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Amid a minefield of generic nicknames, how do college mascots distinguish themselves?

With the Clemson Tigers facing the LSU Tigers in this year’s college football championship, what makes their respective Tigers — and dozens more in college sports — unique?

SHARE Amid a minefield of generic nicknames, how do college mascots distinguish themselves?
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Clemson mascot “Cub” fires up the fans during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Wofford Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Clemson, S.C.

Richard Shiro, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — When it’s Tigers vs. Tigers, which tribe wins? We’ll find out Monday when LSU faces Clemson in the first college football title game between teams of the same name. It’s a noteworthy example of the tribalism that drives sports fandom, as teams and their supporters embrace their differences rather than their many similarities.

Five FBS schools — Auburn, Clemson, LSU, Memphis and Missouri — claim the Tigers nickname, the most common in college football’s top division. Such nicknames — along with Eagles, Bulldogs, Wildcats and other common wildlife — might seem generic and unoriginal, but that makes little difference to fans when tribalism is at work.

No. 1 LSU and No. 3 Clemson have more in common than a nickname. They’re perhaps two of the most similar college football programs, both by accident and by design. Both are Southern state schools. Both originated as military schools. Both play in “Death Valley.” Still, even when it’s Tigers vs. Tigers, fans easily diagnose differences between those Tigers and their Tigers.

Such fealty, even when dozens of other false gods share the same name, is part of what brews the impassioned intensity of the college sports atmosphere. Students, alumni and employees aren’t just fans of Utah, Utah State or BYU — they’re Utes, Aggies or Cougars. But understanding that tribalism requires both history and psychology. And an open mind, because it’s hard to believe the coexistence of academics and absurdity surrounding this seemingly simple subject.

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LSU mascot Mike the Tiger performs in the second half of NCAA college game against Texas A&M in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.

Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

Drops of absurdity in an ocean of sameness

Boll Weevils. Purple cows. Banana Slugs. These words might resemble machine-generated strings, but to students and alumni of certain institutions of higher education, they’re likely to induce a tingle and a smile and a screenshot for their friends. Because when you’re a Delta St. Okra or an Artichoke from Scottsdale Community College, you’re likely to be dang proud of it

“The generations before you have identified with that mascot,” said Adam Earnheardt, chair and professor at Youngstown State’s department of communications. “And so if you want to become part of that community, then there’s an expectation that you will also identify with that mascot.”

Regional or educational ties can enhance meaning. The Florida Gators play in The Swamp; actual wild alligators live on campus. The Boilermakers honor Purdue’s tradition of hands-on education and engineering. The Tennessee Volunteers commemorate the state motto, like the Hoosiers of Indiana. But as LSU, Clemson and their fellow orange felines show, few institutions of higher learning go full Fightin’ Okra.

Sometimes, the tribalism is in the details. When the Tigers clash, when the inevitable panoramic shot of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome saturates TV sets across America, the divide between fans should be stark: Clemson’s orange and purple on one side, LSU’s yellow and purple on the other.

They may both be Tigers, but their colors, symbols and traditions remain unique. So when their respective fans express pride in “being a Tiger,” they’re transcending the nickname, elevating it to a part of their identity. It’s this effect that makes nicknames so ubiquitous, so enduring, and, in some cases, even controversial. 

A brief history of mascots and nicknames

It’s difficult to pinpoint who or what the “first” mascot was (TodayIFoundOut.com’s Matt Blitz gave it a try here), although it’s clear that costumes arrived much later. Mascots were originally either live animals, children or physically deformed men, and their purpose was not to entertain, but to bring a team luck or intimidate the opponent.

Their early history is troubling, at best.

Steven Riess, professor emeritus of history at Northeastern Illinois University, said mascots first gained popularity in professional baseball, where their use was often “disgusting” or racist. Chicago White Stockings mascot Clarence Duval, one of the first mascots in the late 1880s, was a black child, and he joined the team on a world tour in 1888-89. 

“He marched around with a glove on one hand and a rope around his neck,” Riess said. “In the early 1900s, the Athletics in Philadelphia used a hunchback. This kind of stuff died out by the 19-teens, but these were the first mascots.”

Yale, meanwhile, pioneered the use of live animals with “Handsome Dan,” a bulldog who according to the school became the mascot in 1889. The school is now up to Handsome Dan No. 18, although the Hartford Courant wrote that the original looked like “a cross between an alligator and a horned frog, and he was called handsome by the metaphysicians under the law of compensation.”

Mascots’ roles today come down to distraction — even off the field, at charity and school events. 

“That’s what matters to those communities,” said Orestes Hernandez, executive director of the Mascot Hall of Fame, “whether they realize it or not.”

The first collegiate nicknames are also difficult to trace, although they developed shortly before the mascots. Princeton was “reportedly the first” to call itself the Tigers, inspired by orange-and-black-striped uniforms.

In 1890, Missouri also named itself the Tigers after a local militia group that had defended Columbia against marauders during the Civil War. 

Links to the civil war — particularly to the Confederacy among Southern teams — are common, per Victoria Jackson, a sports historian at Arizona State. She felt optimistic that LSU and Clemson wouldn’t have such histories. But, she said, “Turns out they both kind of do.”

