Between the NCAA, NAIA, JUCOs, and the many smaller athletic associations, I’ve gathered 1,875 American college athletic department nicknames from Wikipedia. In these maps, I didn’t include teams from primarily Mexican or Canadian leagues.
So here is the first of this post’s many maps, the one with all 1,875 in one pile (if it’s not loading for you, try clicking this version of this post, or just scroll down to some other maps):
Many of these names are individually amazing, and we’ll get into those at the end. But first, what happens if we examine this national mascot census as a whole?
From the Abilene Christian Wildcats through the Youngstown State Penguins, from the various Aggies through the Zips of Akron, here’s what we can learn from college nicknames as one big pile of data.
First, let’s group all 1,875 nicknames into a few broad categories.
The most common nickname is of the species Homo sapiens, but since this species includes everything from Battling Bishops (Ohio Wesleyan) to Keelhaulers (Cal Maritime), it makes sense to split the people mascots into smaller genres.
That means America’s most common college mascot genres are Cats (15.9%) and Birds (15.5%), followed in the non-human animal genre by Dogs (6.8%), then Bears and Horses (3% each, and both in the Other Mammals section). The most popular human is a Sword Guy, which includes Spartans, Trojans, Knights, and so on.
Here’s a look at each state’s most popular college mascot genre:
The Mid-Atlantic is Bird Country, the South and Midwest are Cat Country, someone needs to do something about all the old-timey dueling around the Carolinas, and we get to enjoy some varied nature once we get out past the Mississippi River.
Breaking down our most popular mascot genre itself, a few small trends emerge.
- The Lion, toted as a concept to America from other countries, is a big-city beast, setting up multi-Lion royal courts around New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, and Dallas. (For each of these, I’m also including variations that clearly resemble that overall type. For example, with the Lions, we have Golden Lions, Red Lions, and teams like the Rockford Regents and Regis Pride, who use Lion iconography.)
- The Southeast has a Tiger Belt thing, ranging from Clemson in South Carolina to Champion Christian and Ouachita Baptist in Arkansas. This is partly the result of Auburn man Walter Riggs bringing the Tiger nickname to Clemson, like a Tiger franchise. Our nation’s Tigers include various hues and degrees of Fighting-ness, along with Bengals and the Maranatha Baptist Sabercats.
- Most interesting to me are the cats native to America. The Cougar has about a billion names (reflected in college nicknames by several Catamounts, the Penn State Nittany Lions, various Mountain Lions, and tons of Panthers). The actual cat used to run this place, but is now mostly confined to the middle of the country. The East Coast exception: Florida, reflected by four different Panther mascots of Florida colleges.
- And then there’s the Wildcat, found wherever it pleases, because it is a Wildcat.
The Cat class also includes varieties of Bobcats, Leopards, Lynx, Jaguars, and the Thiel Tomcats and Erie Kats.
The single most common American college mascot is probably obvious: the Eagle. Including the Bald, Golden, Purple, Running, Screaming, and Soaring varieties, I count 91 teams named after Eagles, in addition to Auburn’s War Eagle, Liberty’s Sparky Eagle, and so on.
The Eagle is the one nickname prevalent enough for a map like this:
If we assess Eagle Factor on a per-capita basis, however, we get this picture, which reminds us fewer people live in Wyoming than in Metropolitan Chattanooga:
Second in bird-type names is the Hawk, the leader among all nickname clusters in name variety. Look at all these Hawk-adjacent words, some of which aren’t actually Hawks (Seahawks) or even real animals (Jayhawks) or even birds at all:
Bird World rounds out with 27 Falcons, 24 Cardinals, 16 Owls, 12 Roadrunners (great showing by the Roadrunners, which includes Chaparrals), nine Ospreys (which includes Seahawks, whom I included in the Hawks chart above, but not in the official Hawks tally), eight Blue Jays, six Chickens (though there is no team literally called “the Chickens”), and 13 others (counting the Miami Hurricanes’ Sebastian the Ibis), my new favorite of which is the Sunbird of Fresno Pacific. Look at these lil buddies:
I thought about charting the country’s employment report based on which jobs appear where.
