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From Beavers to Wildcats: Stories behind the names of Pac-12 teams

Believe it or not, sportswriters and Walt Disney were influential on the how the teams were formed.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship Game-Southern California vs Stanford Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

What’s in a name? In the Pac-12, the country’s second oldest major conference, the team names represent history, tradition and for some, an entire region. Some of the most unique names in all of college football originated in the west and shaped the way we look at collegiate sports. Here’s how the group of twelve were given their names.

An early Oregon State Beavers logo around 1908
Oregon State University/ Beaver Relics

Oregon State Beavers

Like many universities around the US, a nickname given to a team is usually the state’s official animal. The ‘Beaver’, in the case of Oregon, was given to OSU in 1912. The change was influenced by journalist L.H. Gregory of the Oregonian, who wrote about the topic widely. Prior to that time, Oregon State was known as ‘Oregon Agricultural College’ with ‘Aggies’ as their nickname.

UCLA Bruins

1930’s: UCLA’s original Joe Bruin

The “Southern Branch” of the University of California in Los Angeles was UCLA’s humble beginning in 1919. An original name for the football team was the ‘Cubs’, the younger version of their affiliate team in Cal Berkeley. Throughout the years of struggle and being outmatched by high school teams, SB of Cal won their first game in 1922 and took on the nickname of the ‘Grizzlies’. It wasn’t until 1927 that UCLA was created and in the following year the ‘Bruins’ name was born. The University obtained a live brown bear to be on the sidelines during game in the 1930’s, but were met with difficult circumstances and eventually decided to use costumed mascots named Joe and Josephine Bruin.

Colorado Buffaloes

Colorado Buffaloes 1930’s
University of Colorado

A team originally known as the ‘Silver and Gold’, in reference to the Colorado Miners until 1934, when a $5 national contest was held by CU’s newspaper to find a new name. Athletic director Harry Carlson, graduate manager Walter Franklin and Kenneth Bundy declared ‘Buffaloes’ as the winner. Since that time, many different uses of the name have described CU. Ralphie I was introduced in 1967 as the best mascot in college football history.

Stanford Cardinal

Oct. 5, 1957: Stanford vs. Rice football program
Rice University/ Rule of Tree

Leland Stanford Junior University or Stanford for short was founded in 1885 and was a memorial to railroad tycoon Leland Stanford’s only son. The influence of the ‘Cardinal’ name came from the students who selected school colors. In 1891, gold was voted to represent Stanford’s only color. Although, another assembly disagreed and fought for the red variation of Cardinal. A local Palo Alto sportswriter caught wind of theme and gave life to Stanford’s name in a summary of the big game vs. Cal. On March 19, 1891, the paper read, “Cardinal Triumphs O’er Blue and Gold.”

Later in Stanford’s history, the nickname ‘Indian’ along with a mascot was used starting in the 1930’s, mostly due to the large Native American population in the area. It was carried on until a group of Stanford students took up the task of righting the wrong in 1972. University president Richard Lyman decided it was time for a change and removed the symbolism demeaning the heritage of the Native Americans. Stanford formally decided in 1981 to stick with the Cardinal tradition as a team name. Not the bird, but the color. Thus why there’s a funny looking tree roaming the sidelines at Stanford games.

Washington State Cougars

1927: ‘Butch I’ was presented to Washington State at halftime of the Homecoming game against the University of Idaho by Governor Roland H. Hartley
Washington State University

Almost by association of how Washington State played on the field, the ‘Cougars’ nickname came by a suggestion of a cartoonist from Oakland, California. The unknown artist portrayed the team as a Cougar preying on a Golden Bear after WSU’s first game vs. California in 1919. A couple of days later, on Oct. 28 of that year, the school announced it would designate the team as the Cougars. The first mascot was named ‘Butch’ after the Cougars star halfback Herbert “Butch” Meeker.

Oregon Ducks

Oregon AD Leo Harris (left) and Walt Disney (right) wearing jackets featuring Donald Duck as the school’s new logo in the 1940’s
University of Oregon/ Disney Archives

A mistake of words led Oregon writers in the 1890’s to land on the ‘Ducks’ nickname. The saga started in the 1700’s with Oregon’s original name ‘Webfoots’ being a term to describe Massachusetts fisherman who helped George Washington evacuate 10,000 troops across the East River during the American Revolution. The Webfoot name carried on to Oregon residents that settled into Williamette Valley in the 1840’s. Three decades later, in 1876 when the University was founded in Eugene, athletic teams were called Webfoots. Sportswriters were looking for a way to shorten headlines and linked Ducks as being the same and Webfoot by description; not the origin of the word. Ducks became a fan favorite and a household name in the 1940’s. Around that time, U of O athletic director Leo Harris and Walt Disney agreed to the innovation of Donald Duck as the school’s mascot.

