Have you ever watched a college football, soccer, or basketball game and wondered to yourself, “Who is that school named after?”
No? Just me?
As the social media manager at HERO Sports, I watch a lot of college sports. And I do mean a LOT of college sports. The NCAA system has over 1,200 member institutions and we do our best to cover all of them. Some of these schools are named after the states they call home, like the University of Washington or North Dakota State, while others are named after a region — Humboldt State and Appalachian State come to mind. It's pretty easy to understand where these schools get their names.
But the origins of some schools' names aren't so clear. For instance, many NCAA schools are named after a wide variety of diverse and interesting people. On second thought, diverse may be a stretch — they’re mostly old white guys.
No matter what, the interesting part rings true. Below you'll find stories about five of the most interesting NCAA school namesakes. I left out some obvious ones like George Washington because you already know his story. The following tales will be ones you haven't heard before. Enjoy![divider]
The Christopher Newport statue on the campus of CNU. The man sure does look regal. (Photo: Jerry Gammon)
Captain Christopher Newport was a British naval officer back in the 16th and 17th centuries. He was a man fancy folk might call a privateer, and the rest of us would call a pirate. Working under the employ of King James I, Newport led a succession of ships (the first of which was called the Little John) whose main goal was to take (read: pirate) as much Spanish and Portuguese treasure as possible. Newport was pretty good at it, but not quite good enough to avoid losing his arm in the Caribbean in 1590.
Pirating is awesome (at least based on Johnny Depp movies, not the actual history). But that's not why Newport's name graces sweatshirts across the commonwealth of Virginia today. He had a school named after him because of his involvement in the colonization of Jamestown, one of the first European settlements in the New World. Newport was part of the voyage’s leadership council. Under his guidance, the group found a sparsely-populated area and attempted to populate it. Unfortunately, the reason the locals avoided the spot he and the settlers chose was to avoid living in a swamp where no crops would grow.
As a result, instead of hanging out with John Smith and Pocahontas, Newport made five trips to England and back to bring the helpless colonists food and supplies.
Newport ultimately expired on a different mission for the British Navy in what is now Indonesia, but his exploits at Jamestown are what he’s known for in the United States. He even has a town named after him: Newport News, Virginia.
While he was a colonial hero, I prefer to think of him sailing around on the Little John, ripping off Spanish galleons, blasting the East Side Boyz, turning down for no man.[divider]
Roger with the flowing locks. Too much salad for the bowl. (Photo: History.com)
A pioneer in the concepts of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, Williams is probably best known for founding Rhode Island in 1636.
Our boy Roger was banished from the Massachusetts colony for expressing a little too much of the religious freedom Puritans left England to attain. Specifically, he didn’t want the church and the new colony’s government to become too intertwined. Colony/church leadership quickly got sick of that business and told Roger to take a hike in the middle of winter. So hike he did. Roger wandered off into the woods and founded himself a colony.
Rhode Island soon became the New World destination for religious outcasts of all varieties, from Jews to Quakers to Baptists. A couple hundred years later, some guy named Thomas Jefferson used Williams’ ideas about the relationship between government and religion to set up a little country called the United States.
Williams was a trailblazer in other areas as well. His mutually-beneficial relationship with the Native Americans of the region (i.e. not killing them) was very rare for his time period. He also may have been the first to push for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, so he gets even more brownie points for that.
Overall, Roger Williams was a standup dude. His ideas and actions stand the test of time while most of his contemporaries' flounder spectacularly.[divider]
When I went through the list of schools named after people, I noticed a common theme: mostly old white men. (Classic US naming conventions, right?) So it was awesome to see a school named after an African-American, especially someone as courageous and inspirational as Medgar Evers.
A World War II veteran, Evers was named the first field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1954. He was a leader in anti-segregation boycotts and protests in Mississippi, including the 1962 integration of Ole Miss. Because of his work for Civil Rights in the south, especially his Ole Miss involvement and his investigation into the death of Emmitt Till, Evers was a target for white supremacists.
In 1963, a member of the White Citizen’s Council and KKK shot him in the back. He died in a Jackson hospital that at first refused to admit him because of his race.
Evers’ killer wasn’t convicted of the crime until 30 years after the fact, and because of this, Evers had a prominent place in popular culture in the years following his death. The Bob Dylan song, Only a Pawn in Their Game is about Evers, as is the 1996 movie Ghosts of Mississippi. Evers also has a school named after him or he wouldn't be on this list. Medgar Evers College opened in Brooklyn in 1970, and competes today as a D3 school in the CUNYAC.
I don’t think there’s a school in the United States named after a more deserving and inspirational figure. Even though he had a short life, he used his time to affect change and benefit society. His legacy deserves to be remembered.[divider]
The administration building when Mary Baldwin took over as principal in 1844. (Photo: HCAP.org)
Surprisingly enough, there aren’t a ton of schools named after women. I managed to find one to feature, though. Most schools named after women, like Mary Washington, get the honor because they were the wife or mother of someone famous. Mary Baldwin was out there getting stuff done on her own during Civil War times. That’s why she makes this list.
Baldwin attended the Augusta Female Seminary in her youth, then became the school's principal during the Civil War. Augusta was one of the few schools in the area that remained open during the war, in large part due to the efforts of Baldwin. She was even known to scare away the occasional intruder with a poker she held like a gun.
In Baldwin's 34 years at the helm of the Seminary, it became one the top women’s colleges in the south. The school was named for her in 1895. Her independence and leadership at a time when neither was expected of women lands her on this list.
Plus, the mascot of Mary Baldwin University is Gladys the Squirrel, which is awesome. It's the only squirrel mascot/nickname in these United States. Good enough to get you on any list.[divider]
Sam Houston looking fly in a Mathew Brady photograph taken around 1860 (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)
We round out our list with Sam Houston — a man whose name you'll want to know, if only for trivia purposes. For example, Houston is the only person in US history to be elected governor of two different states (Texas and Tennessee). He's also the only person to serve as governor of a state and leader of a foreign nation (Texas). But trivia alone doesn’t get you on this list, Mr. Houston. He has some substance behind him as well.
Born in 1793, Houston was one of the biggest proponents of equality in the South during his time. He left home when he was 16 to live with the Cherokee tribe, was a delegate to Washington DC on behalf of the tribe, was made a Cherokee citizen, and eventually married a Cherokee woman. He fought for Native American rights his entire political career at a time when many of his colleagues were busy forcibly removing or trying to exterminate them.
Though there is little evidence as to Houston’s views on slavery other than the fact that he owned slaves, the thinking is that he was generally or secretly anti-slavery. But again, he owned slaves, so how anti-slavery could he really be? As governor of Texas, Houston refused to join the Confederacy. It wasn’t explicitly clear why he did so, but the move cost him his spot as governor.
Oh, and he also was the leader of Texas’ rebellion from Mexico. I think there was some sort of battle involving an Alamo in San Antonio in that war, but for the life of me, I can’t remember.
Houston was said to be anywhere from 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-6, and picked up cool nicknames like they were going out of style. (To be clear, nicknames never went out of style.) The Cherokee called him “The Raven” and “Big Drunk.” Pretty solid combination for 19th century Texas. He also called beating up an Ohio congressman a "watershed moment in his life." Basically, don’t mess with Texas.
Today, Sam Houston State is an FCS powerhouse whose nickname, the Bearkats, was Sam Houston’s favorite animal (fact check needed; I may or may not have made that up). What we do know for sure is that Sam Houston lived a rich, interesting life of which I’ve barely scratched the surface, and he deserves to be on this list.