How the Big 12 Schools Got Their Nicknames

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Much of Big 12 country is farmland, which is evident in the original nicknames of many of its teams. From Bears and Buffaloes to Cyclones and Sooners, here are the stories behind the nicknames of 11 of the current Big 12 schools. (Nebraska was covered with its future Big Ten brethren last week, while Pac-10-bound Colorado is included here.)

Baylor Bears

In 1914, about 15 years after green and gold were selected as the school’s official colors, Baylor President Samuel Palmer Brooks held an election to choose a mascot. Bears received more than half of the 406 student votes cast, while Buffaloes finished second. Other mascots on the ballot included Eagles, Ferrets, Frogs, Antelopes, and Bookworms. Baylor’s first live bear mascot arrived on campus in 1917. In 1974, the student body voted to name the live mascot Judge in honor of the school’s founder, Judge R.E.B. Baylor.

Colorado Buffaloes

Silver and gold were chosen as Colorado’s official colors in 1888, but the Boulder-based school was without an official mascot for much of its early history. CU’s athletic teams were known by a variety of monikers, including the Silver and Gold, Silver Helmets, Big Horns, and Frontiersman, until the student newspaper sponsored a contest to select a new nickname in 1934. Athletic Director Harry Carlson served as one of the three judges and a prize of $5 was promised to the winner. Buffaloes was chosen from among more than 1,000 entries. It was a welcome change for a student body that had previously used a dog, goat, and donkey as unofficial mascots at football games. Students rented a live buffalo and handler to appear at the final home game of the 1934 season. Today, a live buffalo named Ralphie V is led onto the field before every Colorado home game. The first Ralphie was a gift from the father of a CU freshman and made her debut in 1966.

Iowa State Cyclones

Iowa Agricultural College, whose athletic teams were known as the Cardinals, traveled to Chicago and shut out Northwestern, 36-0, in September 1895. The next day, the headline in the Chicago Tribune read, “Struck by a Cyclone.” Beneath it was the following analysis: "Northwestern might as well have tried to play football with an Iowa cyclone as with the Iowa team it met yesterday.” The nickname stuck and was soon adopted by all of Iowa State’s athletic teams.

Kansas Jayhawks


The Jayhawk is a mythical combination of a blue jay and a sparrow hawk, part quarrelsome, part hunter. The term probably originated around 1848 and was first used to describe the general lawlessness of some settlers in the Kansas Territory during the 1850s. The nickname eventually became associated with those who wanted to keep Kansas a free state. During the Civil War, a regiment of cavalry raised by Kansas Gov. Charles Robinson was nicknamed the Independent Mounted Kansas Jayhawks. The University of Kansas featured the Jayhawk in its famous Rock Chalk chant in 1886, and when the KU football team debuted in 1890, it did so as the Jayhawkers.

Kansas State Wildcats

Kansas State’s athletic teams were originally referred to as the Aggies. In 1915, football coach John “Chief” Bender introduced the nickname Wildcats to describe his team’s fighting spirit. When Z.G. Clevenger replaced Bender in 1917, he changed the nickname to Farmers. In 1920, head coach Charles Bachman brought back Wildcats for good.

Missouri Tigers

Tigers was adopted as Missouri’s nickname in reference to the Columbia Tigers, a militia of more than 100 citizens that fortified the town against a rumored attack by a pro-Confederate guerilla band during the final year of the Civil War. In 1984, the school held a contest to name its mascot. Truman, a reference to Missouri-born President Harry S Truman, was the winning entry.

Oklahoma Sooners


The Sooners trace their nickname to the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, when, at noon on April 22 of that year, the borders of the Oklahoma Territory were opened to eager settlers in search of free land. Settlers who crossed the border before noon, including land surveyors and railroad workers who took advantage of the access that their positions granted them to claim territory for themselves, were called Sooners. The university’s athletic teams were known as the Rough Riders or Boomers until Sooners was officially adopted in 1908. Boomers were settlers who lobbied the U.S. government to open unassigned lands in the Oklahoma Territory.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

Before Oklahoma State University was OSU, it was Oklahoma A&M, and its athletic teams were known as the Agriculturists, Aggies, Farmers, or Tigers. The Tigers moniker and the selection of orange and black as the school’s colors were reportedly a tribute to a faculty member whose father was a Princeton graduate. In 1923, the school was in search of a new mascot when U.S. Deputy Marshall Frank “Pistol Pete” Eaton led the Armistice Day parade in Stillwater. Eaton, a renowned marksman, would become the model upon which OSU’s Pistol Pete mascot and Cowboys nickname were based. One year later, Oklahoma City Times sports editor Charles Saulsberry started referring to A&M as the Cowboys, and in 1926, balloons printed with “Oklahoma Aggies – Ride ‘Em Cowboy” were sold at home football games. Aggies and Cowboys were used interchangeably until the school was renamed Oklahoma State University in 1957.

Texas Longhorns


In the early 1900s, Texas’s athletic teams were known primarily as the Varsity or Steers, and occasionally the Longhorns. In 1913, school benefactor H.J. Lutcher Stark, who had previously served as the football team’s manager, donated warm-up blankets with the word “Longhorn” sewn into them. The student body adopted Longhorns as the school’s official nickname and introduced a live Longhorn as the official mascot in 1916.

Texas A&M Aggies

Texas A&M is one of the handful of schools in the current Big 12 that once referred to its athletic teams as the Farmers. According to the school website, Aggies was occasionally used during the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the student yearbook changed its name to Aggieland in 1949 that Aggies became the official nickname.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Texas Tech’s original nickname, the Matadors, was suggested by the wife of head coach Pete Cawthon. The nickname was a nod to the Spanish architectural influence on the school’s Lubbock campus and was adopted, along with the school colors of scarlet and black, in 1926. In 1932, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal sportswriter Collier Parris introduced a new nickname for Texas Tech. “The Red Raiders from Texas Tech, terror of the Southwest this year, swooped in the New Mexico University camp today,” Parris wrote. By 1936, Texas Tech’s athletic teams were regularly referred to by the new name.

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November 12, 2010 - 12:11pm
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