Thursday, March 19, 2015

Go, Cats. Go.

The Villanova University Wildcats received one of the four top seeds in the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. They went 32-2 and won the Big East championship. Most prognosticators give them an excellent chance to make the Final Four and decent shot to win the national title. Oddly, this makes Villanova only the second or third best team in the tournament nicknamed the Wildcats (behind Kentucky and possibly Arizona). They are one of nine (soon to be ten) Division I schools with the same nickname. For Villanova, a Catholic school located in the suburbs of Philadelphia, the generic Wildcat nickname is a poor fit- perhaps as a result of the process in which it was selected.

The origins of Wildcats at Villanova dates back to a school-wide contest in 1926 and, likely, to a Chicago sportswriter covering a Big Ten football game in 1924.

Villanova adopted the Wildcats moniker after a contest for a suitable name was held and voted on by the student body. As explained in the May, 1926 issue of the Villanova student newspaper The Villanovan: “The name ‘Wildcats’ is meant to convey the fighting spirit, alertness and skill of the animal chosen in vanquishing its enemies. This is the spirit of the Villanova athletic teams…” The school newspaper credits the winning suggestion to one Edward Hunsinger, who is identified as the assistant coach of football. 

Perhaps, though, the story really begins in Chicago two years earlier. The 1924 Northwestern University football team was exceeding expectations. After an exciting game that saw Northwestern fall to the University of Chicago, a Chicago Tribune writer named Wallace Abbey lauded the efforts of the Northwestern squad: “It was the fourth quarter of the annual Chicago-Northwestern grid battle. Football players had not come down from Evanston; wildcats would be a name better suited to [Northwestern coach] Thistlethwaite’s boys.” According to Northwestern’s official website, Abbey’s article inspired Northwestern’s formal adoption of the Wildcat nickname.

Abbey’s article was published on November 16, 1924. The following Saturday, November 22nd, the University of Notre Dame traveled to Chicago to take on the newly minted Northwestern Wildcats. Coached by the legendary Knute Rockne, Notre Dame trotted out the famed “Four Horsemen” backfield. True football historians may also remember Notre Dame’s famed “Seven Mules” linemen. Among these linemen in 1924 was a senior end named Ed Hunsinger.

Did Hunsinger steal the Wildcats name from Northwestern? There is a circumstantial case to be made, but it is impossible to say for sure. For one thing, Northwestern cannot lay claim to being the first Wildcats, as Kentucky has used the name since 1909, Arizona since 1914, Kansas State since 1915, and Davidson University can date its use to 1917. It is not known if Hunsinger actually saw the Abbey article or knew that Northwestern had fully adopted the name. 

The point is not to suggest Hunsinger was dishonest (to be clear, he did nothing unethical), but instead to illustrate that the Wildcats nickname can never be ‘owned’ by Villanova. They were not the first to use the name, nor can it be reasonably argued that there is compelling historical relationship between Villanova and the wildcat. 

Villanova is not obligated to honor the student vote of 1926 forever. It was democratic, but the student body then was starkly different than today. The motivations of those students is a question to consider. Did they consider that the name would remain for going on 90 years? Was it contemplated that the nickname would expand beyond athletics? Did they want a unique, meaningful nickname or did they want one that resembled those of other successful teams?  

It is time for Villanova to consider a new, meaningful nickname that matches the uniqueness of the university. Tradition is tremendously valuable, but it must not be an excuse to resist positive changes. Villanova’s successes as the Wildcats will always remain part of its history. A new nickname can, if chosen carefully, better reflect tradition while offering something unique to the Villanova community. A few possibilities:
  1. Villanova has a wonderful history of giving back to the community. Habitat for Humanity programs at Villanova are some of most impactful programs in the country. The Villanova University Hammers honors the young men and women who have answered the call to serve others, while providing a strong image the school’s athletic teams.
  2. In the fall of 1968, Villanova became a fully co-educational university. The Villanova University 68s honors the first class of fully-integrated female students. It is a lasting testament that Villanova is made better every day because of its diversity.
  3. Villanova was founded by the Order of St. Augustine and is committed to the Augustinian ideals of truth, unity and love. Augustine was ordained and became a Bishop in an area known as Hippo Regius (now part of present day Algeria) and is commonly referred to as Augustine of Hippo. The Villanova University Hippos is a unique name that holds deep meaning to the university.
(note the article on the same page about Notre Dame and their starting players)