It’s that time of year again. Every year in whatever pool I’m running, I submit a “Badassiest Mascot” bracket that bases its predictions solely on the badassity of the team’s mascot. (I generally decline to put money down on that one.)
This has been the subject of controversy in years past, as the “badass” standard is a difficult one to evenly apply. Part of it is what would win in a fight – it’s pretty clear that a Tiger is tougher and more badass than, say, a Husky. But others aren’t so easy – it’s hard to see how a Hilltopper or a Tarheel matches up against a Hoya or a Big Red. And how do birds of prey compare to a cat?
That’s why it’s not the “toughest” or “coolest” mascot, but the badassiest. And hopefully with some precedent now set down in writing, a body of badass law will emerge that will make future picks more consistent and feel more legitimate. And so, the following is my justifications for my picks (for the first round), which will substitute for any actual sports knowledge.
First Round – East
(16) Mt. St. Mary’s Athenians over the (1) UNC Tarheels
Never in the history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament has a 16 seed beaten a 1 seed, much less the overall Number 1 seed in the tournament. But if their mascots are any indication, then this will be the year.
The term “Tar Heel”, according to Wikipedia, references the centuries old NC industry of tar and pitch productions, mostly for sealing the hulls of wooden ships. The word became a pejorative in the vein of “white trash” until the North Carolinians decided to “take it back.” And good for them. But badass? I think not. Especially when compared to the founders of Western Civilization.
(9) Arkansas Razorbacks over the (8) Indiana Hoosiers
It’s a great movie, but beyond that, just what the heck is a Hoosier? No one knows. It might have been a greeting, it might have been a reference to an employer named Mr. Hoosier. But what it manifestly is not is badass. The only thing people agree on is that it refers to a person from Indiana. I’m sure it’s a great state to be from, but no one exactly hides the women and children when they hear the Indiana folk are ridin’ into town.
A razorback, on the other hand, not only has a badass name, but is one tough pig. The dangerous and destructive nature of this wild boar makes it the clear winner here.
(12) George Mason Patriots over the (5) Notre Dame Fighting Irish
This is a tough one, and I confess the final decision may have had something to do with my unrelenting love of my country. The Irish are, of course, known to be tough scrapers. But “badass” has to encompass some nobility and frankly, success. I conjure mostly images of Revolutionary War fighters when I think of the Patriots, but the spirit lives on in the overall badassness of America herself. Mel Gibson giving the British what-for is unquestionably badass.
The Irish, on the other hand, have been fightin’ for centuries, to little avail. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or anything, but they didn’t exactly throw off the British tyranny in quite the same definitive fashion the American patriots did. And when you look at the mascot itself, that torqued off little leprechaun with his dukes up makes me want to drink whisky more than run in fear. This close first round matchup goes to George Mason.
(4) Washington State Cougars over the (13) Winthrop Eagles
This is another tough one – an apples and oranges pairing if ever there was. Both are unquestionably badass animals. And I considered the eagle’s symbolic badassity and its noble countenance. But when you get down to it, it’s still a big cat and a relatively smaller bird, and as my own cat has shown on more than a few occasions, that’s a pretty one sided fight. The Eagle ain’t no canary, but then, a Cougar ain’t no tabby cat, neither.
(11) St. Joseph’s Hawks over the (6) Oklahoma Sooners
A hawk is moderately badass. But while you can admire the grit and determination of the people who tried to claim their plots of land in Oklahoma “sooner” than was allowed by federal law, it’s hard to think of these squatters as badass in any real way. They weren’t racing their wagons fair ‘n’ square to get there a la Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Far and Away, they snuck over a few days earlier in the middle of the night. Again, I think some nobility is an important component of being badass. As a result, St. Joe’s gets it by default.
(14) Boise State Broncos over the (3) Louisville Cardinals
A cardinal? Seriously? There’s just no way a songbird can be badass, cool little head tuft or not. Compared to the fiery visage of the blue Bronco from the Boise State logo, there’s just no contest here.
(10) South Alabama Jaguars over the (7) Butler Bulldogs
There are more Bulldogs in this year’s tournament than any other mascot, so it’s worth giving them some attention here. If you count the Georgetown Hoyas as one (that’s the costume that cheers them on), there are no less than six Bulldog teams. Conceivably, there could even be an All Bulldog Final Four. But not if the badassity of the mascots is any indication.
At first glance, a Bulldog looks pretty badass. Its face is in a permanent scowl, and the bottom teeth jut menacingly from his snarling bottom lip. There is no dog that can more believably be portrayed chewing on a big fat cigar, or marching through the streets telling the littler dogs to “shaddap and quit yer yippin’.” But closer examination of the real animal reveals a pretty goofy critter with stubby bowed out legs and a rather ungainly manner. They aren’t fast. They don’t jump. They’re wrinkly and drooly. They probably wear out pretty easily. They aren’t even as big as decades of cartoon dogs have made them seem to the popular imagination. And so unfortunately, the Bulldog’s badass quotient is relatively low. That isn’t to say it is utterly without badassity, as say, the Cardinal. But it takes a pretty weak opponent to prevail against this venerable mascot when “badassiest” is the only measure of success.