California Golden Bears

1895 University of California track team banner. A main inspiration to the Golden Bears name
University of California at Berkeley

Perhaps the oddest way to land on a name came from Charles Mills Gayley, a University of California professor, who suggested a change in the 1860’s. Berkley’s team was originally called the ‘Blue and Gold’ and Gayley saw a better opportunity after a track and field trip back east. He noticed a blue banner with a golden colored bear, and in true California fashion wrote a song about the ordeal titled, “Our Sturdy Golden Bear.” The name became popular and was adopted as Cal’s nickname in 1895. The team was once nicknamed the ‘Bruins’ before UCLA and both schools were affiliated as one core university until the late 1920’s.

Washington Huskies

1919: Washington Sun Dodgers “Sunny Boy” logo
University of Washington

Originally called the ‘Sun Dodgers’ with the mascot “sunny boy” before the 1920’s, there was a stir on the Washington campus for change due to the the name not fitting the image of the northwest. A campus magazine also with the same title was banned from the university around the same time. Students rallied together and the decision came down to a dog fight between ‘Malamutes’ and ‘Huskies’. Being in close proximity to Alaska, the UW committee felt it was appropriate to pay homage to their culture.

Arizona State Sun Devils

“Sparky” Arizona State’s mascot in 1951 drawing by Bert Anthony
Arizona State University

The history of Arizona State in the “Valley of the Sun” is a unique one to say the least. 132 years of history and ‘Sun Devils’ became the third school name in the fall of 1946. Prior to that time, the school evolved from the Tempe Normal Owls to the Arizona State Teachers College Bulldogs in 1923. On Nov. 20, 1946, ASU students voted in-favor of changing the school’s name to Sun Devils. The next day Arizona State played the first game under the new moniker without a clear vision of a Mascot. University officials called on Bert Anthony, a graphic artist for Walt Disney, who created the defunct logo for the Stanford Indian. His design of ‘Sparky’ is rumored to be a depiction of the late Walt Disney himself.

USC Trojans

Nov. 22, 1947: UCLA vs. USC at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in front of a sellout crowd of 102,050.
University of Southern California

Before 1912, the teams of Southern Cal were known as the “Methodists’ or ‘Wesleyans’— not a favorable term by university officials at the time. Looking for a new direction athletic director Warren Bovard asked LA Times editor Owen R. Bird to pick a proper nickname. A prior article by Bird referred to USC’s fight against Stanford like the ancient Greek warriors battling for Troy.

Bird summarized the meaning by saying, “The term Trojan as applied to USC means to me that no matter what the situation, what the odds or what the conditions, the competition must be carried on to the end and those who strive must give all they have and never be weary in doing so.” The words written over a century ago lives on forever at USC’s campus. An armor-plated Trojan rides Traveller, a white stallion, on the sidelines at games and is one of college football’s most breathtaking sites. Traveller I was originally used in old western television programs and was donated to USC after being retired. Traveller wasn’t the only USC mascot, an unofficial dog named ‘George Tirebiter’ was kept around by USC student body from 1947-61.

Utah Utes

Southern Ute Tribe in the 1880’s
Denver Public Library

A state named after a sector of America’s indigenous ancestors is the home of the Utes. Founded in 1850 the University of Utah would spend the first 50 years without football. During the half-century lapse in time, violence between the squatting pioneer immigrants known as the ‘Mormons’ and the native Utes was one of the worst wars in the region’s history. Utah wanted to honor the tribe and decided to keep Utes as a nickname during their first season in 1892.

Arizona Wildcats

Arizona’s first mascot ‘Rufus the wildcat’ and his handler in 1928
University of Arizona Archives

Known as the ‘Red and Blue’ before 1914, the Wildcats started out as a description and less of a namesake. An unknown student correspondent for the Los Angeles Times was covering Arizona’s football game vs. Occidental and wrote, “The Arizona men showed the fight of wild cats.” The outstanding penmanship was greatly accepted by Arizona’s student body in Tucson, so much so that it became the nickname for athletics shorty after. It wasn’t until 1964 the “unknown” writer, who gave life to Arizona, was recognized as Bill Henry, a longtime LA news writer.

As the late Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know — the rest of the story.”