Entry 644: Friars and Pirates and Bearcats, Oh My!

Well, this weekend (and Monday), the annual tradition of March Madness comes to an end, and it’s going to get even crazier, because it will be April.

And as we watch the Final Four, I’m sure there will be one burning question on everyone’s mind:

What the hell is a tar heel?

Admittedly, I do not follow college sports. That may be because I went to Queens College in New York City, where the main sport was finding a parking space. As far as I’m concerned, a bracket is something that holds up a shelf.

So I asked my sister-in-law Karen about tar heels over dinner one night. Karen, who is staying with us while her house gets remodeled, is an avid sports fan, and I will sometimes find her watching soccer matches from other countries early on a weekend morning.

“It’s a ram,” she replied without hesitation.

Whereas my wife–Karen’s sister–has been known to make stuff up when she doesn’t know the answer to a question, Karen’s information is usually reliable, especially when it comes to sports. On the other hand, it just didn’t seem right to me that there are large animals called tar heels running around in the world, butting things with their big, curved horns.

So I looked it up, and while the North Carolina mascot is, in fact, a ram, that is not what a tar heel is. There’s no such thing as a tar heel! According to the UNC website, the term either comes from British soldiers getting tar on their heels while crossing a river in North Carolina during the Revolutionary War, or from North Carolina soldiers threatening to put tar on the heels of deserters during the Civil War.

However you slice it, the UNC team is named for dirty, sticky feet. The ram came from a UNC football player in the 1920’s who was nicknamed “the battering ram.” I’m guessing he wasn’t the kicker.

While I was getting educated about tar heels, I looked into a few of the other teams in the tournament:

>There’s a team called the Demon Deacons.  They’re from Wake Forest, and the name sounds like the result of an exorcism gone wrong, possibly one involving the Blue Devils.

>There were no fewer than five teams in the tournament called the Wildcats. While “Wildcats” is a perfectly acceptable name for a sports team, there should be something akin to a copyright law that prevents more than one team in a sport from having it. I mean, if they play each other, and the fans yell, “Go, Wildcats,” how do you know who they’re rooting for?

>If you’re going to play against one of the many Wildcats, you have to figure you’ll win if you’re the Bearcats, as Cincinnati is. I mean, a wildcat may be wild, but a bearcat is…well, what, exactly? Did they make up a strange, hybrid animal? No they did not. A bearcat is a real thing, although its actual name is a binturong.  It looks like the product of a mad scientist’s experiment grafting the head of an ugly cat onto the body of a small bear, even though it is not related to either animal.  It’s anybody’s guess why you’d want to name a team after a disturbing creature like this (which, by the way, is not even indigenous to Ohio).  But here’s the thing: Cincinnati was matched up with Wildcats in the first round…and they won!  But then they lost to the UCLA Bruins, proving that, while a half bear/half cat beats a full cat, it loses to a full bear.

>Let’s move on to the Golden Flashes of Kent State. They sound vaguely like two different kinds of perverts. And, wait–it gets even worse. The original mascot was a golden retriever named Flash. He was replaced by a cartoon character named Grog. And Grog was replaced by, according to the website, “the Golden Flasher, a masked figure dressed in blue and gold who rode a gold palomino horse.” Yes, indeed. The Golden Flasher.

These days, the Golden Flashes are represented, for no apparent reason, by an eagle. This was probably a poor choice, because eagles did not fare well in the tournament this year. Kent State–and all three of the teams actually named the Eagles– lost in the first round, thus depriving fans of the opportunity to see mascots claw at each other with their talons.

>Then there’s the Virginia Tech Hokies. I had to go to the Virginia Tech website to find out what a “hokie” was: “The origin of the word “Hokie” has nothing to do with a turkey. It was coined by O.M. Stull (class of 1896), who used it in a spirit yell he wrote for a competition.”

The winning yell, in case you’re ever at a Virginia Tech game and think you’re sitting among lunatics, was:

Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy.
Techs, Techs, V.P.I.
Sola-Rex, Sola-Rah.
Polytechs – Vir-gin-ia.
Rae, Ri, V.P.I.

I can’t even imagine what the losing yells were like.  And it still doesn’t explain what a hokie is. Further, because I do not follow college sports and was not aware that the Virginia Tech mascot is the ridiculous Hokie-Bird, and that the Hokie-Bird kind of looks like a turkey, telling me that the hokie has nothing to do with a turkey seemed completely random. They might as well have said that a hokie has nothing to do with a turnip; it would have made just as much sense to me.

Meanwhile, at the same dinner where I asked my sister-in-law about tar heels, I noticed she was wearing a South Carolina sweatshirt. “So, um, what’s a gamecock?” I asked.

“A rooster,” she answered. “You know, for cockfighting.”

“You mean they named a college team after illegal gambling that is cruel to animals?”

Karen shrugged. She was trying to enjoy her dinner and was tired of my idiot questions.

But just for the record, I’m rooting for the Gamecocks and the Oregon Ducks in the semi-finals.  That way we can have an all-poultry championship game.

See you soon.

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