What's in a Name?

The Origin and History of Summit League Nicknames

The Summit League features the NCAA's most unique collection of one-of-a-kind nicknames among its member institutions. Within U.S. college athletics, three names are exclusively held by Summit League schools: Mastodons (Fort Wayne), Jackrabbits (South Dakota State) and Leathernecks (Western Illinois). In addition, the name Coyotes (South Dakota) is unique to NCAA Division I athletics. Below is the story behind the origin of each member institution's name and its mascot.



Founded in 1864, two years after President Abraham Lincoln appointed his friend John Evans to settle Colorado, the University of Denver was then known as Colorado Seminary.

In 1867, the school unveiled its very first athletic team, the DU Baseball squad, and by the turn of the century, the University’s athletic program became more organized. Back then, the soon-to-be Pioneers were known informally as the “Ministers” or the “Fighting Parsons,” reflecting the Methodist heritage and the Seminary roots of the school.

In 1925 the DU students were unhappy with the old past image of the nicknames and held a contest to find a new nickname. They settled on the “Pioneers” as a recognition of the school’s western heritage.



North Dakota State
Nickname: Bison
Mascot: Thundar

North Dakota State University's athletic teams have progres sed from the "Farmers" in the 1890s, to the "Aggies" in the early 1900s, to the "Bison," North Dakota State's current athletic symbol.

It was developed by head football coach Stan Borleske in 1919 because he and members of the football team didn't like being known as the Aggies. Borleske wanted a strong and fierce mascot.

The Bison was a logical choice. The great animals once roamed the North Dakota prairie in vast numbers, and over the years Bison athletic teams added an additional name, the "Thundering Herd."

Thundar was one of two finalists for the 2008-09 Capital One Mascot of the Year.


Mascot: Durango

Durango the Maverick has ruled as the UNO mascot since 1971.

An estimated 2,000 voters turned out for the 1971 Student Senate elections on campus. Among the items on the ballot-the selection of a new university mascot. The final tally as reported by The Gateway (the student newspaper)-Maverick, 566; Unicorn, 515; Roadrunner, 397; Demon, 346.

Durango even has a deli named after him-Durango's Deli, located in the Milo Bail Student Center Food Court.


 Oral Roberts 
Nickname: Golden Eagles
Mascot: ELI

ORU’s athletic teams are known as the Golden Eagles, and ELI is their mascot. ELI was first introduced to the student body when he hatched out of a paper-mâché egg on November 17, 1993, prior to the start of an exhibition basketball game.

In 1995, the mascot was developed into a distinct and animated golden eagle with characteristics all his own that separate him from the golden eagle mascots of other universities. Though most consider ELI to be a name chosen for its biblical significance, the name is an acronym. Education, Lifeskills and Integrity describe an Oral Roberts University student, and ELI exemplifies such an individual.

Prior to 1993, ORU’s men’s and women’s athletic teams were nicknamed the Titans and Lady Titans, respectively. These monikers were adopted in 1965 by a vote of the student body, many of whom were from the East Coast or were either casual or serious New York Titan (now knows as Jets) football fans.


Purdue Fort Wayne
Mascot: Don

It all started in the Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago when mastodons roamed the southern Great Lakes region of North America. No w extinct, these stocky mammals stood about 10 feet tall, had long trunks, and weighed about five tons. They were distant cousins of modern elephants.

The Ice Age passed. Landforms changed. Then one day in 1968, Orcie Routsong, a farmer who lived just south of Angola along what is now I-69, decided to dig a pond. The location was a boggy area where nothing much grew and equipment got stuck. Pond excavators unearthed a large bone. Realizing it could not have belonged to a horse or cow, Routsong contacted a number of people to see if anyone was interested. Nobody was. Then he reached Jack Sunderman, chair of the IPFW geosciences department, who asked, "How big is it?" When told it was about four feet long and six to eight inches across, Sunderman said, "I'll be right there."

The IPFW Department of Geosciences took on the excavation. Using metal rods as probes, geology students along with faculty members Geoffrey Matthews and Bernd Erdtmann joined Sunderman. They were able to locate about two-thirds of the skeleton as well as the skull of a baby mastodon nearby. The Indiana-Purdue Student Government Association provided funds for additional machine excavation in hopes of finding more bones, but nothing major surfaced. Routsong graciously agreed to place the adult mastodon skeleton on permanent display at IPFW. It is still in the lobby of Kettler Hall. The baby mastodon skull was placed on loan to Science Central, a Fort Wayne hands-on, student-oriented science activity center, where it remains today.


South Dakota

The word Coyote came from a horse race at a military fort in 1 863. When a Dakota cavalry horse outran a larger horse entered by the Iowa Sixth Cavalry, one of the Iowans said, "look at the Kiote run." The name stuck. According to longtime USD historian Cedric Cummins, the Coyote was customarily assumed to be the University's mascot without any official action. Cummins writes: "First of the University annuals were published in the spring of  1902 with William Williamson, Jr., as editor in chief, fixing the name 'Coyote' upon its progeny." The use of the term by the yearbook helped to popularize the Coyote nickname. Another symbol that originated during this period was the yearbook that was given the title, "Coyote." The state animal of South Dakota is the Coyote.

