Now that Sport Change has thoroughly examined each NCAA Division I moniker, it’s time to finish this study off by ranking the Top 100.
In the Moniker Monitor Ground Rules, the factors for what make a great collegiate or semipro team nickname have been spelled out. As a refresher, here are some of those criteria and how they apply to this study:
CRITERIA FOR SELECTION
-Fun or Serious? The NCAA is an interesting blend of novelty nicknames and efforts toward respectability. In a minor league or semipro setting, goofy monikers are king and serious nicknames often seem out of place. In the NCAA, both can be good–it’s all about context. The fun ones are celebrated and the intimidating ones are respected. Additionally, many schools have historical ties that rival or exceed most pro teams, and plenty had their nicknames well before synonymous pro team monikers popped up. In fact, we can make that a criterion….
-History. Schools will not slip in the rankings due to a lack of history themselves, but there are bound to be a few historic skaters. The Kansas Jayhawks, for instance, have a terrible moniker at face value, but they’ll certainly crack the Top 100–mainly due to history and consistency.
-Regional Relevance. Whereas pro sports can get away with more universal/regionally irrelevant nicknames, semipro levels have much more liberty to pick uber-specific regionally relevant handles. Nicknames that remain ubiquitous but not specific will not slip in rank, but those with appropriate regional relevance will stand out.
-Alliteration. It helps at any level. At collegiate levels, there is much, much more leeway for riding alliteration as a leading nickname attribute. Monikers almost always sound better when the place name and the nickname begin with the same letters.
-Sound of Moniker. Often the actual sound of a word being pronounced can have an effect on the overall name. A hard ‘K’ sound (Buckeyes, Jayhawks) within a word can give bonus points to a nickname that doesn’t measure up at face value. It can also make a good name become great. Additionally, the way the place name meshes with the nickname certainly helps, such as in Houston Cougars or Valparaiso Crusaders. You almost need to say it aloud to appreciate it.
Those will be our main criteria for selection. Now, let’s talk about the selection process. For these rankings, Sport Change selected a total of 150 Division I monikers from which to draw the Top 100. There are about 350 nicknames in D-I, so where did the other 200 go?
–Part 1 of this study focused on monikers that are shared by pro sports teams in the Big Four. From these, Sport Change selected only 25 of a little over 100. Each moniker was limited to only one representative at maximum. For example, eight D-I schools use ‘Panthers,’ but only Pittsburgh was selected to be eligible for the Top 100.
–Part 2 of this study focused on monikers that are not seen in pro sports, but are replicated throughout D-I. Again, only one representative of each moniker was considered eligible, and 25 of a little over 100 were selected. For example, of the fourteen ‘Bulldogs,’ Georgia is the only one available for ranking.
–Part 3 of this study focused on the 115 unique monikers in D-I. This list was narrowed down to an even 100 by eliminating 15 monikers that had no shot of cracking the Top 100. The entire ‘color’ category was eliminated. You will not see the Stanford Cardinal or Syracuse Orange on this list.
So added all up, that gives us 150 of approximately 350. From here, all 150 monikers of each category are lumped together and weighed against each other using the criteria listed above.
So…without further ado, here is a countdown of the Sport Change Top 100 NCAA Division I sports team nicknames:
100. Eastern Kentucky Colonels. ‘Colonels’ is a decent nickname, and the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels wore it well. EKU carries on the crispy-fried tradition.
99. NCState Wolfpack. I’m generallly not a fan of nicknames that do not end in the letter S, but NC-State makes Wolfpack respectable and palatable.
98. UCLA Bruins. Bruins is a bizarre moniker since it’s a word almost nobody uses in normal language. As such, it’s much better served on the collegiate level than in the pros.
97. Valparaiso Crusaders. The sound of these two words together is what pushes Valpo onto the list. At face value, the moniker isn’t so great.
96. UTEP Miners. Blunt and simple. A blue-collar moniker that says something about the El Paso area, as depressing as that might be.
95. Utah Utes. It’s the best of the Native American monikers. The alliteration is almost comical.
94. Bucknell Bison. What’s better: Bison or Bisons? Bison is grammatically correct, but it makes for tricky pluralization. Bucknell gets the nod for alliteration. Why is it that an overgrown cow can seem so intimidating?