Cowboys/Cowgirls are almost entirely west of the Mississippi (the exception: Division II’s Puerto Rico-Bayamón). Loggers, Foresters, and Lumberjacks are mostly Upper Midwest and Northwest. The most common mascot job type, the Explorer (which includes Pioneers, Trailblazers, Mountaineers, etc.) appears all over. Names like Miners (Orediggers, 49ers, etc.), Farmers (Cornhuskers, Threshers, etc.), and Naval Stuff (all sorts of names for sailors and boats) show up roughly where you’d expect. And sure, that’s cool.
But let’s focus on just the most common mascot profession: fighters.
This lumps together all Sword Guys (51 Knights, 30 Vikings/Norse/etc., 24 Pirates, 20 Spartans, 20 Trojans, 18 Religious Warriors, 17 Stabby Horse Guys like Lancers and Cavaliers, 12 Scots/Highlanders*, and so on, each including its own sub-derivations) with 33 Warriors, 26 Raiders (often enough distinct from Pirates), 23 Soldiers, and the many other Fighting Type people, including of course the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns.
This Fight Map mostly correlates to overall population density, but it might be wise to learn sword skills if you plan to spend time along the Appalachian Trail or around Iowa.
* Distinct from the nine non-swordy Scots and three Scottie dogs. Never would’ve guessed the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are so outnumbered by their neighbors, though both join various Celts/Gaels mascots in noting nobody has named themselves the English.
On the subject of People mascots: 27 of these schools still have Native American mascots. This includes some tribal colleges and universities, but also some predominantly white institutions. The latter must regularly re-evaluate in accordance with local tribes (some do). One difference between a Native nickname and a Viking nickname is clear: nobody lives on American land that was once taken from Vikings.
We do not have enough of these. We, the human species, might never have made anything of ourselves if not for them. Since our very beginning, they have been our actual IRL mascots, and vice versa. They epitomize teamwork, toughness, and cuddliness, three factors any college team should seek.
And yet we have more college teams named after Cats (who hate us), Birds (who are barely aware we exist), and Sword Guys (who only want to talk about swords).
Only 127 of these schools have hearts big enough to name themselves after the planet’s best species. The following states are good states:
Within the Dog Pack itself, we have a further problem. We have too many Bulldogs. Counting the Georgetown Hoyas and Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys, 41% of all college Dog mascots are Bulldogs, one of the least impressive Dogs.
Wolves are cool! You can name your team the Wolves! You’d be the 33rd college to do so, but there are lots of Wolf options! Hail the CSU-Pueblo ThunderWolves, an infinitely better name than anything related to any Bulldog!
We also have 10 Huskies, seven Greyhounds, six Coyotes, five Terriers, three Fox variations, two Pointers, two Salukis, two Retrievers (if you count the Tulsa Golden Hurricane’s Goldie), those Scotties, and at least six other Dog breeds, counting the Texas A&M Aggies’ majestic Collie. Unless there are lots of well-hidden secondary mascots, we have far too few Beagles, St. Bernards (respect to the Siena Saints), Rottweilers, Mastiffs, Spaniels, Dobermans, Dachshunds, Corgis ...
Just Bulldogs, as far as the eye can see.
- Comet emoji: Comets
- Heat emoji: Fire, Flames, Firestorm, fire-based Blazers, the Alverno Inferno, and anything else with Fire in its name, such as the Firebirds (and thus Phoenix)
- Lightning emoji: Non-dragon/non-fire Blazers, non-horse Chargers, Lightning, Flashes, Shock, Shockers (though technically Wichita State’s mascot is wheat), and anything with Thunder in its name (Thunder, Thunderbirds, ThunderWolves)
- Spinning wind emoji: Cyclones, Dustdevils, Hurricanes, Tornadoes
- Stormcloud emoji: Seven different color variations of Storm/Stormers, plus the New England Nor’easters
- Sun emoji: Suns, Stars, and anything with either in its name, such as our Sunbird friends
- Wave emoji: Wave, Waves, Blue/Crimson/Green Wave, Crimson Tide (also counted as an Elephant in the Other Mammals genre)
And finally, a map of just Dragons, certain Blazers, Raptors, the Cuyahoga CC Triceratops, and the Calgary Dinos:
Now let’s go state-by-state, recognizing names that stand (as far as I can tell) alone in all of major-ish American college athletics.