In this case, the fast and lithe jaguar prowling the jungles and dropping on its prey from high above is a clear winner. A bulldog wouldn’t even know what hit it.
(2) Tennessee Volunteers over the (15) American University Eagles
How can anything be more badass than an American Eagle? Not much – except maybe a citizenry rising up against tyranny, risking their lives for no other compensation than the preservation of their own liberty.
This was another tough call, especially in light of the strong patriotism both mascots represent. But I have to go with the Vols here, mostly for the reasons stated above. And it entered into my calculus that the “Volunteers” is a geographically relevant nickname that ties the college in with the history and culture of the state it represents, whereas “Eagles” is tediously generic.
First Round – Midwest
(16) Portland State Vikings over the (1) Kansas Jayhawks
Another 1 vs. 16 upset, but the badassity of Vikings is simply impossible to argue with. The plunder and pillage of anywhere in Europe they could get a longboat up a river, the dramatic voyages of discovery to North America way before it was cool in the rest of Europe, the sweet beards, helmets and battle axes…
And the Jayhawk isn’t even a real bird. The term is a combination of the blue jay and the sparrow hawk, qualities of which Kansan abolitionists (wrongly) thought might add some measure of badass to their cause. They were on the right side of history, but not on the winning side of a battle of the badasses against a team of Vikings.
(8) UNLV Runnin’ Rebels over the (9) Kent State Golden Flashes
It’s a bit ironic that a public university in the “Battle Born” state of Nevada – nicknamed such because of its entry into the Union during the Civil War – would call themselves the “Rebels.” But apparently, the name refers to the petulant startup branch campus of the real University of Nevada “rebelling” against their “bigger and older brother to the north,” according to their website. It’s a pretty whiney name origin that diminishes their badassity, but it’s buttressed back up by the inarguably badass mustache and jawline of the mascot himself. But the question is begged – what about the “Runnin’” part? Are they running to or from? It implies speed and action, but also suggests cowardice and the refusal to stand tough.
But whatever weakness their mascot’s origin, there’s no contest up against the Golden Flashes. Proving that badassity rarely comes from committee, and that college students can’t be trusted with important choices, the name emerged from a student body contest after their President was fired and their original “Silver Foxes” moniker which referred to him was likewise ditched.
Their logo has a bird head coming out of a lightning bolt, but that’s not enough. Golden or not, it’s still a “flash” – like a “flash in the pan,” or maybe King Midas’ arrest for indecent exposure. UNLV takes this overall weak matchup easily.
(5) Clemson Tigers over the (12) Villanova Wildcats
This is, for once, an apples-to-apples matchup, and an easy decision. Tigers are the world’s largest cats, and there’s no way a little wildkitty can compete. Can a wildcat take down an elephant? I doubt it. But give it to the tiger, and with a little luck on the tiger’s part, you have a big tusked meal.
And let me just say a little about “Wildcats” in general. This is another overrepresented mascot in this year’s tournament, with a total of five such teams. It seems to me that there has rarely been a more generic team nickname, and I’ve decided that tedious and genericness in a mascot will diminish its badassity slightly.
(4) Vanderbilt Commodores over the (13) Siena Saints
This was a difficult decision. The image of a commodore commanding a fleet of warships against a floating foe is compellingly badass. But then I looked it up, and it refers to a nickname people gave Cornelius Vanderbilt because he owned a fleet of merchant ships. That takes it down a bunch of notches for me.
As a result of that, I initially had the Saints taking this matchup. After all, they have a direct line to God, and you don’t get to be a saint unless you’ve presided over a miracle or two, right? But then I looked them up, and found out that they’re really the Saint Bernards. As in the big slobbery mountain rescue dog. And their logo depicts a goofy lookin’ dog to boot.
Now, a Saint Bernard is not a dog devoid of badassity. But looking at their official image of the Commodore, which to Vandy’s credit is of the Naval persuasion, it’s hard to see where the droopy jowled canine can come out ahead.
(6) USC Trojans over the (11) Kansas State Wildcats
Here we go again with another set of Wildcats. And there’s no contest in this case. The classic helmeted Hellenic hoplite with his spear in hand is clearly far, far more badass than the cat.
(14) Cal. State Fullerton Titans over the (3) Wisconsin Badgers
The Big Ten has some tremendous schools and sports teams, but as a whole, the conference’s mascots are weak. Buckeyes? Hoosiers? And most shamefully of all, the Golden Gophers of my alma mater. Sigh. There is little badassity to be found in the Midwest.