93. Texas Longhorns. Speaking of overgrown cows, UT gets points for regional relevance and for wearing their identity well.
92. Kansas Jayhawks. History certainly nudges KU along here. At face value, what is a Jayhawk? There are conflicting stories about the name’s origin.
91. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. It’s a reference to the rooster from Canterbury Tales. Bonus points for digging deep and coming up with something unique–there is plenty of leeway for this on the collegiate level. Go Chants!
90. Rutgers Scarlet Knights. ‘Knights’ is a very good sports moniker that is rarely used. The variant of Scarlet Knights is interesting if nothing else. Pretty nice nickname.
89. San Francisco Dons. A reference to Spanish noblemen. The mascot used to greatly resemble Zorro, but it became a cease-and-desist copyright situation. The moniker? Simple, unique, good.
88. Wichita State Shockers. This is an antiquated reference to the practice of bundling wheat, or making ‘shocks.’ Regionally relevant and certainly one-of-a-kind.
87. UCSB Gauchos. The nomadic cowboys of South America. Respectable and fun. Sombreros off to the Gauchos.
86. UMBC Retrievers. Here’s one of many domesticated dog nicknames in Division I. This one is a very regionally relevant reference to the Chesapeake Bay retriever. Fear the ferocious fetchers of Baltimore County!
85. Loyola Maryland Greyhounds. This is a more respectable pooch nickname in that greyhounds are synonymous with speed. Terrific for basketball. This Baltimore based school is only a tennis ball’s throw from UMBC.
84. Albany Great Danes. This doggy gets credit for originality and respectability. It works well as a collegiate sports moniker and can be shortened to just ‘Danes.’
83. Southern Utah Thunderbirds. A very respectable reference to Native American folklore in the Southwestern United States. The T-Birds have a unique and powerful nickname.
82. Northwestern State Demons. I appreciate the diminutive quality here. Where ‘Devils’ works on the pro level, ‘Demons’ holds it’s own on the amateur level. DePaul wears ‘Blue Demons’ very well, but the blue is holding them back. It’s a shame, because the alliteration would be perfect.
81. Furman Paladins. Paladin is a brave knight of ancient European folklore. Furman adds a little more fun to Division I with this moniker.
80. Idaho Vandals. I imagine that when this nickname was picked, it had a similar connotation as ‘Raiders.’ Nowadays, it’s impossible to extricate the name from the non-PC act of vandalism. I appreciate the scrappy outlaw nature here, and commend Idaho for sticking to their guns. Or spray paint cans.
79. Denver Pioneers. It’s a shame that ‘Pioneers’ is not represented in the Big Four. Portland nearly picked it, but chose Trailblazers instead. Too bad, because that would’ve been one of the best monikers in all pro sports. At least Denver can don the coonskin cap and wear it well.
78. Pennsylvania Quakers. It may not be the most intimidating nickname you’ve ever heard, but Pennsylvania pays homage to the Quaker State every time they suit up for a game.
77. Florida A&M Rattlers. Representing the reptiles in good fashion, the Rattlers have some teeth in their name.
76. Marist Red Foxes. I’m not sure that the ‘Red’ is totally necessary, but since a red fox is a legit creature, I’ll accept. Foxes make terrific mascots on the amateur levels, and are underutilized.
75. USC Trojans. ‘Trojans’ is less intimidating than ‘Spartans,’ but is a nice history-based nickname with history of it’s own.
74. IPFW Mastadons. More clever and obscure than most monikers–Mastodons was a solid choice for Fort Wayne.
73. UTSA Roadrunners. A very nice regionally-relevant collegiate nickname. Arizona U should change their name from Wildcats to Roadrunners. For now, the name is San Antonio’s.
72. Clemson Tigers. Just simply the best use of ‘Tigers’ in Division I.
71. Southern Jaguars. Southern edged out the other few Jaguars in D-I, and the name is probably more appropriate for a college than an NFL team.
70. Duquesne Dukes. ‘Dukes’ is a very solid moniker, especially for a college or semipro team. Duquesne takes alliteration to an extreme, but the name doesn’t overly rely on it.
