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Behind the Mascot: 8 Great Stories About Strangely Named Teams

Your favorite sports team or alma mater's mascot is probably some sort of big cat or bird of prey, and that's fine. Your tattoo is right; the Tigers totally rule. However, there are quite a few more esoteric mascot choices out there, like a color of a certain disposition or a set of punctuation marks, all of which can still cause fans to well up with pride. Here are the origins of some of our favorites from this arcane set:

1. University of North Carolina Tar Heels' Rameses the Ram

A quick trip to Chapel Hill will reveal lots of great bars and live music venues but surprisingly few wild rams walking Franklin Street. So why is the school's mascot a ram? In 1924 cheerleader Vic Huggins decided the school needed a symbol. The stellar football team of 1922 had been led by the punishing running play of Jack "The Battering Ram" Merritt, so Huggins decided that a live ram would be the perfect mascot. Huggins had Rameses shipped in from Texas for $25, and when the Tar Heels beat heavily favored VMI in Rameses' first appearance, the ram became something of an institution. Perhaps the least believable part of this entire story is that it involves Carolina winning a major football game, but records show it's entirely true. [Image courtesy of UNC.edu.]

2. Philadelphia Phillies' Phillie Phanatic

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In the late 1970s the Phillies' mascots were two 18th-century siblings named Philadelphia Phil and Philadelphia Phyllis, but the duo did little to attract families wary of Veterans' Stadium rough-and-tumble image. In an effort to find a more family-friendly mascot, team officials commissioned design firm Harrison/Erickson, who also designed Muppets and the Montreal Expos' beloved Youppi!, to craft a gentler symbol for the team. Thus, in 1978 six feet of green fur, curled tongue, and gyrating belly were born to signify the rabid passion of Philly's fans without drawing attention to the more beer-soaked aspects of the Vet.

The Phanatic has since become one of baseball's most popular mascots, but since this is a Philly sports story it can't have a totally happy ending. Former team vice president and current part owner Bill Giles wrote in his autobiography that he made a key blunder when commissioning the design. Given the option of buying the Phanatic costume alone for $3900 or the costume and its copyright for $5200, Giles didn't shell out the extra $1300. This decision turned out to be an expensive mistake: five years later Giles and a group of investors bought the team and eventually purchased the copyright from Harrison/Erickson for $250,000. [Image courtesy of silverscreentest.com.]

3. Oakland A's Stomper the Elephant

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Benjamin Shibe, who is credited with inventing the machinery to mass-produce standardized baseballs, owned the then-Philadelphia Athletics from their inception in 1901. In the early days of the franchise, New York Giants manager John "Muggsy" McGraw derisively said that Shibe had a white elephant on his hands since the Athletics couldn't compete with the existing Phillies of the National League.

Instead of shying away from the taunt, legendary Athletics manager Connie Mack embraced the white elephant nickname, even going so far as to give his old friend McGraw a stuffed elephant when the Athletics met McGraw's Giants in the 1905 World Series. Although eccentric owner Charlie Finley replaced the elephant with a live Missouri mule named after himself in 1963, the elephant mascot was restored in 1988, and Stomper debuted in 1997. With his high OBP and the great defensive range factor he gets from his trunk, Stomper is surely a favorite of current A's general manager Billy Beane. [Image courtesy of PhiladelphiaAthletics.org.]

4. University of North Texas Mean Green

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It takes a special player to get his number retired by his alma mater, but only a real legend's nickname becomes his school's mascot. The vicious play of football star "Mean" Joe Greene, perhaps best known to many casual fans for winning Super Bowls and bumming a Coke off a kid in a commercial, may have given rise to the school's current moniker after years of playing with a less-than-inspired green Eagles mascot. According to one story touted by the university, Sidney Sue Graham, the wife of sports information director Fred Graham, called Greene "mean" following a brutal tackle during his late-1960's career at the school. She then began calling the entire smothering defensive unit the "Mean Green," and although Graham initially dismissed his wife's newly coined phrase, he eventually used it in a press release that caught on with reporters. [Image courtesy of UNT.edu.]