But you have to hand it to the lowly badger – those things, pound for pound, are pretty badass. They’ll stand and fight anyone and anything. It’s a tough little critter, if lacking in a certain panache. And as much as I can’t abide the Cheeseheads (having attending one of their major rivals), against a lesser mascot the Badgers could make a run in this.
Unfortunately for them, they were matched up with the Titans, elemental beings that ruled the earth before the Olympian Gods defeated them in battle. When you have a team of giant immortals who make up the winds, the oceans, and the earth itself, no misshapen weasel, no matter how vicious, can compete.
(10) Davidson Wildcats over the (7) Gonzaga Bulldogs
As a Gonzaga fan by marriage, this breaks my heart. But I feel obligated to judge badassity on the merits alone, without prejudice or passion, and unfortunately Davidson wins this battle of the uncreative nicknames.
As noted previously, Wildcats and Bulldogs both lose points for being uncreative and overused. But the wildcat’s agility, speed, claws, and ferocity are simply too much for the pugnacious Spike the Bulldog.
(2) Georgetown Hoyas over the (15) UMBC Retrievers
What was the University of Maryland – Baltimore County thinking when they chose a frickin’ retriever as their mascot?!? Seriously! I mean, labs and golden retrievers are great dogs, but they aren’t exactly what you’d call badass. Imagine hearing “release the hounds!” and then seeing the smiling face of a golden bounding at you, wanting nothing more than to chase tennis balls.
For all its faults, the Hoya bulldog is clearly more badass, and at least it has a more creative name. Georgetown takes this one.
First Round – South
(1) Memphis Tigers over the (16) UT-Arlington Mavericks
“Maverick” has come to have some pretty badass connotations. Tell-it-like-it-is politicians, Hollywood fighter pilots, deaf frat guys… But I think word origins matter, and a maverick is still a name for a young cow that didn’t get branded and so runs around waiting for some opportunistic rancher to pick him up and claim him. Exactly the kind of easy prey a tiger would snack on without a thought.
And really, as much as I like the guy and plan to enthusiastically vote for him, I think John McCain would get pretty torn up by a tiger, especially at his age. Arguably the badassiest of an extremely un-badass group of number 1 seeds in this year’s tourney, Memphis is the only 1 seed to survive the first round.
(8) Mississippi State Bulldogs over the (9) Oregon Ducks
Again with the bulldogs, but against cartoonish Pacific Northwest waterfowl, there is simply no contest. There is nothing badass about a duck. Nothing. Except maybe when it’s cooked really well in a fancy restaurant, but then, that isn’t exactly the winning image you want when determining how badass your mascot is. Sorry, Donald – all the free Nike gear your college can dish out to you won’t be enough for you to prevail in this contest.
(5) Michigan State Spartans over the (12) Temple University Owls
Owls? Sure, they can gobble up a field of mice every night, but can they hold off 200,000+ Persian soldiers with only 300 warriors? Ha! Not likely. Leonidas is the original Badass. Temple can’t even come close.
(4) Pittsburgh Panthers over the (13) Oral Roberts Golden Eagles
Even before you get to the mascot, “Oral Roberts University” has a badass name problem. And as cool of a bird as a golden eagle is, it’s nothing compared to the killing power and overall badassity of a panther. Again, the kitty beats the birdie almost every time.
(6) Marquette Golden Eagles over the (11) Kentucky Wildcats
As I said, the kitty beats the birdie almost every time. Although various eagles are also somewhat uncreative and dull, the wildcat is just that much more tedious. The size difference between the two is less than other cat/bird matchups. Here, Marquette takes it.
(14) Cornell Big Red over the (3) Stanford Cardinal
It is difficult to find any measurable badassity in either mascot. A color vs. pretty much the same color. Booooo-RING! If there’s a badass color, I suppose red is it, but it’s still really, really, really weak.
This decision requires digging a bit deeper and going to the unofficial mascots, and here the contest isn’t even close. Cornell has a bear symbolize its team, the school even having in the past gone so far as to use real bears. That’s pretty badass.
Stanford, on the other hand, has a tree. A frickin’ tree dancing around the court. It may symbolize strength and stability, but Cornell’s bear will climb to the top of that thing and do what bears do on it. To make matters worse for Stanford, they used to have a real mascot (the Indians), but got rid of it in 1972 as one of the nation’s first modern mascot capitulation to the insipid forces of political correctness. Badass such pandering is certainly not. They had a shot at redemption when the Griffin was almost chosen as the replacement, but when in 1981 the university president declared that they would be the “Cardinal” – oh-so-pretentiously singular, you knuckle draggers please note – that was the end of any badassity Stanford would ever hence have a right to claim.
