How the SEC Schools Got Their Nicknames
Top-ranked Alabama visits Arkansas on Saturday for a heated Southeastern Conference football battle between two schools with a couple of the more unique nicknames in college sports—Crimson Tide and Razorbacks. Here are the origins of the nicknames for all 12 teams in the conference, including Commodores, Volunteers, and pairs of Bulldogs and Tigers.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Hugh Roberts, sports editor for the Birmingham Age-Herald, is widely credited as being the first to use "Crimson Tide" to refer to Alabama's football team. Roberts used the term to describe crimson-and-white-clad Alabama's surprising performance during a rain-soaked 6-6 tie with heavily favored Auburn in 1907. Henry "Zipp" Newman, who became the sports editor of the Birmingham News at the age of 25, helped popularize the nickname. Sportswriters are also to thank for the elephant that serves as Alabama's mascot. The elephant reference dates back to the school's 10-0 season in 1930, when sportswriters began referring to Alabama head coach Wallace Wade's hulking linemen as the Red Elephants.
Arkansas's athletic teams weren't always known as the Razorbacks. From 1894 until 1910, the football team was known as the Cardinals, a reference to the deep shade of red that the student body voted the school's official color—over heliotrope—in 1895. Upon returning to Little Rock after Arkansas's 1909 team capped off an undefeated season with a 1609 win at rival LSU, head coach Hugo Bezdek announced to the crowd of cheering students that his team had played "like a wild band of Razorback hogs." The Razorback, a wild boar known for its fighting ability, was adopted as the school's mascot the following year. "Wooo, Pig, Sooie" was incorporated as the school yell, or "Hog Call," during the 1920s, while the Razorbacks debuted a live mascot in the 1960s.
According to Auburn's website, the school traces its name and its nickname to a 1770 Oliver Goldsmith poem, which includes the line, "where crouching tigers await their hapless prey." Newspapers occasionally referred to Auburn's athletic teams as the Plainsmen, another nod to the poem, but after Auburn shut out rival Alabama in 1901, the Birmingham News headline read, "A Tiger Claws Alabama." The Tigers nickname stuck, and while it may be plain, Auburn's battle cry is not. There are several accounts of how the school's "War Eagle" cry began, but at least one dates back to a 10-0 win over Georgia in 1892. According to legend, a Civil War veteran stood in the crowd that day with an eagle he had rescued from the battlefield some 30 years earlier. The eagle broke free and soared around the stadium until the end of the game, when it crashed to the turf and died. The eagle had given its all for the Orange and Blue. Today, Auburn home games at Jordan-Hare Stadium are preceded by an open-air flight by a live eagle.
In 1911, Florida's student monthly, The Pennant, nicknamed Everglades native and UF center Neal Storter "Bo Gator." According to The Pennant, the Alligator nickname was extended to the whole team during Florida's trip to South Carolina that same year. Florida would finish undefeated that season and a local vendor ordered banners that featured and alligator. The nickname stuck.
When Herman J. Stegeman took over as head coach in 1920, Georgia's football team, which had previously been referred to as the Red and Black, became known as the Wildcats. Atlanta Journal sportswriter Morgan Blake took issue with the unoriginal moniker, pointing out that it was already shared by at least two other teams in the south—Kentucky State and Davidson. "I had hoped that Georgia would adopt some original nickname that would stand out," Blake wrote. "...The 'Georgia Bulldogs' would sound good, because there is a certain dignity about a bulldog as well as ferocity, and the name is not common as 'Wildcats' and 'Tigers.' Yale is about the only team I recall right now that has the name." One week after Blake's story ran, Cliff Wheatley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution referred to Georgia as the Bulldogs several times in his recap of the team's tie at Virginia. The new nickname quickly caught on.