5. New College of Florida [ ]

That's not a typo. The New College of Florida's unofficial student mascot is actually the null set. After hearing rumors of this unique mascot but not being able to find any hard evidence on it, I placed a call to the school's Office of Public Affairs, where the very friendly staffer informed me that while the 746-undergraduate college founded in 1960 doesn't officially have a mascot, it's fair to say that students adopted the null set early in the school's history as a sly wink to its lack of athletic teams. Although the school now fields competitive teams in sailing, ultimate Frisbee, and soccer, the [ ] still seems almost as clever; one can't afford to be all that picky when searching for a mascot based on set theory.

6. Georgia Tech's Ramblin' Wreck

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College sports fans know that Georgia Tech's mascot is the Yellow Jacket, a tradition that dates back to at least 1905. However, anyone who's been to a home football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field in Atlanta has also seen the official mascot of the student body, a 1930 Ford Model A Sports Coupe known as the Ramblin' Wreck. The phrase "ramblin' wreck" dates back to at least the 1890's as part of the school's fight song and may have stemmed from a description of the entire student body traveling from Athens to Atlanta to watch a football game against the University of Georgia.

According to the school paper The Technique, the application of the term "ramblin' wreck" to cars first occurred in the early 20th century to describe makeshift vehicles built by Georgia Tech engineers during projects in the South American jungle. By 1927 the 1914 Ford of Dean of Men Floyd Field had taken on iconic status as a Ramblin' Wreck.

The current Wreck was purchased in 1961 by Dean of Students Jim Dull, who found the Wreck parked near his apartment building. This new Ramblin' Wreck led the Yellowjackets onto the field for their home game against Rice on September 30, 1961 and has done so for every home game since. [Image courtesy of GaTech.edu.]

7. Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons' Guy Made of Pistons

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Technically, this one is the logo, not the mascot, of the Detroit Pistons forerunner that played in Fort Wayne, Indiana from 1941 to 1957, and I can't find an official name for him. But really, your life is better for having gazed upon him. The team was originally owned by industrialist Fred Zollner, who also owned a large foundry that made automotive pistons, hence the team name. To that extent, the Pistons nickname and the logo make sense. Upon closer scrutiny, though, the logo raises a host of questions: what sort of terrible foundry accident created this piston monster? Why did it spare only his hands and feet? Could he beat the Tin Man in a game of one-on-one? Why is he happily dribbling that ball rather than using science to repair his missing body? We'll never know; since 1996 the Pistons' mascot has been Hooper, a black horse. Because, you know, pistons create horsepower. Even a guy whose entire head is a piston could probably come up with pun that's a little less forced. [Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

8. The University of Akron Zips' Zippy the Kangaroo

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If you saw Zippy win the 2007 Capital One National Mascot of the Year award, you probably wondered why Akron had the gloriously befuddling combination of the Zips nickname and a kangaroo mascot. Surely there was some internal logic there, right? Not at all, which makes Zippy all the more intriguing.

After a campus-wide contest to name the school's athletic teams in 1925, freshman Margaret Hamlin won ten dollars for her suggestion of "Zippers" after a popular rubber overshoe of the same name made by local company B.F. Goodrich. The nickname remained the Zippers until 1950, when it was shortened to the Zips.

As for Zippy the kangaroo, she became the mascot in 1953 after student council advisor Dick Hansford recommended the idea. According to school's website, Hansford proposed the idea because he enjoyed a contemporary comic strip featuring Kicky the Fighting Kangaroo. This combination of combining the name of a popular rubber shoe and a popular cartoon character deserves more exposure; we can only hope that somewhere out there a fledgling college is naming its teams the Crocs, complete with dancing Marmaduke mascot. [Image courtesy of ChippewaGolfClub.com.]

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Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys. His last contribution to mental_floss explored strange college bowl game sponsorships.

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
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On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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#TBT
Thin Ice: The Bizarre Boxing Career of Tonya Harding
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Al Bello/Getty Images

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.

Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.

Tonya Harding rises from the canvas during a boxing match
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Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.

When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”

Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.

Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.

Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.

Tonya Harding signs head shots on a table
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There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.

In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.

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