- Coastal Alabama CC Sun Chiefs
- Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks, the polar bear god.
- Scottsdale CC Artichokes (Arizona), but I really wanted to pick this rascal:
- Southern Arkansas Muleriders
- California, Santa Cruz Banana Slugs
- CSU–Pueblo ThunderWolves (Colorado)
- Trinity College Bantams (Connecticut)
- Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens
- Georgetown Hoyas (DC)
- State College of Florida, Manatee–Sarasota Manatees
- Oglethorpe Stormy Petrels (Georgia), but rip to the Waycross College Swamp Foxes, who are now part of a school called the HAWKS?
- Hawaii Rainbow Warriors and Rainbow Wahine
- Idaho Vandals
- East–West Phantoms (Illinois)
- Purdue Boilermakers (Indiana)
- Loras College Duhawks (Iowa)
- Pittsburg State Gorillas (Kansas), quite possibly the only collegiate non-human primate mascot.
- Alice Lloyd College Talons (Kentucky)
- Louisiana at Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
- New England Nor’easters (Maine)
- McDaniel College Green Terror (Maryland), though I will never forgive McDaniel for adopting a less terrorizing version of this old mascot:
- Tufts Jumbos (Massachusetts)
- Gogebic CC Samsons (Michigan), because I can’t find anything online that suggests this is anything other than the Bible guy with magic hair.
- Minnesota Golden Gophers
- Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils and Devilettes, though obviously the Delta State Fighting Okra would be the choice if they weren’t called the Delta State Statesmen.
- St. Louis College of Pharmacy Eutectics (Missouri), some sort of chemistry thing. Between this, the St. Louis Billikens (a little good-luck creature), and the Webster Gorloks (a cheetah/buffalo/St. Bernard combo), Missouri is outworking everyone else here.
- Montana State–Northern is known as the Lights, and this is good.
- Nebraska Cornhuskers
- Great Basin College Bighorn Sheep: Nevada doesn’t have a unique nickname in any of the schools from the main leagues, so let us turn to a college that seems to be in the process of taking up volleyball.
- Southern New Hampshire Penmen
- New Jersey City Gothic Knights
- Albany Great Danes (New York)
- Mesalands CC Stampede: New Mexico also appears light on unique nicknames in national athletic organizations. So the Stampede rodeo team will lead the way.
- Wake Forest Demon Deacons (North Carolina)
- Williston State College Tetons (North Dakota)
- Cuyahoga CC Triceratops (Ohio)
- Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Golden Norse (Oklahoma)
- Pacific Boxers (Oregon), not the people or dogs or underwear, but rather:
Boxer may look like a dog, perhaps with the scales of a dragon and the hooves of a goat. Boxer is most likely a qilin (pronounced chee-lin or ki-rin), a mythical Chinese creature with a lion-like stance, a unicorn-like horn, and deer or ox hooves from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). During this period, qilin were often represented with a dragon head, fish scales, ox hooves and a lion’s tail.
- Slippery Rock The Rock (Pennsylvania)
We named our entire university after a slippery rock. https://t.co/m7cgkjRygA— Slippery Rock University (@slipperyrocku) January 9, 2020
- Providence College Friars (Rhode Island)
- Presbyterian Blue Hose (South Carolina)
- South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Hardrockers
- Lincoln Memorial Railsplitters (Tennessee)
- Richland College Thunderduck (Texas)
- Utah Utes
- Norwich Cadets (Vermont)
- Virginia Tech Hokies
- Evergreen State College Geoducks (Washington), and it’s not even a duck. It’s a clam.
- Marshall Thundering Herd (West Virginia)
- Maranatha Baptist Sabercats (Wisconsin)
- Northwest College Trappers (Wyoming)
And finally, the most unique of all
There was a small sliver on the chart near the top of this post:
That’s because only one school out of 1,875 lists its mascot as “None.”
That’s Division III’s Hollins University N/A, and that’s how they like it.
‘The idea was last brought up in 1989, when more than 100 mascot ideas were proposed, but students ultimately decided that they were proud of the fact that Hollins didn’t have a mascot or nickname and didn’t need one because it would take away from the unique identity of the university being one of the few schools without one,’ [a school spokesperson] said. ‘That still appears to be the overwhelming sentiment.’