(7) Miami Hurricanes over the (10) St. Mary’s Gaels
The adjustment of two letters would make this a windy matchup indeed, but “gaels” merely refers to a croup of people who speak or whose ancestors spoke Gaelic. St. Mary’s mascot is a (presumably Gaelic) knight in a suit of armor, which ups the badass factor a little.
Unfortunately for the scrappy California team, the sheer power, size, and unstoppable destructiveness of a hurricane makes it a study in badassity. Think of it this way – if you wanted to destroy an enemy city, which would you hurl at it – a swirling storm packing winds of 100 knots, spawning tornados, lighting, and massive flooding, or a handful of Scottish knights? That’s pretty much what I thought.
(2) Texas Longhorns over the (15) Austin Peay Governors
You have to hand it to the Texans. Cows aren’t exactly badass, and for a reason. But the Texans don’t want no docile, safe cows – they need to put some spikes up on them things. A stampeding group of the horn’d beasts is not only a frightening image, it’s a profoundly badass one of the type a good Johnny Cash song might conjure.
The Govs are so named because Austin Peay was a governor of Tennessee in the late 1920s, a Democrat who was big on education and road building. Important as those issues may be, it can hardly be said to make a team of Austin Peay Governors badass. Hook ‘em, Horns.
First Round – West
(16) Miss. Valley State Delta Devils over the (1) UCLA Bruins
I like the word “bruin” to refer to a bear – there’s something that makes the beast almost mythical when you refer to it in that way. But alas for the top seeded UCLA, at the end of the day it’s still just a bear. And it’s hard to argue with the devil when it comes down to pure badassity.
(8) Brigham Young Cougars over the (9) Texas A&M Aggies
The “A&M” refers to “Agriculture and Mechanical”, the original focus of the college when it opened in 1876. They could have picked “the Fightin’ Mechanics,” but instead chose to go with the farm half for their mascot. It’s too bad, because as a whole, A&M is a very badass school, what with their Texas traditions and military culture. Their mascot is far and away the least badass thing about the university. Alas, that’s all that matters in this bracket.
Despite the limited appeal or creativity of the cougar, it still is far more badass than a farmer.
(5) Drake Bulldogs over the (12) Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
The term refers to the fact that the university sits on top of a hill, as if nothing else in the state of Kentucky does that. Ooooh! If it were a Mountaintopper, that might be something. But there’s nothing badass about walking up a hill and accomplishing nothing more than merely getting to the top of it.
To make it worse for Western Kentucky, the dancing costume that represents them is… Well, no one is quite sure. An “amorphous red furry blob” is the best descriptor I’ve come across. It looks like a dancing scarlet Grimace waving around a red towel. If there’s an Absolute Zero on the Badass Scale, this is it. The Urban Dictionary’s version of a Hilltopper is more badass than this.
(13) San Diego Toreros over the (4) Connecticut Huskies
Huskies can be pretty badass – you pull a sled hundreds of miles across the Alaska tundra and then ask for some more, you’re entitled to some badass kudos.
But a Torero is a bullfighter, and that’s pretty badass. They loose points for the bedazzled, skin tight costumes and Mickey Mouse ear hats, but at the end of the day they get into a ring with an enraged bull and dance around with it hoping to gore the bull before the bull gores him. Huskies are great dogs, but they can’t match that level of badassery.
(6) Purdue Boilermakers over the (11) Baylor Bears
Just as various Bulldogs this year have been lucky in their opponents, this bracket’s bears have been staggeringly unlucky. This is the closest matchup yet, but once again, mighty Ursus weeps for her teams.
A bear is definitely badass. But compared to the rough and tumble steelworkers that give Purdue her mascot, it becomes a much closer call. What really puts them over the top is that their mascot is officially the locomotive of their logo named the “Boilermaker Special”. When you look at mowing down potential, the clarity of Purdue’s badassiest status in this game becomes clear.
(3) Xavier Musketeers over the (14) Georgia Bulldogs
Here, the jowly mutts don’t have a chance. Even with the relatively slow rate of fire that a musket can produce, the lumbering dogs just can’t out-badass a bunch of revolutionary riflemen. (And yes, I know that muskets weren’t rifles because of their smooth bores, but I wanted to go with the alliteration.)
(7) West Virginia Mountaineers over the (10) Arizona Wildcats
The Mountaineers aren’t the most badass of mascots, but the independent pioneer spirit which it conjures trumps the generic Wildcat brand. Plus, you have to respect that their mascot has something to do with the local geography and history of the state. And hey – they’re a heck of a lot more adventurous than the Hilltoppers.
(2) Duke Blue Devils over the (15) Belmont Bruins
It’s pretty amazing that in this region alone, there are two Devil/Bruin matchups. Fortunately for Coach K’s storied team, the analysis is the same. It’s just hard to beat the devil at basketball!
That’s it for today. Tomorrow, look for the second round matchups!