Mascots: School Spirit & Symbolism
By Merlisa Lawrence Corbett
Late spring signals the arrival of commencement ceremonies. One of the best things about these events is how they promote school pride.
Students, past and present, rally around a singular sense of belonging. They become proud Blue Devils, Red Devils, Hornets, Highlanders, Dreadnaughts, Yellow Jackets, Eagles, Titans, Panthers, Fighting Braves, Bloodhounds or Moccasins.
It’s one of the few times, outside of sports, when the school’s nickname, or mascot, is most beloved. That’s because sports are the reason schools even have mascots.
Unlike the official school name, usually chosen by civic or business leaders, the mascot represents the voice of the students.
A school’s name acts as the nameplate on a physical structure. The mascot embodies the soul of the student body.
Monuments to notable people, plenty of schools across the country are named after John F. Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Locally, Publix founder George W. Jenkins has a high school named after him.
All of those men are respected. But do you want to stand up and cheer for them? Nope. Instead, we’d much rather root for fury creatures, dangerous mamals, mythical characters or endangered species.
When we enter stadiums and arenas we want to roar like Tigers, not orate like presidents.
Yet, when it comes to our mascots, few people know much about the origins of their school’s nickname.
According to Leah Lauderdale, Senior Director of Public Relations & Strategic Partnerships for Polk County Schools, there’s no centralized historical documentation on the origins of area school nicknames. Instead, Lauderdale said people rely on oral history and urban legends.
About 11 years ago a group of Kathleen High School graduates, including Athletic Director Gary Lineberger, decided to start a Hall of Fame to honor notable alumni. One of the first honorees was former Kathleen principal and football coach Albert Adams.
Adams coached the football team in 1942 the first year of the program.
“In his biography he explained how we got the name Red Devils,” Lineberger says. “He talked about how years ago, back in the 40s, when they first started the football team… He talked about kids riding horses to practice. It was really amazing.”
As the story goes, Kathleen became the Red Devils for budget reasons. “The cheapest, most inexpensive uniforms they could find to buy back then was a solid red uniform,” says Lineberger. “And the kids chose the name Red Devils.”
That’s usually what happens, says Lauderdale. “I’m sure the names are vetted and then put to a vote.”
Lineberger feels fortunate to have had a chance to hear the story from Adams. “I actually had a chance to speak with him. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to attend the ceremony because he was ill and passed away shortly after.”
On the other side of the county are the Winter Haven Blue Devils, my own alma mater.
According to a 1981 article in the Lakeland Ledger, there is no definitive record of how Winter Haven became Blue Devils. But the consensus is that they probably borrowed it from the Duke University Blue Devils.
A Winter Haven High School yearbook from 1923 includes some vague history of the boys’ basketball team. Apparently, some boys from “colleges out of state” started the team. Duke’s basketball team dates back to 1906.
Lakeland Senior High School has one of the more unique mascots, the Dreadnaught, a World War I British battleship. A Scottish schoolmaster reportedly suggested the name back in the 1920s.
Other mascots, such as the Tenoroc Titans and Haines City Hornets, were probably picked for the alliteration.
In 2011, Polk State College made the decision to change the school’s mascot from a viking to a soaring eagle. It seemed only fitting to lose the imagery denoting a seafaring people from Scandinavia as there was no real connection. Nests of bald eagles dot Polk County and are more representative of the area, and hence the students of PSC.
According to Florida Southern College’s sports information director, the school first used the nickname “Moccasins” or “Mocs” in 1926, shortly after the college move to Lakeland in 1922.
Before that the football, baseball and basketball teams were called the “Southerners” based on the school’s previous name — Southern College.
Of course the water moccasin is well known in these parts. Still, in 1961 there was an attempt to change the nickname. However, students voted to keep it.
Nationally, some colleges have come under political pressure to change their nicknames. Even in those cases students usually have a say in whether to perpetuate or eliminate a mascot.
Other times, it’s about business. When I was a student at the University of South Florida, the school used two nicknames: Bulls and Golden Brahman.
In 1962, the nickname Golden Brahman supposedly beat out less popular choices like Desert Rats and Roosters. But it initially lost to Buccaneer because some students feared a tiny college in Pensacola had that name first. So they went with the second choice, Golden Brahman.
That name lasted until the 1980s when the growing athletic department thought the name Bulls was easier to promote.
Nearly twenty years after I graduated I attended a Washington D.C. area USF alumni gathering. When I brought up the dual nicknames I was informed that the university had decided to kill all references to the Golden Brahman.
Just like that, the Golden Brahman was dead. Long live the Bulls! That is, until someone in the distant future decides they don’t like that name either.