News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

March 17, 2011

MARK BENNETT: ‘Sycamores’ the worst nickname?

‘Expert’ misses how alive our Trees are

TERRE HAUTE — Some people wouldn’t know originality if it hit them like a falling tree.

This week — the annual period when the title “expert” is about as difficult to acquire as a fishing license — the Internet is awash in predictions, rankings and assessments of the college basketball teams involved in the NCAA Tournament. One expert, fishing for an angle on his “bests and worsts” of the Big Dance schools, decided the Indiana State “Sycamores” was the worst nickname of the bunch.

The guy wonders, who names their players after a tree?

Nobody, except ISU, and that’s the beauty of it.

Out of the 64 teams that will begin March Madness today, Indiana State possesses the only nickname derived from a living, yet inanimate object.

Only four universities in the field use nicknames related to things without a pulse — the Syracuse Orange (ISU’s opponent Friday night), the St. John’s Red Storm, the Georgetown Hoyas and the Akron Zips. (An argument can be made for Ohio State. Its nickname, “Buckeyes,” comes from the Ohio state tree, but Ohio residents — living, breathing humans — have referred to themselves as “Buckeyes” since 1840.

It was in that year Ohio native and presidential candidate William Henry Harrison distributed campaign souvenirs carved from buckeye wood. Plus, the eyeball-looking fruit of the tree is also commonly known as a “buckeye.” So with top-seeded OSU, we’re either talking people or nuts.)

Syracuse and St. John’s changed their nicknames from “Orangemen” and “Redmen,” respectively, in response to criticisms they were derogatory toward Native Americans. Georgetown apparently isn’t sure where “Hoyas” originated, but it probably emerged in the late 1890s, when students there borrowed the Greek word “hoya” or “hoia” to shout “hoya saxa” (or “what rocks!”) in support of their football team. Enough said about that. Akron, the runner-up to ISU, chose Zips (shortened from Zippers) because the local BF Goodrich plant produced rubber overshoes by that name.

But “Sycamores” stands tall above the other 62 teams, Akron notwithstanding. “Sycamores” connotes sturdiness and growth. The nicknames of other teams — Huskies, Longhorns, Wildcats, Bearcats, Owls, Wolverines, Tigers and Bison — could be subdued with a tranquilizer; with ISU, a chainsaw is required. That’s tough.

According to university archives, the student body conducted a contest in 1921 to select an official nickname for its teams. Up to that point, sports squads from Indiana State Teachers College (the school’s first name) were casually identified as the “Fighting Teachers.” (Given the battles faced by public school educators around the nation, “Fighting Teachers” actually sounds even better.) With sycamore trees common along the banks of the Wabash River, students made it their No. 1 choice, and the nickname stuck.

Heck, in the 1950s and ’60s, Indiana State even dressed its student mascot in a tree outfit at ball games. Later, the walking Sycamore gave way to Chief Ouabachi, which eventually gave way to the current non-tree mascot, Sycamore Sam — a genderless, nondescript, fuzzy blue creature. Unfortunately, mascots and nicknames are often two different things. Sam serves a fun presence at games, but the image of a tree-man (or tree-woman) stalking the sidelines has a surreal, “Wizard of Oz” appeal. Picture a bark-covered, leafy Sycamore mascot hurling fruit at unruly opposing fans.

There are other one-of-a-kind monikers in this year’s tournament — the Cal-Santa Barbara Gauchos, Purdue Boilermakers, Xavier Musketeers, West Virginia Mountaineers, Old Dominion Monarchs and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Sycamores are not only just as distinctive, but also they’re far more low-maintenance. They don’t need chaps, hammers, ammunition, a shave, a raccoon pelt or a throne to sustain themselves. Just some liquids and sunshine — a diet which, in this spring break season, has a very collegiate ring to it.

Besides, the nickname hasn’t stunted ISU’s success in the Big Dance. With five victories in their last (and only) eight NCAA games heading in to Friday night, the unique Sycamores have a pretty decent run going … knock on wood.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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