In a sleepy haze this morning a headline in the sports section of the local newspaper caught my eye.
It read: "CFP projection: Tide, Tigers on top." While there was no question about the "Tide" being the University of Alabama football team, for a brief second I foolishly found myself thinking the "Tigers" the writer referenced were the Auburn Tigers. After shaking the cobwebs out of my brain, I quickly realized it was the Clemson Tigers he was writing about.
That's when I realized there were a lot of college teams known as the Tigers, including three in the SEC alone — Auburn Tigers, Missouri Tigers, LSU Tigers.
So where did all these schools come up with the name Tigers?
Most folks believe Auburn got its nickname from a line in a 1770 Oliver Goldsmith poem, which includes the line "where crouching Tigers await their hapless prey." But according to my relentless research for today's conversation, it wasn't until Auburn shut out Alabama in 1901 that a Birmingham News headline read "A Tiger Claws Alabama." Apparently, everybody though that was pretty good nickname, and 117 years later, they're still the Tigers.
LSU's nickname traces its roots back a little farther to the American Civil War. Confederate soldiers from New Orleans, and eventually all soldiers from the state of Louisiana, were known as the Tiger Rifles. About three decades after the end of the Civil War, LSU's football team enjoyed a 6-0 season in 1896 and began to call themselves the Tigers.
The Civil War was also the source of the University of Missouri Tigers nickname. Missouri's first football team was formed in 1890. The athletic committee adopted the nickname Tiger in recognition of a group of local Civil War militia called "The Missouri Tigers."
So what about the other 11 teams in the SEC and the history behind their nicknames?
From the time they started playing football at Mississippi State University until 1961, the school was known as the Maroons — a reference to the school color. Throughout much of the football team's history, sports writers and fans had referred to the team as the Bulldogs. However it wasn't until 1935 that the school introduced their first live mascot, named Ptolemy.
The other Bulldog team, the University of Georgia is known far and wide for having Uga (ugh-ah) as their mascot. But before there was a living bulldog, Georgia had as its mascot a goat, which appeared on the sideline for the first time in 1892. Two years later, a white bull terrier named Trilby (after the novel by George Du Maurier) was on the sidelines for a game… and the rest is history. After Trilby, Uga officially joined the Georgia team on the sidelines in 1956 and his descendants have carried on the family tradition in every generation since.
So how did the University of Alabama Crimson Tide get its nickname? One story says that back in 1907, a sports writer was responsible. It happened at the Auburn-Alabama game that year with the Tigers heavy favorites to win. According to my research, the game was played in a "sea of red mud" which stained the Alabama white jerseys crimson.
The University of Mississippi nickname is still The Rebels, but they have a "Landshark" as their mascot and are still known as Ole Miss to most fans. Before adopting the Landshark in a vote of the student body in 2017, the school had most recently had Rebel the Bear as its mascot.
The Arkansas Razorbacks got that name after beating LSU in 1909, capping off an undefeated season. Head coach Hugo Bezdek reportedly said the team "fought like a band of Razorback hogs." If you've ever seen a wild hog you know what he meant.
In 1911, the University of Florida's student publication "The Pennant" first referred to Florida center Neal Storter as "Bo Gator" and then extended that name to the entire team, referring to them all as Gators. They went undefeated that year, a local store owner ordered banners with an alligator on them, and the nickname stuck.
One of the newcomers to the SEC is Texas A&M. The nickname "Aggie" is common at land-grant or agricultural schools across the South. The mascot for Texas A&M is a beautiful, rough Collie named "Reveille." I don't know if Reveille is going to make the road trip to Auburn this weekend. I'm sure Aubie will be glad to give them a tour of the grassy spots around the stadium.
University of South Carolina's nickname, "the Gamecocks," reportedly came from South Carolina upsetting Clemson 12-6 in a game played in 1902. A poster showing a gamecock standing over a fallen Tiger is supposedly the origin of the school's nickname. Gotta watch those fighting chickens!
The Volunteers from the University of Tennessee got their name from brave men living in "the Volunteer State" during the war of 1812. Historians say General Andrew Jackson received an outpouring of support from volunteer soldiers from Tennessee in the Battle of New Orleans.
The Kentucky Wildcats got their name after beating the University of Illinois 6-2 in 1909. The head of the military department at what was then known as State University, said "the young men from Kentucky fought like Wildcats." The name stuck and State University became the University of Kentucky in 1916.
And finally Vanderbilt, which has the nickname of the "Commodores," is named after Cornelius Vanderbilt, a well-known rich guy, railroad tycoon and former Commodore in the U.S. Navy. He gave $1 million to form the school in Nashville in 1873. He was not the lead singer in the group from Tuskegee, Alabama... That was the Commodores and Lionel Richie, who is also "richy."