Sports for Dummies: Mascot Madness

Michelle Fredrickson

March Madness is a tough time of year for those of us who do not know anything about sports, because everybody is talking about basketball and their brackets. And now that “The Bachelor” is over, we do not even have our Bachelor brackets to get us through it.

It is impossible to avoid conversations about March Madness, but it is equally impossible to figure out what is going on if you do not already understand the game. Fear not sports dummies! I am here to help you out with a sneaky trick I figured out a few years ago.


I learned this a few years ago when my uncle back in Washington started a conversation with me about Gonzaga’s basketball team. I know less about basketball than I do about football, which is saying something, but I did not want to be rude, so I politely chimed in with a fun fact about Gonzaga’s mascot, the bulldog – namely, that it is the third most common mascot for colleges in America, and several colleges in Washington had the same mascot.

This allowed me to chime in with a fun fact without being rude, or giving away the fact that I had no idea what he was talking about, and no interest in it either. So here I will provide for you some fun facts about March Madness school mascots.

In fact, learning about mascots is pretty interesting. According to the International University Sports Federation (FISU), the word ‘mascot’ actually originates from a French word for ‘lucky charm.’ The French got that word from an older form of the word, which means ‘charm,’ ‘spell’ or ‘amulet’ and was used as a derogatory term to refer to witches. So in a linguistic way, mascots are sort of witchcraft.

The stories behind individual schools’ mascots are always really interesting. Mascots used to typically be predators to intimidate opponents – but if that were still the case, them the Oregon teams the Beavers and the Ducks would not be effective mascots at all. According to FISU, when the Muppets became popular in the 1960s, mascots became more fluffy, cuddly and stopped always being live animals.

I lack the room to discuss all the remaining schools in the tournament, so we will stick to seven of the top ten as ranked by CBS. I will give you one bite-sized conversation piece about each school’s mascot so you can chime in when your friends are discussing March Madness.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs

I already mentioned this one – it is the third most common mascot in the country. There are 40 four-year schools to claim this as their mascot.

2. Kansas Jayhawks

The ‘jayhawk’ makes me think of the Mockingjay from “The Hunger Games.” It is a mythical amalgamation of a blue jay and a hawk, first coined in 1848. Alternately loud and obnoxious and stealthy and aggressive, the University of Kansas website says their message is, “Don’t turn your back to this bird.”

Feeling intimidated yet?


3. Arizona Wildcats

Another very common name, the University of Arizona differentiates itself by having a pair of mascots with a cute love story. The mascots, male and female, named Wilma and Wilber Wildcat. Wilma was introduced in March 1986 on a blind date with Wilber, and the two were married later that year, according to UA’s website.

4. UCLA Bruins

This is one that has always confused me. Joe Bruin is the mascot, though there has been a female rendition named Josephine, and he is a bear. The school mascot was a bear for a while, but in the 1950s mascots were a bit tumultuous and the bear was taken officially by Berkeley, leaving UCLA to claim their unique bear’s name.

5. Kentucky Wildcats

Another Wildcat. They are a less exciting rendition of the popular mascot than Arizona, but rumor has it that their team name goes back to 1909 when students, who were cavorting in a chapel after a particularly impressive football game, likened the athletes’ performance to wildcats.

6. North Carolina Tar Heels

This is an interesting one. The actual mascot for North Carolina is a ram named Rameses, but they adopted the moniker ‘tar heels’ as a tribute to the nickname given to anyone from the state. Tar was the main product produced in the early days of North Carolina. Some legends say the name Tar Heel comes from a British mockery claiming you would get tar on your heels by walking through North Carolina. Others say the nickname comes from the Civil War, where men from North Carolina were said to stick to their units like they had tar on their heels. No definitive answer has been provided on the origins of this one.

7. Purdue Boilermakers

Nothing so intimidating as a boilermaker, isn’t that right?

This comes from the hands-on approach to engineering taken at universities in the late 1800s. Being called a ‘boiler maker’ was a colloquialism of the time akin to likening someone to a blacksmith – strong and not afraid to get dirty. A headline in 1892 was the first time the team was referred to as boilermakers, and the nickname stuck.

Well, there you have it, seven conversation pieces to help you redirect the conversation when March Madness inevitably comes up. If it were up to me, I would be deciding the winner based on the fun facts of their mascots, and I would award the win to Kansas or Purdue.

Collegian sports columnist Michelle Fredrickson can be reached by email at or on Twitter @mfredrickson42