69. Houston Cougars. This has to be the best use of Cougars, especially the way the words ‘Houston’ and ‘Cougars’ mesh together so well.
68. Iowa State Cyclones. I’m generally not a big fan of weather nicknames, but Cyclones is solid. Iowa State wears it well.
67. Saint Peter’s Peacocks. A unique and fun bird moniker that is masculine, I guess. The sound of the place name and moniker work well together.
66. Alabama Crimson Tide. At face value, it’s really not much better than say, the Green Wave of Tulane. ‘Bama makes our list with a boost from history and the effective use of color scheme and “Roll Tide.”
65. Austin Peay Governors. The school is named after a former governor of Tennessee, so the moniker is a literal reflection of that. Pretty funny.
64. UAB Blazers. I like the term ‘Blazers’ for a sports team, but it’s important to note that Birmingham took a different path than the Portland Trailblazers by using a dragon as a mascot.
63. Kent State Golden Flashes. There are other similar nicknames (like the St. Francis Red Flash) that are terrible, but for some reason Golden Flashes works. Those two words sound great together, and it lends itself well to flashy gold uniforms.
62. Cal Golden Bears. Generally speaking, I don’t like over-specific variants. That said, I’m a sucker for ‘golden’ anything. Cal also gets credit for the golden-colored bear on the California state flag.
61. Kentucky Wildcats. Arguably the best use of ‘Wildcats’–a terrific nickname. It’s almost a shame that there are so many colleges with the name, because it would be workable at the pro level; certainly better than Bengals or Bobcats.
60. Wake Forest Demon Deacons. This is a very strange nickname that’s hard to say without feeling a little uncertain. Maybe that’s what makes it so good! That, and history.
59. South Dakota State Jackrabbits. Like ‘Greyhounds,’ this nickname sounds speedy. It’s also fun and regionally relevant.
58. South Carolina Gamecocks. It’s tough and thoroughly Southern. The hard ‘k’ sound in the middle of the word packs a peck.
57. Virginia Cavaliers. Classy and respectable. Virginia wears this nickname better than Cleveland, in my opinion.
56. Tennessee Volunteers. The Volunteer State is represented literally, and Tennessee gets boosts from history and a maddening level of consistency and simplicity. Two colors and a T for a logo.
55. UMKC Kangaroos. One of three schools on this list that have a logo that was once designed or inspired by Walt Disney. Kangaroos is a very fun nickname, and Kansas City gets points for alliteration too.
54. Fairfield Stags. A solid, decent, masculine nickname. Not as good as Bucks, but good nonetheless.
53. Canisius Golden Griffins. If it were just Griffins, it would be ranked higher. Griffins is a terrific reference to a mythological creature, and is intimidating to boot. The ‘golden’ is certainly unnecessary, but it’s better than, say, Blue Griffins.
52. Nebraska Cornhuskers. Regionally-relevant state nickname moniker that works pretty well. It is, however, just a bit corny.
51. Minnesota Golden Gophers. It’s goofy, no doubt, but there’s plenty of leeway for that kind of thing in college sports. The ‘golden’ is alliterative, too, so it doesn’t lose points for over-specificity.
50. North Carolina Tar Heels. Another state nickname moniker that sounds tough, even if it is a bit of a headscratcher. For the record, a Tar Heel is not a sheep–it’s a person with pine pitch on their foot.
49. Ohio State Buckeyes. Whoever thought that a tree nut moniker could be both tough and fun. History helps the pride of the Buckeye State.
48. Miami Hurricanes. Regionally relevant, sure, but also well-branded and at this point–historic.
47. Louisville Cardinals. Cardinals is certainly an overused moniker, but Louisville pulls it off surprisingly well.
46. Creighton Blue Jays. Creighton wears the blue quite well, and operates this nickname independently of the Toronto baseballers.
45. Michigan State Spartans. It references a ruthless and brutal historic culture, so I guess that counts for something. The hard ‘T’ sound in the middle of the word sounds tough as well.
44. Long Island-Brooklyn Blackbirds. Nice. This is the only time I’ve heard ‘Blackbirds’ used as a team nickname, but it works really well. Nice.