Dr. Mick Shaeffer of Ottumwa, Iowa, helped create the legacy of Charlie Coyote in the early 1970s. He established Charlie while performing at old Inman Field and th e New Armory. Shaeffer, a USD student in the 1970s, helped design the costume and persona of "Charlie Coyote." He once passed the hat among South Dakota students to pay for the first mascot suit, which was constructed of paper-mache. Mick, who spent 5 1/2 years as "Charlie," including two years while attending medical school, also funded his own way to USD games. At an NCAA D-II regional in 1973, "Charlie Coyote" was the only team mascot named to the all-tourney team while endearing himself to a St. Louis, Mo., crowd. Since Shaeffer established Charlie Coyote, the mascot has been a fixture at South Dakota sporting events.


South Dakota State
Mascot: Jack

What's in a name? A great deal if that name is associated with college athletics.

There are two theories as to how and why the Jackrabbi t nickname evolved. The most common belief is that the name "Jackrabbits" came from a story that appeared in a Minneapolis newspaper following a 1905 football game between the University of Minnesota and South Dakota State College, as the university was then known. A reporter for the newspaper, knowing of the preponderance of jackrabbits in the Brookings area, was believed to have written that the SDSC team was a quick as jackrabbits. Many people believe that the school adopted the Jackrabbits as its official nickname from the beginning.
The other theory about the origin of the nickname is given in The Jackrabbit, SDSU's yearbook. There is a poem in the 1907 yearbook that puts forth the idea that the yearbook is called The Jackrabbit because a group of juniors wished to immortalize themselves by changing the name of the yearbook. Athletic teams followed suit, adopting the nickname.

It is not clear if athletic teams had nicknames before this time or if SDSC teams were merely called the "state team" or "Brookings."

The origin of the logo is even more difficult to locate than the origin of the nickname. While there is no documented history of the logo, it seems to have appeared almost as soon as the nickname. A picture in the 1908 yearbook features a rabbit in football garb, but a standard Jackrabbit logo wasn't adopted until 1940s, when the literal representation of a rabbit was changed to a characterized version.

The characterized version of the Jackrabbit is still used today, although it has been modified over the years.



Western Illinois
Fighting Leathernecks

Western Illinois University holds the distinction of being the only non-military institution to officially have its nickname derived from a branch of the military service. The school began use of the Marine Corps' official nickname, "The Fighting Leathernecks," in 1927 when then-athletic director and head baseball, basketball and football coach Ray "Rock" Hanson was granted permission by the U.S. Navy, based on his status as a Marine hero, to use the Marine's official seal and bulldog mascot along with their nickname.

In June 2009, the female student-athletes were unified with their male counterparts when the University decided to begin using "Leathernecks" as the school's lone nickname.

No more has been written and told about any other Western Illinois athletics leader than Hanson. The Marine colonel's quest was simple - Build an athletics tradition second to none using the Marine ethic as a central force. A true pioneer in collegiate sport, Hanson was a national giant in the coaching profession. His own nickname originating as a reference to his friendship with Knute Rockne, Hanson brought a Notre Dame style of play to Western Illinois that built a foundation for years of success. After serving in World War I and attending Springfield College, Hanson began his career at Western Illinois in 1926, departed for a tour of duty in WWII, and returned to his athletic director post in 1946.

Hanson coached Leatherneck football for 16 years (1926-41) and was Western's all-time winningest coach until 1998. In 1950, Western's football stadium, Hanson Field, was dedicated in his honor, despite a campus policy that prohibited any building or property to be named after a living person. After the dedication, Hanson was overwhelmed by hundre ds of telegrams and phone calls, including one from friend Bob Hope.

Rock retired in 1964 after serving at Western Illinois for 38 years. He passed away in 1982, at the age of 86.

Western Illinois' first mascot made its first appearance on Oct. 10, 1959 at the Homecoming football game. One day earlier, the English bulldog, which was purchased by the Student Government Association at the suggestion of Student Personnel Services Dean Dr. John Henderson, was officially named "Colonel Rock" at the Homecoming bonfire. The nickname was chosen from more than 200 entries submitted in a campus-wide contest. The winning entry was submitted by Richard Stevenson, a junior from Nauvoo, Ill., who chose the name to honor former coach and athletics director Ray "Rock" Hanson. Hanson, a former colonel, was responsible for bringing the Leathernecks nickname and the Marine tradition to Western Illinois. The English bulldog, which is the traditional mascot of the U.S. Marine Corps, was cared for by the John Storey family in Macomb.

After Colonel Rock passed away in February 1966 during his second cancer operation, Captain Dale A. Luster, a recruiter from the Marine Corps League of Chicago, was instrumental in assisting the Corps' purchase of Colonel Rock II, a.k.a. "Rocky." Two years later, on September 26, Luster was killed in action over North Vietnam.

In 1973, with the retirement of Rocky, a costumed version took over for the live dog, but English bulldogs have frequented Western Illinois football games since. Rocky continues to cheer his team, ignite the crowd, joust opponents' mascots, plead with officials and bring smiles to the faces of many fans. He has received three "groomings" since his first appearance, the most recent on Feb. 15, 1997 when his new look was unveiled at a Leatherneck basketball game. The 'new' Rocky still holds the same grudges against Western Illinois opponents, as well as the cool temperament to high-paw a Western Illinois fan.

Rocky was immortalized in the form of a 900-pound cement statue which was unveiled on Oct. 6, 1971 behind the University Union. A gift from Country Schools Restaurants, Inc., the statute was created by sculptor Herman Morrill. To this day, the statue is painted several times a week by student groups as a sign of school spirit between the many student organizations on campus. Rocky was moved as part of the redesign to the entrance of Hanson Field in 2001, where he sits today greeting fans and players as they enter the gates.

What's in a Name?
December 24, 2008 What's in a Name?
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