How the Big Ten Schools Got Their Nicknames
From Badgers and Boilermakers to Hoosiers and Hawkeyes, the Big Ten Conference boasts an interesting set of school nicknames. Here are the stories behind the monikers of the conference’s 11 teams, as well as future Big Ten member Nebraska.
Illinois Fighting Illini
According to the University of Illinois archives, the first documented use of the term Illini was in January 1874, when the campus weekly newspaper changed its name from The Student to The Illini. An editorial in the first edition of the renamed newspaper indicated that Illini was a new term. The Illini nickname wasn’t regularly applied to the school’s athletic teams until around 1915.
The Fighting Illini nickname was most likely introduced during the fundraising effort for Memorial Stadium, which was built in 1923 and honored the Illinois men and women who served in World War I. Chief Illiniwek, the school’s longtime Native American mascot, wasn’t adopted until 1926. The mascot was a nod to the loose confederation of Algonquin tribes that once lived in the region. A student played Chief Illiniwek and performed at Illinois athletic events until 2007, when the mascot’s name and image were retired after much controversy.
Indiana’s athletic teams are named after the state nickname, for which there are as many explanations as there are candy stripes on the famous warmup pants of the IU basketball team.
There are theories that the nickname is derived from locals asking “Who’s here?” when visitors rolled into town, or from early settlers—some of whom evidently served as an inspiration for Mike Tyson—asking “Whose ear?” after a particularly gruesome brawl. Two other theories are that the nickname originated as a derogatory term for a country bumpkin, derived from the Saxon word “hoo,” meaning hill, or that the nickname comes from a contractor named Samuel Hoosier, who built a canal in the region in the 1820s. Whatever the origin, the nickname was popularized during the 19th century and eventually lost any derogatory connotations.
People living in the territory that would become the state of Iowa adopted Hawkeyes as their nickname in 1838. Hawkeye was the name of the white scout who lived among the Delaware Indians in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, which was published 12 years earlier. James Edwards, editor of the Fort Madison Patriot, moved his paper to Burlington in 1843 and renamed it the Hawk-Eye, adding to the popularity of the nickname. The University of Iowa borrowed the state nickname for its athletics teams and later introduced a cartoon mascot, Herky the Hawk, in 1948.
Michigan was not nicknamed the Wolverine State because a large number of the largest member of the weasel family roamed within its borders. In fact, the first verified sighting of a wolverine in Michigan wasn’t until 2004. Instead, the state nickname may date back to a border dispute between Ohio and Michigan in 1803 known as the Toledo War. It’s unclear whether the Ohioans applied the nickname to their rivals as a derogatory term or if Michiganders coined it themselves as a source of pride. Wolverines were well known as a fierce and ornery species that would kill much larger prey. Regardless, Michigan would become known as the Wolverine State and the University of Michigan adopted the nickname for its athletic teams.
Michigan State Spartans
When Michigan Agricultural College changed its name to Michigan State College in 1925, the school sponsored a contest to select a new nickname, as Aggies was no longer appropriate. The winning entry, Staters, wasn’t good enough for George S. Alderton, the sports editor of the Lansing State-Journal, so Alderton took it upon himself to choose another nickname. Alderton inquired about some of the other nicknames that had been submitted and settled on Spartans, which he used while covering the Michigan State baseball team’s southern training tour in 1926. After initially spelling Spartans with an ‘o,’ Alderton corrected the spelling and started using the Spartans nickname in headlines. “It began appearing in other newspapers and when the student publication used it, that clinched it,” Alderton said.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
In 1857, the year before the Minnesota Legislature introduced the “Five Million Loan” bill to fund the construction of railroads, R.O. Sweeny’s political cartoon depicting local politicians as gophers pulling a locomotive circulated throughout the state. Minnesota soon became known as the Gopher State and the University of Minnesota’s athletic teams the Gophers. Sportswriter and announcer Halsey Hall first referred to the team as the Golden Gophers in the early 1930s, a reference to Minnesota’s yellow jerseys and pants, and the moniker stuck.
Nebraska’s football team was known by a variety of nicknames before 1900, including the Old Gold Knights, Rattlesnake Boys, Antelopes, and Bugeaters. There are conflicting stories as to how the Bugeaters nickname originated. One theory links the nickname to a bull bat indigenous to the plains that ate insects. Another account traces the name to an East Coast reporter who was convinced that there was nothing for Nebraskans to eat during a drought other than the bugs that devoured all of their crops. No matter the origin of Bugeaters, Charles Sumner “Cy” Sherman, sports editor for the Nebraska State Journal, was not a fan of the moniker. In 1899, Sherman, who would later help develop the Associated Press poll, suggested Cornhuskers instead. The nickname had been used by the Nebraska student newspaper as a derisive nickname for Iowa’s football team in 1894, but was soon adopted as a replacement for Bugeaters. In 1946, Nebraska became officially known as the Cornhusker State.
Northwestern’s school colors were selected in 1894, but it didn’t adopt its current nickname until 1924. That season, Northwestern played a particularly spirited game against the heavily favored University of Chicago. While NU lost 3-0, Chicago Tribune sportswriter Wallace Abbey referred to Northwestern’s defense as a “Purple wall of wildcats.” The nickname stuck and the school’s athletic teams would be known as the Wildcats. Before 1924, Northwestern’s teams were known as the Purple, or Fighting Methodists.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State also borrows the state nickname for its athletic teams. A buckeye is a tree prevalent in the Ohio River Valley that produces shiny brown nuts with tan patches that resemble the eye of a deer, or buck. By 1800, Buckeye was being used as a term to refer to residents of the area. William Henry Harrison popularized the nickname by using the buckeye tree as a campaign symbol during the election of 1840.
Penn State Nittany Lions
According to the school website, Penn State’s nickname was introduced in 1904. While on a road trip to Princeton, the Penn State baseball team was shown a statue of a Bengal tiger as “an indication of the merciless treatment they could expect to encounter on the field.” Harrison D. “Joe” Mason, a Penn State player, proclaimed the Nittany Lion “the fiercest beast of them all.” It was the first mention of such a creature. Penn State defeated Princeton that day and the Nittany Lion was soon adopted as the school’s mascot. Mount Nittany, derived from the Native American term meaning single mountain, is a prominent landmark at Penn State.
Purdue's moniker dates to 1889, when the school’s dominant football team traveled to Crawfordsville, Ind., and defeated rival Wabash College, a liberal arts school, 18-4. Angered by the humiliating loss, Wabash supporters resorted to insulting their rivals’ academic focus on engineering and agriculture. Purdue’s players were referred to as “rail-splitters,” “pumpkin-shuckers,” “farmers,” and “log-haulers.” After Purdue blanked Wabash 44-0 in 1891, a headline in the Crawfordsville newspaper read, “Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers from Purdue.” Of all the supposedly derogatory nicknames bestowed upon Purdue, the school embraced the Boiler Maker moniker and adopted the Boilermaker Special, a locomotive, as its mascot.
Wisconsin’s school nickname is borrowed from its state nickname, which is derived from the lead miners who built temporary shelters into the southwest Wisconsin hillside during the 1830s. The term was initially applied to settlers in the mining area, and then to the entire state. The Badgers nickname was adopted by the school’s football team when it began play in 1889. The school had a live badger mascot for a few years, but after it escaped its handlers too many times, it was retired to the Madison Zoo. Today, Bucky Badger is one of the most beloved mascots in college sports.