There are 340 colleges and universities in the United States that are full-fledged member institutions of Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the highest level of competition in college sports. One of the larger general groups of team nicknames is birds, but much like professional sports teams, most of these nicknames aren’t backyard birds. There are 31 Division I teams that have adopted a moniker derived directly or indirectly from among only eagles, hawks and falcons – from the traditionally named Boston College Eagles to the more uniquely named Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks.
Comparatively, there are only six schools – a mere 1.8% of total Division I programs – named either directly or indirectly after backyard birds. As with professional sports teams, there are some interesting stories that go along with how the Ball State Cardinals, the Creighton Bluejays, the Illinois State Redbirds, the Lamar Cardinals, the Long Island University Brooklyn Blackbirds and the Louisville Cardinals came by their nicknames. Psst…Notice that, again as with professional sports teams, “cardinals” is the most popular choice.
Ball State University
Original Team Name: Hoosieroons
Current Team Name: Cardinals
Up until 1927, sports teams at Ball State (then known as Ball Teachers College) were known as the Hoosieroons, a name derived from the common use of “Hoosier” to describe someone from Indiana. This wasn’t exactly the zippiest of nicknames, so the school newspaper decided to hold a contest to decide on a new one. The head of the physical education department suggested Cardinals as a possibility after noting that the cardinal logo on St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Rogers Hornsby’s uniform was quite distinctive. After a vote in the student body, Cardinals was a nearly two-to-one winner over the second-place finisher of Indians. Bringing up the rear on the ballot were Delawares and the original nickname of Hoosieroons, which got a mere 37 votes out of 500.
Original Team Name: Hilltoppers
Current Team Name: Bluejays
Creighton was originally known as the Hilltoppers, but in 1924, school officials decided that they wanted a more unique name than one shared with no fewer than six other schools. After a contest in which readers of the Omaha Bee submitted approximately 200 suggestions, Creighton’s Athletic Board selected Bluejays as the new moniker, owing to the blue and white that are the school’s colors. The nearly 90-year old wish for a more unique nickname remains granted to this day, as Creighton is still the only full Division I program to be named the Bluejays. NOTE: On January 14, 1924, the Omaha Bee announced the winner — “Bluejays” — spelled as one word. Unlike the actual bird, which is two words. Read the history behind the Creighton Bluejays here.
Illinois State University
Original Team Name: Teachers
Current Team Name: Redbirds
Athletes at Illinois State were originally known as the Teachers. In 1923, however, it was decided that the nickname should be changed, perhaps to one that sounded less like what some of the athletes may have been studying to become. The school’s athletic director was a fan of changing the name to Cardinals – the school’s colors being cardinal and white – and so the school was known briefly by that moniker. But the local sports editor thought that it was only a matter of time before that name caused confusion in the headlines with baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals, which played some 170 miles away, and so used the public influence of his position to gradually change the name to Redbirds.
Original Team Name: Brahmas
Current Team Name: Cardinals
The original nickname of what was then known as South Park Junior College was the Brahmas. Brahmas being an Asiatic breed of chicken and the school being in Texas, this was a curious choice. So when the school’s name was changed in 1932 in an attempt to showcase that its reach extended beyond the South Park area of Beaumont, the athletic director (who was also the head football coach) took the opportunity to also change both the nickname and colors. Whether the new colors of maroon and gray influenced the new name or the other way around isn’t known for sure, but either way, the Brahmas became the Cardinals.
Long Island University (LIU) Brooklyn
Original Team Name: Blue Devils
Current Team Name: Blackbirds
Up until 1935, LIU Brooklyn’s uniforms were blue and athletes were referred to as the Blue Devils. But at some undetermined time between February and October of that year, the uniforms changed to black and the nickname changed to Blackbirds along with them. The popular story is that a basketball writer for the Brooklyn Eagle was covering a game and, in looking at LIU Brooklyn’s players dribbling up and down the court, was reminded of blackbirds similarly bobbing up and down while eating in the cornfields around his home in the Midwest. When he wrote his game story, he supposedly referred to the team as the Blackbirds and the name caught on.
University of Louisville
Original Team Name: TBD
Current Team Name: Cardinals
As the cardinal is the state bird of Kentucky, this was one of the more obvious choices available when Louisville needed to pick a nickname in 1913. The suggestion was originally made by the wife of the dean of the College of Liberal Arts.
Not included in the above list are the Kansas Jayhawks –a fictional combination of a blue jay and a sparrow hawk, the origin of which dates back to a nickname for Free-Staters in the pre-Civil War years – and the Stanford Cardinal, which is explicitly noted to be named for the school’s primary color and not the bird in any way, shape or form. Exhibit A: while Stanford has no official mascot, its unofficial mascot is a tree. Happy Birding!
— Written by guest writer Sean Peick