43. West Virginia Mountaineers. West Virginia is a state that would expect to have Mountaineers as a sport team nickname. It just works.
42. Southern Methodist Mustangs. Mustangs is a moniker that would fit well at any level, including the pros. SMU pulls it off very well, considering that they’ve kept a consistent brand at least since Eric Dickerson wore the red and white.
41. Campbell Fighting Camels. The ‘Fighting’ is unnecessary, but it’s also fun. Ignoring it, Campbell Camels has terrific alliteration.
40. Cal-Irvine Anteaters. There’s a team called the Anteaters? This is what non-professional sports can do so well.
39. Washington Huskies. A pretty solid moniker all around, and Washington wears it just slightly better than UCONN.
38. Portland Pilots. Pilots is a very good nickname that works at any level. Portland also gets the alliterative boost.
37. Wyoming Cowboys. This is such a wholesale use of Cowboys, that it’s impossible to ignore. Dallas may own the moniker, but Wyoming is going nowhere. The same logo is on licence plates and road signs.
36. Oregon State Beavers. State nickname moniker that is also fun and furry.
35. Iowa Hawkeyes. The Hawkeye State is represented by collegiate teams that wear the nicknames as well as possible. Simplicity and history.
34. Georgia Bulldogs. The best of the many Bulldogs, and that’s saying something. Woof!
33. Arkansas Razorbacks. It’s fun yet also regionally-relevant. That word ‘razorback’ is fun to say, and it meshes will with Arkansas.
32. La Salle Explorers. Very nice and family-friendly, to boot. Just a great college nickname, all around.
31. Hawaii Warriors. Warriors is always a great moniker, and Hawaii takes a measure of pride from the traditions of the indigenous Hawaiian warrior culture.
30. Baylor Bears. Bears may be overused and ‘owned’ by Chicago, but Baylor wears the name well. Alliteration is a big bonus.
29. Purdue Boilermakers. A gritty blue-collar name always earns extra points. The college equivalent of the Steelers.
28. Massachusetts Minutemen. Very regionally-relevant and also alliterative. Tough and respectable too.
27. Colorado Buffaloes. There’s just something about buffaloes that commands respect. Colorado works a Wild West image to very good effect.
26. Southern Illinois Salukis. This one always seems to come to the forefront every few years in the basketball tournament. To refresh: the saluki is a breed of dog favored by ancient Egyptians. Southern Illinois is known as little Egypt due to city names like Cairo and Thebes. Hence, the SIU Salukis.
25. New Mexico Lobos. The simple ‘Wolves’ might not be used anywhere in the Big Four or D-I, but the Spanish translation sounds great and works well in a border state.
24. Delaware Blue Hens. No, it’s not the most masculine moniker in America. But it’s fun, state-specific, and color coodinatable. I love inventing words.
23. Providence Friars. This is about as good as a religious moniker can get. The two words work nicely together, and the moniker manages to be respectable.
22. Wofford Terriers. Fun, scrappy, and even a little tough. Got to love how Wofford is basically Woof-ord. Excellent. Arf!
21. Montana Grizzlies. The best use of Grizzles out there. If only Memphis would take a hint from Montana and use a regionally relevant nickname.
20. San Diego State Aztecs. I hope that nobody is offended by this moniker, because I think it’s excellent. It’s representative of a historic culture in much the same way as Vikings or Spartans, and it fits well within a city near the border.
19. Buffalo Bulls. Bulls may be used in Chicago to good effect, but it’s universal enough to allow for a few other versions. Buffalo makes terrific use of alliteration, and this is a much better moniker than the Buffalo Bills.
18. Pittsburgh Panthers. I think Pitt wears Panthers better than any other sports organization in the country, including both of the pro teams. Awesome.
17. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns. Hilarious and region specific, with great rhyming. It’s the kind of moniker that makes you want to dance a zydeco and take a roadtrip to Louisiana. Much better than Fighting Irish. Hats off.
16. Saint Louis Billikens. Saint Louis takes the cake for having no inhibitions about goofiness and using a bit of city folklore in their moniker. Makes for good conversation when Saint Louis makes the basketball tourney.