During the Civil War, according to historian Dan Hardesty, a regiment called the “Louisiana Tigers” was especially valiant during the battle of the Shenandoah Valley, and the name stuck with the state’s flagship university. A petition circulated in 2017 to “Change the racist mascot of LSU!” but the university didn’t heed its 733 supporters

Clemson’s first football coach arrived from Auburn in 1896, and he brought the Tiger nickname with him. But the school, Jackson explained, also fielded a mascot called the “Country Gentleman” — a tiger in a purple coat-tail suit with a matching top hat and a cane. Depending on your point of view, he might have looked like an old plantation owner. Clemson retired him in the early 1970s — around the same time the band stopped playing “Dixie” and the school discontinued displays of the Confederate naval jack flag. 

“To their credit,” Jackson said of both Clemson and LSU, “it’s not like we see Confederate symbology anymore.”

But confederate symbols still linger, even outside the South. Consider the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Like Ole Miss, UNLV calls itself the Rebels. It took on the nickname near its founding in the 1950s to celebrate the “iconic nonconformist.” But the school’s mascot was a wolf in a Confederate uniform named Beauregard, ostensibly to represent the south in a north-south rivalry with Nevada-Reno, the Wolf Pack. UNLV banished Beauregard in 1976, along with all other Confederate imagery, but the nickname remains.

Few schools in the Rocky Mountain region have such dramatic backstories.

Although BYU plays near mountain lion habitat, the school adopted the Cougars moniker because former athletics director Eugene L. Roberts wrote some newspaper stories saying the school “played like Cougars.” The name was made official in 1923.

And Utah State’s Aggies nickname might seem obvious for an agricultural school, but the university took a circuitous path to get there. It didn’t have a nickname until the 1940s, when, according to its student newspaper, the Utah Statesman, it became the Utah State Farmers. In 1969-70, a committee to select a new mascot chose the Highlanders, but it was roundly rejected by the student body. The committee eventually settled on the Aggies.

But the Utes of Utah illustrate the second traditional prong of mascot controversies. Utah was called the Redskins until the 1970s, when the Northern Ute tribe approved the Ute nickname. The most recent agreement between the tribe and school mandates scholarships for Native American as well as Ute students, among other conditions. Florida State maintains a similar relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, as does Central Michigan with the Chippewas. Even so, such schools must take care to respect Native American rites and customs, which can be difficult if students show up to football games in feathered headdresses.

Some schools have ditched Native American affiliations instead, like the Stanford Cardinal (formerly Indians) and Arkansas State Red Wolves (formerly Indians). Although some are still willing to double down. Just ask certain Washington Redskins fans (or go straight to the owner) and recalcitrant supporters of North Dakota, formerly known as the Fighting Sioux.

For the most part, however, nicknames and mascots remain a cause for celebration and loyalty, even when born from ignorance. They form a colorful tapestry, sometimes hinting at history, that illustrates the definitive variety of college sports.

Why do mascots and nicknames matter?

The Youngstown State Penguins in northeastern Ohio are a good example of how a nickname can unify. Like new arrivals at many schools who inhale certain myths and legends — a sort of initiation — Youngstown State students learn quickly why they’re named for an Antarctic bird. 

Here’s how Earnheardt tells it: In 1933, the Youngstown College men’s basketball team traveled by bus to West Liberty State in West Virginia on a freezing night. The heater on the bus was broken. When the players waddled into the gym, someone remarked that they looked like penguins. 

“It sounds like it’s the most mundane thing,” Earnheardt said. “But you know, it’s like one of those stories that just stuck. You get this image of these cold, 19-, 20-, 21-, 22-year-old boys walking into a gym shuffling their feet like Penguins. And that’s the kind of image that sticks with you.”

Now a university, the school’s official versions of the story (there are two) differ slightly from Earnheardt’s, but that’s partly the point of mythology. Sheer a detail here, change a name or date there — it doesn’t matter. The utility of such legends isn’t canonical history, but a shared story. It’s a function of what psychological researchers call “social identity theory” — a person deriving their sense of who they are via group membership. 

Family, Earnheardt said, is the easiest way to grasp the concept. If you grew up in a certain family in a certain area, you’ll likely take on certain values and identity based on the family group, whether that means churchgoing or outdoor-crazed. “We can almost predict,” Earnheardt said, “based on where you grow up how you will socialize, how you’ll become integrated within the community, and so on.”

Paul Haridakis, who along with Barbara Hugenberg co-authored a textbook with Earnheardt about sports socialization, explained it as in-group and out-group mentality. “We have a tendency to see ourselves as part of our in group,” he said, with our mascots on our coffee mugs, or our specific chants and traditions, “and see other groups as out groups.”

And sure, generic nicknames like Eagles and Tigers predominate over abstractions like Maroons and Golden Flashes and Jaspers. But Clemson and LSU are perhaps two of the best examples to illustrate why genericness, after a certain period of time, matters little. Because although it may sound the same when their fans roar “Go Tigers,” any true bayou bengal knows go really means “Geaux.”