According to the school website, Kentucky's athletic teams acquired the nicknamed Wildcats shortly after the football team scored a 6-2 victory at Illinois in 1909. Commandant Carbusier, who was head of the military department at what was then known as State University, told a group of students in a chapel service after the game that Kentucky's players had "fought like Wildcats." The nickname caught on with the media and was soon officially adopted by the school, which became known as the University of Kentucky in 1916.
By most accounts, LSU took its nickname back in 1896 during a perfect 6-0 season under the leadership of coach A.W. Jeardeau. While Tigers was a popular nickname at the time, the moniker carried additional meaning for LSU, tracing its roots to the Civil War. The nickname was reportedly derived from a group of Confederate soldiers from New Orleans known as the Tiger Rifles, and was eventually applied to all of the Louisiana troops in General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. LSU's first logo—a snarling tiger head—was borrowed from the Washington Artillery militia unit in New Orleans.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State University was originally founded as Mississippi A&M and its teams were known as the Aggies. When the school became Mississippi State College in 1932, Maroons was adopted as the new nickname, a reference to the color of the school's athletic teams' uniforms. It wasn't until 1961 that Bulldogs was recognized as the official mascot. The nickname had been used interchangeably with Aggies and Maroons as early as 1905. After A&M shut out rival Mississippi that season, students staged a funeral march to mourn Mississippi's dead athletic spirit. The campus newspaper reported that the procession featured a coffin with a bulldog on top. A live bulldog named Ptolemy, which was picked out by head coach Major Ralph Sasse, first appeared on the sidelines in 1935. A litter-mate of Ptolemy became the first in a long line of bulldogs named Bully to represent the school after Sasse's team upset Army 13-7 later that season.
Ole Miss Rebels
The University of Mississippi's teams were originally known as The Flood. In 1936, the editor of the school's student newspaper proposed a contest to select a new name and Rebels was the most popular choice among five finalists. An illustration of Colonel Reb, the Rebels' controversial mascot, first appeared in the school yearbook a few years later. School officials retired Colonel Reb, a caricature of an antebellum Southern plantation owner, as an on-field mascot in 2003, responding to complaints of racial insensitivity. (Ole Miss historian David Sansing says that Colonel Reb may have been modeled after a black man, Blind Jim Ivy, who was a regular at campus sporting events until his death in 1955.) The school banned the sale of all merchandise featuring Colonel Reb's likeness this summer, and while supporters of the original mascot are petitioning to revive him, a student mascot committee is working to select a replacement. A suggestion made in jest, Admiral Ackbar, the leader of the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars VI, garnered so much support that it was featured in an ESPN commercial.
South Carolina Gamecocks
According to USC's website, the Gamecock nickname was adopted in 1902 after South Carolina upset Clemson, 12-6. USC students paraded through the streets carrying a transparency that depicted a gamecock standing over a fallen tiger. The transparency, which had been displayed in a storefront window, was reportedly drawn by USC professor F. Horton Colcock and prompted an angry response from the Clemson Cadets. The gamecock symbol on the transparency was likely derived from the nickname bestowed upon General Thomas Sumter, a South Carolina hero during the American Revolution. Sumter was often called the Carolina Game Cock for his fierce fighting tactics. In 1903, South Carolina's newspaper, The State, shortened the nickname to one word and began referring to USC's athletic teams as the Gamecocks.
Like several schools, the University of Tennessee's athletic teams share a nickname with their home state. Tennessee became known as the Volunteer State during the War of 1812, when General Andrew Jackson received an outpouring of support from volunteer soldiers in Tennessee to fight in the Battle of New Orleans. This reputation was solidified during the Mexican War, when 30,000 Tennessee residents volunteered to battle Santa Ana.
Vanderbilt's athletic teams are named after the nickname given to Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built his fortune in the shipping and railroad business, and founded the Nashville university with a gift of $1 million in 1873. While Vanderbilt donated his largest steamship to Union forces during the Civil War, he was never in the Navy. Still, his nickname was inspired by a former rank in the U.S. Navy, which is why Vanderbilt's mascot has always been a naval officer from the late 19th century.