15. Arizona State Sun Devils. This is a variant that really works well. There’s just something believable about a devil in the sun and it fits Arizona. Fun fact: the Sparky logo is a cartoon rendering of Walt Disney. Why would Walt Disney be a devil? Because the cartoonist was fired by Disney.
14. Maine Black Bears. Another one (like Red Foxes) that’s a specific variant, yet an actual animal. It’s intimidating and it fits with Maine very well.
13. Vermont Catamounts. A catamount is another word for cougar, mountain lion, puma….basically a more colloquial version of Wildcats. Catamount is short for cat-o’-the-mountain.
12. Ohio Bobcats. Forget the NBA; here’s a moniker that’s meant for amateur levels. Ohio wears it best of all the Bobcats. It looks like the NBA franchise in Charlotte may change their nickname, which would give ‘ownership’ back to Ohio.
11. Richmond Spiders. It may be creepy, but it’s very effective. I’m glad that there’s a team somewhere named the Spiders. This is one of the monikers that stands out in NCAA basketball tournaments. Simply webderful.
10. Texas Christian Horned Frogs. Horned Frogs is one of those monikers that’s fun, unique, and regionally relevant at the expense of being overly serious and intimidating. In other words, it’s perfect for D-I. Now if Texas gave up the Longhorns and started called themselves the Christian Horned Frogs, that would really be something.
9. Oregon Ducks. Everybody loves this moniker, and the Anaheim hockey team should take their webbed feet off of it. Oregon is the third team on this list that has a Disney logo connection. The use of Donald Duck as a team logo is acceptable under an agreement between Oregon and Disney. Go figure.
8. Wisconsin Badgers. The Badger State actually refers to a nickname for miners who made their homes in the earth. There are actually not many badgers in Wisconsin. Either way, Bucky is a great mascot and the moniker has teeth.
7. Michigan Wolverines. The Wolverine State (also Great Lakes State) actually refers to a nickname for ferocious soldiers in Michigan who once fought against Ohio. There are actually next to no wolverines in Michigan. Either way, it’s a unique sports moniker with plenty of teeth.
6. Xavier Musketeers. I love it. Great way to reference historic swashbucklers and literature at the same time. The X logo always brings to mind either two swords crossed or a mark left in a similar manner as Zorro’s Z.
5. Temple Owls. At the end of the day, it’s the animal nicknames that come out on top. Owls wouldn’t work well on a pro level, but in college: sublime. Fun fact: former Temple basketball coach John Chaney resembles an owl.
4. Lafayette Leopards. Yes! This what a non-professional cat nickname should be. It’s more obscure than most, yet it’s also a large ferocious feline. The alliteration shoots Lafayette towards the top.
3. Florida Gators. It’s fierce yet fun. It’s universal yet regional. It lends itself to a hilarious hand motion for fans. Nice work, Florida.
2. Drexel Dragons. I don’t think Dragons is ready for the pro level, but it’s an absolutely terrific moniker for college, semipro, or other minor leagues. It’s respectable and literary, but also unique and a bit goofy. Drexel gets a big handful of bonus points for alliteration–which is much trickier when your place name begins with a consonant cluster.
1. Maryland Terrapins. Funny, original, and just obscure enough. A moniker that lends itself to a lovable mascot, yet still commands a measure of respect. The best part: Maryland and Terrapin rhyme. A shell-shockingly good moniker!
A few monikers just missed the Top 100. Both fight song remnant nicknames, the Virginia Tech Hokies and the Georgetown Hoyas, weren’t able to cheer their way in. The two state nickname based monikers that didn’t make it were the Indiana Hoosiers and the Oklahoma Sooners. There’s just nothing to hold on to there. The two bullfighters, the Cal-Northridge Matadors and the San Diego Toreros, got pushed out of the ring. The three flighty Ohio programs: the Dayton Flyers, Toledo Rockets, and Akron Zips flew out of the rankings. Despite the nice alliteration, the Longwood Lancers were not able to poke themselves into the Top 100.
So there you have it. It took the better part of a month, but we have fully explored about all there is to know about sports team nicknames in NCAA Division I. Thanks for reading. Feel free to post comments or argue the rankings. How would you rank them? What’s your top ten?
What’s next on Sport Change? Something different, for Pete’s sake. Stay tuned.