Most of the teams competing in this year’s NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament have mascots that make sense as sports mascots: Bears (Baylor), Cardinals (Iowa State), Wildcats (Kansas State). But others have mascots that are real head-scratchers, such as the Billikens (Saint Louis) or the Hokies (Virginia Tech).
Here are the explanations behind some this year’s tournament’s weirder mascots.
The Hokies (Virginia Tech): “Hokie” here is short for “HokieBird,” which does not exist in real life. As Sports Illustrated reports, the “Hokie” part comes from a cheer written by a student in 1896 (nonsensical words were part of sports cheers at that time). The “Bird” part comes from the stereotype that VCU’s athletes “gobbled” up their food alarmingly quick, earning them the nickname “gobblers.” Soon the two were put together and the “HokieBird,” colloquially shortened to “Hokies,” became the university’s beloved mascot.
The Billikens (Saint Louis University): At the turn of the 20th century, Billikens were all the rage, according to SLU’s website. Created by a Kansas City artist, Billikens were charm dolls, said to bring the bearer good luck, that resembled something of a cross between a demon and a smiling monkey. Legend has it that around the same time, then-football coach John Bender became associated with the charm, for reasons that are ambiguous, and the term “Billiken” eventually expanded to all SLU athletes.
Orange (Syracuse): This one’s a bit uncomfortable, but as the university explains on its website, the name dates back to a hoax that claimed that the remains of a Native American chief were found on the university’s grounds. The chief’s name was supposedly “Big Chief Bill Orange.” By the ’70s, Native American groups had lobbied for a change, and the mascot was re-tooled into the fruit.
Gaels (Saint Mary’s): A Gael is a person of Irish or Scottish descent. According to the college’s website, the name came from the fact that at one time there was an abundance of Irishmen on the football team. Another team competing in this year’s tournament, Iona, also claims the Gaels as their mascot.
Boilermakers (Purdue): A boilermaker is a person who makes boilers. And while that’s painfully obvious, it’s still a bit of a head-scratcher. According to the university’s website, in 1891 the team soundly defeated a rival school. A reporter disparagingly called the men “burly boilermakers,” referring to their blue-collar nature, and the name stuck.
Tar Heels (North Carolina): Not unlike the Boilermakers, the term “Tar Heels” was born out of disparagement but adopted as a badge of honor. Competing legends betray the true origin of the name, but as far as the university is concerned, it comes from North Carolina’s role in naval history. The area supplied pitch and tar, and workers would sometimes walk barefoot; observers would say amongst themselves that the men must have had tar on their heels, and the name stuck.
Aggies (Utah State, New Mexico State): Several land-grant universities across the country use this name. It refers to the agricultural programs offered at such schools.