The history of the unique nicknames throughout college football
The SEC is hit or miss as far as nicknames are concerned.
There are three Tigers, two Bulldogs and a Wildcat in the 14-team conference, but there are also five schools with nicknames unique to the Division I football: Alabama (Crimson Tide), Arkansas (Razorbacks), Florida (Gators), Tennessee (Volunteers) and Vanderbilt (Commodores).
Because these nicknames are so unique, we thought it might be interesting to look into the origins of all six names.
Crimson Tide: In the early 20th century, newspaper accounts of Alabama football games referred to the team as the “Crimson White” (the school colors) or simply the “varsity.” The team’s first popular nickname, “Thin Red Line,” was introduced in 1906, and one year later the name Crimson Tide was introduced by Hugh Roberts, then the sports editor of the Birmingham Age-Herald. He used “Crimson Tide” to describe a showdown between Alabama and Auburn in which Alabama managed to tie heavily favored Auburn 6-6 in what was regarded as “a sea of mud.” The nickname stuck, and former Birmingham News sports editor Zipp Newman is the man credited with helping the name last more than 100 years, most of which as the team’s official nickname
Razorbacks: Arkansas’ nickname was originally the Cardinals, but students voted to change the name to Razorbacks in 1910 after Arkansas defeated LSU in a hard fought showdown that inspired then-Arkansas coach Hugo Bezdek to say his team played like a “wild band of Razorback hogs.”
Gators: No one knows for certain where the nickname Gators came from, but there are two popular theories. The first theory is a bit bland: The state of Florida is home for a number of alligators, and their prevalence throughout the state inspired the nickname. The other theory suggests the name was inspired by a local Gainesville merchant who was selling school pennants with Gator emblems on them, thus causing the school to adopt the nickname.
Volunteers: The state of Tennessee is known as the “Volunteer State” for the number of volunteer soldiers it produced during the War of 1812 and the Mexican War regarding the U.S.’s attempted annexation of Texas. The University of Tennessee adopted the nickname to more appropriately represent its home state in athletic competition.
Commodores: Vanderbilt gets its nickname from Cornelius Vanderbilt, the university’s namesake and a business titan involved in railroads and shipping. A commodore was the commanding officer of a task force of ships, and that was actually the highest naval rank attainable before the Civil War. Because Vanderbilt was so prominent in the shipping industry, he earned the nickname Commodore, and nowadays the teams from his university are named the Commodores in his honor.
And if you thought those names were unique, check out some of the other wacky and bizarre names from throughout Division I football:
Purdue Boilermakers: Purdue has an illustrious engineering history, especially as it pertained to railroads in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As legend has it, in the early days of Purdue football rumors swirled that the team had signed on big, strong boilermakers from the Monon Railroad in Lafayette, Indiana, in order to beef up and otherwise scrawny team. From that, the nickname Boilermakers was derived.
Ohio State Buckeyes: Much like Tennessee and its state nickname, Ohio State gets its nickname from the state of Ohio’s reputation as the Buckeye State due to the prevalence of buckeye trees throughout the state. It’s been reported Ohioans have been referring to themselves as Buckeyes as far back as 1840.
Central Michigan Chippewas: The Chippewas, better known as the Chips, are named for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, located not far from the CMU campus in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. The university and the tribe have a healthy, thriving relationship, and the Chippewas don their nickname with the tribe’s consent. In 2005, the NCAA placed CMU on its list of schools with “hostile or abusive” nicknames, but the university won its appeal with the help and support of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers: Simply put, Western Kentucky is nicknamed the Hilltoppers because the university’s campus sits atop a hill. Go figure. The mascot is named Big Red, and he’s more or less an amorphous red blob resembling a red version of Grimace (Ronald McDonald’s blobby purple friend). Still, the friendly, energetic red mound is meant to represent the spirit of WKU students past and present, so one could simply argue there’s too much spirit for the mascot to take any one shape.
Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns: In the mind of this writer, this is the single best nickname in all of Division I athletics. It’s fun to say, and it’s amusing to picture. Prior to the 1960s, the university, formerly known as the University of Southwestern Louisiana, was known as the Bulldogs. In 1963, then-football coach Russ Faulkinberry changed the name to Ragin’ Cajuns as a tribute to the school’s location as well as the demeanor of his players. By the 1970s the name had become entrenched in the local community, and after it was used in the football team’s 1974 media guide it was made official by the university.