Of Tigers and Bulldogs: An SEC History Series

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Welcome back to Peculiar Side of Sports. Every so often something in sports perplexes me, so I do what any normal, sane sports fan does: I search ad nauseam for the answer by any means necessary. The good news is that I take all my hard work and relay the results to you. If you are a fan of Sports History, check out the other articles I have written in my column.

Whether you are an SEC fan or choose to spend your hours following a different college football conference, the history associated with the Southeastern Conference is undeniable. The conference is home to some of the game’s most storied franchises, most of which still call the SEC “home” today. But upon closer inspection of its members, it’s worth noting that of the 14 currently, five of them share a name with another school within the conference; there are three “Tigers” and two “Bulldogs”.

How did that happen? I did some digging, trying to determine the chain of events that led to each team’s naming to determine who has the “rightful” claim to the name, if you will.

An SEC History: Of Tigers and Bulldogs

Established 83 years ago, thirteen schools from the Southern Conference (which has existed since 1921) decided to up and leave, forming the Southeastern Conference. Founding members included the universities of Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi (“Ole Miss”), Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt—only Sewanee, Tulane and Georgia Tech are no longer in the SEC.

With three “Tigers” and two “Bulldogs” that exist today, you can see that all of them are chartered members. With hundreds of colleges competing in sports across the United States, it’s unsurprising that several will use the same name (Clemson and Memphis also use “Tigers”, for instance). But when names are repeated—and in the case of “Tigers” repeated twice—it begs the questions “how” and “why”.

Of Bulldogs

Both Georgia and Mississippi State have adopted the bulldog as its mascot, but with both schools being chartered members of the Southeastern Conference we must go back farther into college football history to determine who has bragging rights—who was first to claim the name.

What jumped out at me was the dates on which each school was founded. Almost 100 years the elder, Georgia (1785) has the claim of being the oldest school in the entire SEC—much older than its younger cousins from Mississippi State (1878). In fact, Tennessee is the only other to have been established in the eighteenth century. But does that necessarily mean the name “Bulldogs” was used by Georgia earlier than Mississippi State?

Interestingly, the “Georgia Bulldogs” was not used until just after World War I, when in 1920 the name appeared in the Atlanta Journal, which is the date the school recognizes as the beginning of “Bulldogs” football.  With founding father Abraham Baldwin being a Yale grad—Yale uses “bulldogs” as well—the school had been using a bulldog as a mascot for many years prior to the 1920 article in an unofficial capacity.

We have established that the name has officially been used for 95 years in Georgia, but what about for Mississippi State?

As expected, the adoption of the name “Bulldogs” is a much more recent invention for Mississippi State. In fact, the first team name used was “Aggies” back when it was Mississippi A&M, and later “Maroons” when the the school name changed to its current Mississippi State in 1932 (though it was a college, not a university). It wasn’t until 1961 that the school officially adopted the bulldog as its mascot. What muddies the situation, is that there are references to their sports teams as “bulldogs” as early as 1902, however, they were unofficial. We do know that at 1926 pep rally featured a bulldog, and in 1935, a bulldog was used on the sideline as a mascot for the team. Still, the name had not yet officially changed.

The verdict? It must be said that the only true way to determine which is older is by using the official dates of when the names were adopted, and therefore, Georgia has the stronger claim. That said, with the name being used as early as 1902, Mississippi State fans certainly have a long, proud tradition that lives to this day in their mascot, “Bully”.

Of Tigers

Of the three teams that have adopted the tiger as their mascot, Missouri (1839) is the oldest institution—it is also the most recent addition to the SEC, along with Texas A&M (2012). However, the difference in founding date between they and the two other schools that officially have “Tigers” in their name is not nearly so great as was the case with Georgia and Mississippi State; Auburn (1856) and LSU (1860) both have storied histories respectively. It should be noted that LSU is much older if ones takes into account its military academy and seminary institution.

It was easy to discern that the University of Missouri has been using the name “Tigers” for 125 years (1890), making this past year its quasquicentennial. The name originated from a militia unit known as the “Fighting Tigers of Columbia” (Missouri). 1890 was the first year the university had a football team.

LSU also got its nickname from a miliatry unit—the civil war brigade known as the “Louisiana Tigers”. In an article taken from LSU Alumni News (1937), the first team football coach, Charles Coates, explained why he chose the tiger as the team mascot in 1895:

“It was the custom at that time, for some occult reason, to call football teams by the names of vicious animals; the Yale Bulldogs and the Princeton Tigers, for example. This is still the vogue. It struck me that purple and gold looked Tigerish enough and I suggested that we choose “Louisiana Tigers.”

Missouri had been using the tiger officially for five years before LSU, but what about Auburn?

Auburn’s official school website claims that the name has been in use since its first game in 1892. It explains that the name was borrowed from a line in an Oliver Goldsmith poem, “The Deserted Village” (1770):  “where crouching tigers await their hapless prey…“. The name was used more universally after the first Iron Bowl (1901)  when the Birmingham News titled the aftermath “A Tiger Claws Alabama”. There are some references to Auburn being called “The Plainsmen”, however that was only ever in an unofficial capacity. Interestingly, “The Plainsmen” was also a term borrowed from the Goldsmith poem.

In a five-year span, three different universities adopted the tiger as their mascot. Re-asserting the summation of the situation from LSU’s old coach, Charles Coates: “It was the custom of the time“.