All Coloradans of sound judgment and healthy survival instinct congratulate the victorious Denver Nuggets, 2023 NBA champions.
That said, Nuggets is a lousy name for a sports team.
A team’s name should evoke virtues most valued in sports, like strength, spirit, determination, integrity. It should possess an element of drama, a little glamour. A mascot should provide a positive and appealing focus, encourage a personal connection with fans. A team’s name is an aspiration. The nuggets in the Nuggets may be gold, but they’re still just gravel.
For merchandizing purposes, a mascot should easily translate to a compelling team logo, an eye-catching little tag that folks can wear with pride. The Nuggets’ logo looks like the unimaginative stamp of an uninteresting trade association. There’s only so much you can do with gravel.
If that sounds like petty peeving, it’s supported by solid stats. The sports universe teems with teams more cordially christened, soaring sobriquets that bespeak glory on the field instead of dirt under the fingernails. Nuggets is lame by NBA standards, and fares no better against NFL, NHL and MLB rosters. But it’s in the far broader arena of college athletics that we see the name game played at its highest level, and perceive the general tone and trend of the nation’s noms sportifs.
Nine hundred ninety-two college mascots are animals, almost exactly half. Of these, the lion’s share, 241, are named for cats. That’s about 12 percent of the grand total and includes 66 Tigers, 65 Cougars, 59 Panthers, 55 Lions (and 2 Lyons), 42 Wildcats, assorted Cheetahs, Jaguars and Leopards, the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs Mountain Lions, and a generous smattering of fanciful breeds like Hillcats, Sabercats and, er, Kats.
At 9 percent, our flock of bird mascots flies 182 strong and encompasses 19 familiar species and a large variety as yet uncategorized in ornithology. There are Gamecocks and Gulls, Owls and Ospreys, Peacocks, Pelicans and Penguins. Ninety-three, including Colorado Mountain College, are Eagles. Twenty-seven, like CSU-Global in Aurora, are Golden Eagles. There are 61 Hawks, plus another 54 Jayhawks, Nighthawks, Riverhawks, Seahawks, Warhawks, Thunderhawks and the Community College of Denver’s urban-chic CityHawks.
One hundred sixty-eight members of the collegiate pack descend from the family Canidae, roughly 8.5 percent. There are 56 Bulldogs, 16 Huskies, 12 Coyotes and 8 Foxes, although Red Rocks Community College prefers the more specific nomenclature Red Foxes. There are Scotties, Terriers, Retrievers and Border Collies. There are also 53 Wolves, Red Wolves, Sea Wolves, Timberwolves and Lobos, plus 7 Wolf Packs.
One hundred forty mascots (7 percent) have hooves, including Moose, Bucks and Bighorns. There are 32 Rams, 13 Bison and 5 Buffaloes, and Lamar Community College is one of 5 Antelopes. On the horsey side, Colorado Mesa University is one of 11 Mavericks, along with 22 Mustangs, 11 Broncos, 5 Colts, 2 Palominos, 2 Ponies, 6 Cows and 5 Bulls.
There are 76 Bears at large in academe (4 percent), and 1 Bearcat, which is something akin to a bug-eating opossum native to Southeast Asia.
Forty-eight mascots (2.5 percent) are insects ranging from Bees to Boll Weevils and from Hornets to Scorpions. Creatures of the sea have found a home at 40 colleges (2 percent), most of them Dolphins and Sharks, and 23 schools (1 percent) channel rodentia as Beavers, Gophers, Squirrels and Muskrats. Gators dominate our 21 reptilian/amphibian school mascots, followed at a distance by Frogs, Geckos and one Gila Monster. Rattlers and Cobras make up the better part of the 10 snake-centric colleges. There are 5 marsupial mascots, including Kangaroos, Koalas and Wombats, and 5 mascots now extinct like Mastodons and Triceratops. A final 1 percent is occupied by Otters and Armadillos, Camels and Javelinas, and the Aardvarks of both Pikes Peak State College in Colorado Springs and Aims Community College in Greeley. Seventy-one names (3.5 percent) are those of mythical creatures—Dragons, Griffins, Valkyries and the like.
Moving on from the Animal Kingdom, we find 38 teams (2 percent) named for plants ranging from Oaks to Artichokes, and from the Fighting Cacti to the Fighting Okra. Some 68 institutions (3.4 percent) are named for natural phenomena, mostly Tornadoes, Hurricanes and Cyclones.
An even 100 schools (5 percent) find their identities in the martial tradition. There are 43 Warriors, 18 Chargers, 6 Pilots, 5 Colonels and 5 Generals, all of them ably and violently supported by a host of Archers, Bombers, Cannoneers, Grenadiers and Musketeers. There are 54 Knights, 38 Vikings, 10 Cavaliers and 7 Marauders. Another 96 (4.8 percent) are maritime monikers ranging from Commodores and Keelhaulers to Pirates, Buccaneers and Corsairs. The pure spirit of adventure animates the 5 percent inhabited by 36 Pioneers, 16 Trailblazers and 10 Mountaineers, including the Western Colorado University Mountaineers in Gunnison.
Two hundred eighty college teams (14 percent) are named for people, peoples and professions. Finding inspiration in Classical sources, 84 schools (4 percent) compete as Spartans and Trojans, Gladiators and Argonauts. There are 49 aristocratic titles like Royals, Dukes and Barons, 37 Cowboys, Gauchos, Wranglers and Rustlers, and 36 teams named for specific individuals, such as the Brandeis Judges. Twelve teams ripped off their own school name to come up with mascots, like the St. Olaf Oles, the St. John’s Johnnies and the St. Thomas Tommies.
Forty-three mascots (2 percent) such as the Flying Dutchmen, the Fighting Scots and the Norsemen derive from European forebears. Thirty-four more (1.7 percent) pay homage to Native American cultures like the Chocktaws, Mickinocks and Apaches.
Colors describe 33 college teams like the Syracuse Orange and Mean Green, and vehicles like Clippers, Jets and Rockets account for another 12. It will be a comfort to many that 58 religiously-themed teams including Bishops, Friars, Quakers and Crusaders easily outnumber 25 Devils, Spirits and Phantoms. The remaining two dozen mascots are a motley but mighty collection of Boomerangs and Beacons, Rebels and Renegades, Lasers and Blazers.
In case you weren’t counting, that’s almost 2,000 college athletic programs, and nearly all of them have better names than the Nuggets. But comparison is probably pointless. The Nuggets’ ho-hum handle doesn’t seem to be slowing them down, and their loyal fans would like them just as much if they changed their name to the Rocky Mountain Ratfinks, the Colorado Cold Sores, or the Denver Dirty Diapers.