arose and ate the grasshoppers that were eating Mormon settlers’ crops, saving them from ruin and altering the history of the American West. True story.
Utah State University Aggies
Should be: Hoodoos.
Could be: Drought, Canyons, Archers
University of Vermont Catamounts
Another word for mountain lion, another state that doesn’t have any.
Could be: Champs. This is the name of the Loch Ness-style creature in Lake Champlain. The aptness of this name for sporting teams overrules its not being a real animal.
Castelton University Spartans
Vermont is admittedly a Spartan sort of place. Also, I hadn’t ever heard of this place despite living in Vermont part of the year.
Should be: Frost
University of Virginia Cavaliers
Historic, relevant, unique. The Cavaliers weren’t nice people, but they made Virginia.
Should be: Cavaliers
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Hokies
This is a made-up word from a cheer. Then they called their teams gobblers, because athletes gobbled up their food, and then someone found a turkey that would gobble on command, and now here we are.
Should be: Hokies. It’s come together enjoyably, and turkeys are a great American bird that some school should use.
University of Washington Huskies
Only one school gets “Huskies,” which is a poor name to begin with.
Should be: Chinook. Salmon that can weigh a hundred pounds! Come on.
Washington State University Cougars
Full disclosure: my dad went there and so I root for them. And no-one else is the cougars except UVM and Penn State, kind of, and neither of those have living cougars around.
Should be: Cougars. Fair enough.
Could be: Orcas, Rain, Olympians
West Virginia University Mountaineers
These isn’t a Mount Everest type of mountaineer. These mountaineers are the rugged people who lived in West Virginia’s mountains. The mascot looks like Daniel Boone and Hugh Glass had a baby. I like it.
Should be: Mountainers
Marshall University Thundering Herd
The herd is of bison, and comes from a Western movie that some people liked. Really. Before that it was the Indians, and for a while there was the idea of Booger Cats, and Big Green, and yikes, Marshall’s nickname history is just horrid.
Should be: Rapids. There’s a lot of whitewater in West Virginia.
University of Wisconsin Badgers
Tremendous. I’m impressed by the way that Upper Midwest schools picked original mascots.
Should be: Badgers.
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Panthers
There are no panthers in Wisconsin or anywhere else in America.
Should be: Muskies. Muskellunge are an awesome Great Lakes fish.
Could be: Budget Slashers, Cheeseheads, Yellow Beer.
University of Wyoming Cowboys
A good choice, but it’s already taken by Oklahoma State. And Wyoming has LOTS of other options.
Should be: Geysers
Could be: Bears, Wolves, Elk, Wolverines
And that’s it. There’s only one four-year public school in Wyoming.
I hope that our nation’s university presidents pay attention to this advice.