The NCAA tournament often provides a great display of basketball competition, sure. Better yet, it's an eye-opening parade of both entertaining and obscure team mascots.
The Saint Mary’s College Gaels, who take on the Baylor Bears Friday night at Reliant Stadium, illustrate just some of this annual mascot madness.
Each year, Wildcats, Tigers, and Cougars abound. And each year, I grow tired of the hackneyed team names.
When it comes to big cats, give me the University of Vermont’s Catamounts any day.
While Northern Iowa busted most everybody’s bracket this year, usually somebody wins the office pool by picking teams on the basis of the mascots alone. Those who liked the sound of the Old Dominion Monarchs would have been in luck on day one of the tournament this year for instance.
Not all of the following teams made this year’s 65-team tournament, and some might not ever make it to the Final Four. In the spirit of March Madness, however, these mascots deserve to be celebrated.
Most Impressive Array of Mascots by a State University System: The University of California. The UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, the UC Irvine Anteaters and the UC San Francisco Dons, all wonderfully complement the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs.
Mascot Most Likely to Scare Small Children: The Purdue Boilermaker. Apparently this mug was causing quite a fright in West Lafayette, Indiana. We’ll see if it gives the Blue Devils from Duke a scare this weekend.
Best Mascot In Lieu of Being the Bookworms: Baylor University Bears. According to Baylor’s mascot page, during a close vote in 1914, the Bear edged out a buffalo, an eagle, and an antelope, and that reputably fierce bookworm. Baylor supporters should say a prayer of thanks, not only for getting past Sam Houston State, but also for that fateful student vote in Waco.
Most Outdated Mascot: The Manhattan Jaspers. The Jaspers were named after Brother Jasper, a Christian clergyman from the 1880s who brought sports to the college. My father, who went to rival Fordham University in the Bronx, recollected that the most effective chant the Fordham student section had to shut up the Manhattan students was “What the hell is a Jasper?”
Apart from the lengthy historical explanations shouted across the court, Manhattan students had nothing.
Most Intellectually Informed Mascot: The Rice Owls. The Owls of Athena inform Rice’s mascot, representing wisdom. How many mascots, however, “were patterned after a design found on a small, silver tetradrachmenon coin dating from the middle of the fifth century B.C.”? I’m guessing one.
Most Incongrous Mascot Pairing: The Akron Zips. Akron, Ohio was once the rubber capital of the world. When looking for a mascot name, the university gravitated toward the name the “Zippers,” which was the name of a rubber shoe company in Akron. This was in hopes of strengthening the university’s ties to the local community. When zippers started replacing the button fly on jeans, however, the university shortened the name to the “Zips,” and then oddly made the official mascot a quick-footed Kangaroo.
Least Innovative Mascot: The Gonzaga Zags. Boringzzzzzzzzz.
Most Creative Name for Having a Chicken as a Mascot: Trinity College (Connecticut) Bantams. Runner-ups include the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Delaware Fighting Blue Hens.
Most Oxymoronic Mascot: The University of Pennsylvania Fighting Quakers.
Most Likely to Confound a Meteorologist Mascot: The Tulsa Golden Hurricane. According to the University of Tulsa, when in 1922 the team looked for a new name, the more apropos “Tornadoes” was already taken.
Best Alternative Mascot to Official School Mascot: The Long Beach State “Dirtbags.” All Long Beach State teams officially are the 49ers, but the baseball team goes by the “Dirtbags.” The Wichita State Shockers, who have a doozy of a mascot themselves, lost to Long Beach State this month producing one of the best sports headlines of the year, “ Shocks fall to Dirtbags 7-4.”
Mascots Gone Wild
Bitter rivalries on the field or court often spill over to the sidelines. When mascots mix it up though, it’s usually not a pleasant sight. During a recent Oregon-Univeristy of Houston football game in Eugene, tensions escalated to the point the two mascots had to be separated, but not after the Duck pummeled our poor Cougar over and over again.
I was privy to one particularly grueling mascot grudge match at Syracuse University back in the 1990s. Jeff Sommar, a student, was the “self-appointed mascot of the fans (and not Syracuse University).” Sommar single-handedly led the home crowds' cheers during each game at the Carrier Dome. Known as The Wig Guy for his multi-colored headgear, Sommar’s popularity, as evidenced by his crowd-surfing antics, started to rub Otto the Orange the wrong way.
During a nationally televised game against Georgetown, what Sommar characterized as a “playful hip check” on the court turned into a multi-colored melee between mascots. Both landed a few punches, and after Sommar yanked “the citrus over Otto’s leg,” taking him to the ground, security jumped in and broke it up. Sommar was thrown out of the Carrier Dome, and Otto did not return for the remainder of the game.
More Mascot Controversy
I’m disappointed that Ole Miss didn’t make it in to the Big Dance this year. I wanted read more about what has to be the one of the most peculiar stories of the past month. While a wave of tuition increases on many university campuses drove thousands of college students to the streets to protest, at Ole Miss another movement was afoot.
Recently, the university jettisoned its old, and rather controversial mascot, Colonel Red. To many, the mustached, southern colonel harkened back to the Antebellum South, and with confederate flags flapping in the wind, cheers for the “rebels” took on a different meaning. The search for a new mascot began, and an intrepid group of students decided that the best mascot replacement would be none other than the trap-suspecting Admiral Akbar of Return of the Jedi fame.
A website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account notwithstanding, it looks as if the odds are slim that Akbar will lead the Ole Miss student body in the near future — or from a galaxy far, far away.
Yet disputes over mascots are nothing new. Over the past several decades, many universities changed from their Native American mascots to less controversial symbols. To underscore the offensive nature of Native American mascots, in 2002 a group of students at the University of Northern Colorado (including some with Native American ancestry) made national news when they formed an intramural basketball team called “The Fighting Whities.”
When a 2005 NCAA rule compelled universities to cease using depictions of Native Americans that were “hostile or abusive,” even more schools moved away from controversial images of Native Americans.
This 2005 NCAA ruling that “banned the use of American Indian mascots by sports teams during its postseason tournaments,” did not “prohibit them otherwise.”
Thus, some schools like Florida State University successfully appealed the ruling and maintained their mascot. The NCAA justified its exception for Florida State when it “noted the unique relationship between the university and the Seminole Tribe of Florida as a significant factor.”
More recently, the College of William and Mary, which lost to North Carolina in the first round of the NIT tournament, also lost the two feathers from its “Tribe” mascot. The school is currently in the process of renaming its mascot, and the vetting has produced the following choices for William and Mary students: The Pug, The King and Queen, The Griffin, Tthe Phoenix, and The Wren.
I say “Go Wrens!”
So it appears that the University of Houston took a rather safe course of action when it selected the Cougar back in 1927. Back then, newly-arrived head football coach John Bender, who had worked at Washington State University prior to coming to Houston, suggested the school newspaper use the Washington State mascot — a cougar.
Bender convinced the students of the merits of the mascot, and the rest is history. The best kind of history — mascot lore.