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What Is It With the Big Ten?

I understand we’re still getting to know each other (I’ve been told I’m an acquired taste), and you’re probably still shy about asking me questions. No problem, I’ll answer a few that I know you would want to ask if we were hanging out together, like….

(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)

What is it with THE Ohio State University? After all, Maryland alum don’t refer to the school as THE University of Maryland. Is it just an ego thing? My research indicated that it pretty much is. THE has been part of the official name of the school since 1878, when it was renamed from “”Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College” by the Ohio State Legislature-who said politicians never get anything important done?

The school went through a rebranding as “OSU” in 1977, but by 1986 realized that was getting it mixed up with Oregon State University or Oklahoma State University. The emphasis on THE, legend has it, was to not only differentiate it from those schools but also to establish it as THE university in the state of Ohio. I’d say that is certainly the case during football season anyway.

What is it with Penn State being called “Happy Valley?” According to an article from Onwardstate.com, the first mention of it was in a column in the local newspaper the Centre Daily Times (still around, BTW) in 1960 as a general description of the school’s home, State College, PA. After using it several more times, the phrase Happy Valley gained traction with the student body.

The nation became exposed to Happy Valley when Penn State’s football program started appearing on national television in the late 1960’s, and broadcasters trying to sound connected with the local scene were using the phrase. Since it has even survived the turmoil of the Sandusky sex scandal, I think we can assume Happy Valley is here to stay.

What is it with Minnesota’s mascot being called the Golden Gopher? This answer turned out to be a lot more twisted than I expected. One of the state nicknames for Minnesota is “The Gopher State.” That reference goes back to a political scandal in 1857, and I’ll use this excerpt from “The Daily Gopher,” the University of Minnesota site on SBNation.com:

It is a political cartoon made in opposition to a proposed amendment to the Minnesota State Constitution allowing the state to issue $5,000,000 worth of bonds to assist the construction of railroads. The cartoon shows ten men under the tracks with $10,000 bags of gold weighting down their necks, each of which represent legislators bribed into passing the act. On the tracks is a train of cars drawn by nine gophers with human heads, each representing various advocates of the act. This widely spread cartoon is credited with giving Minnesota the nickname of “The Gopher State”. Before this, the popular choice was to call Minnesota the Beaver State.

Sounds like a push to me, going from beavers to gophers. Why are they Golden? The school became known as the Gopher in the 1920’s, and in 1934 their football announcer first referred to them as Golden Gophers because they wore gold jersey,s and it stuck. Their mascot Goldy first appeared in 1952.

So what’s with Nebraska being known as the Cornhuskers? This is essentially the opposite of the Minnesota story. IN the 1890’s, according to Huskers.com, the Nebraska sports teams were known by catchy names as the Old Gold Knights, Antelopes, Rattlesnake Boys, and the Bugeaters. Amazingly, it was the Bugeaters, described as “insect-devouring bull bats that hovered over the plains,” that stuck for a few years.

It was sportswriter Cy Sherman, one of the originators of the Associated Press Top 20 poll, who tired of writing that name (can’t blame him) and borrowed one of the unofficial nicknames from Iowa, the Cornhuskers. Turns out Iowa was partial to Hawkeyes anyway, so there were no hard feelings. While to many of us outside of Nebraska the Cornhusker nickname may seem lame, it’s hard to argue that it isn’t an upgrade over Bugeaters (Or is it? Hmmm….). It caught so much that Cornhuskers became the official state of Nebraska nickname.

So what’s up with the Michigan State Spartans? Here is another case of a lame nickname being upgraded by a sports writer. In 1925, Michigan Agricultural College was renamed Michigan State College (remember Terps Fans, our school was founded at the Maryland Agricultural College and the first nickname was the Aggies). According to msuspartans.com, the school sponsored a contest to replace their Aggie nickname. This ended with the painfully boring result of “Michigan Staters.”

The sports editor of the Lansing State Journal (also still around) found that too cumbersome and came up with the name “Spartons,” which was soon corrected to Spartans and stuck.

And finally, the question I teased last week, what is it with Urbana-Champaign? Which town is the University of Illinois actually in? Urbana was there first, founded in 1833. When the first railroad came through in 1854, a new settlement called West Urbana was started and quickly grew to be much larger than the original town. Residents voted to establish it as the independent city of Champaign in 1861.

In 1868, Illinois Industrial University (now the University of Illinois) was founded in the area between the borders of the two towns. Champaign made an attempt to extend its borders and claim the University, but was thwarted by Urbana. There have been several attempts to merge the cities, as recently as 1980, but all have been voted down. So does the school sit in Urbana or Champaign? Yes. Parts of the school are in both cities, which is why the location is commonly referred to as Urbana-Champaign.

I’m out of questions (and answers, for that matter) for this week. Don’t forget, you can follow me on Twitter @The_BIGBlog and reach me by e-mail at [email protected] I also hang out on the message boards, mostly in the University of Maryland & NCAA sections, where I periodically post links to BIG news stories you might find interesting.

School is getting ready to start, so we’ll continue our history class next week with a focus on the evolution of the Big 10 conference itself, including the school that dropped out, the school that got kicked out, and later readmitted to the conference, the school whose admission was fought by a rival for decades, the school that finally joined over a century after their first attempt, and more. Until then, live large and have a BIG week everyone!

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Written by Jim Johnson
3 months ago
College Football,

Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson is a life-long Maryland Terrapins and college sports fan and a proud U of Md. alum. Jim started writing about the Terps on his own blog during the Steve Francis season of 1998-99. He then moved on to cover ACC hoops and football across the Internet, adopting the moniker "The Courtmaster" and becoming a frequent "expert" guest on Bob Haynie's old WNST show and other sports radio stations across the country. You can find some of his classic (?) work on his old blog. Jim laid down his gavel in 2007 and is returning to sportswriting after a sabbatical he spent furthering his career as a non-profit executive and senior accounting professional, becoming an ordained minister, and gnashing his teeth/sulking about Maryland joining the Big Ten. He figured the best way to scratch his sportswriting itch was to dive in head first to learn about the Big Ten, the current teams, schools, and history, and share what he learns with our readers. Jim enjoys interacting with readers, exchanging ideas, and most of all having fun. You can chat with him on the message boards or by e-mail at [email protected]

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