When you hear the nickname "Wildcats," you think of Kentucky or Arizona. Or maybe Villanova or Stephen Curry's Davidson Wildcats come to mind, thanks to recent NCAA basketball tournaments.

But rarely do you think of Northwestern University -- a major reason why the Evanston, Ill., school should consider changing its nickname to something more distinctive and less banal.

"Mundane," Nick Zessis, Northwestern class of 2012, said. "A Wildcat seems to be a sort of generic mascot.”

"I'm not particularly attached to it," Michelle Goldfine, also class of 2012, said. "It's pretty common. There are lots of other Wildcats."

From Abilene Christian to Weber State, more than 25 schools have the nickname Wildcats.

Northwestern is not even the only major conference school with the color purple and a Wildcat mascot named Willie.

"Pardon the Interruption's" Michael Wilbon (class of 1980), who likes Northwestern's current nickname, was at an airport recently when his toddler, Matthew, became excited seeing a purple Wildcats jersey.

Turns out the jersey was of Kansas State, a program with more basketball and football success.

Ranked the 12th best national university by "U.S. News & World Report," Northwestern is known more for its theater, journalism and graduate business programs.

The school's sports have a come along way since the 1980s when the football team lost 34 straight games, and fans derisively chanted, "We are the worst!" The football program has gone to four successive bowls, and the basketball team has the same streak with the NIT.

But Northwestern has not won a bowl game since 1949, and despite hosting the initial NCAA tournament, it is the only major conference school that has never been invited.

Perhaps in addition to raising its profile, a new nickname would serve as a jinx buster.

"If it would help us win a bowl game or make the NCAA tournament," Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey (class of 1996) said via text, "then I am for a name change."

In fact, the school almost changed its nickname 40 years ago, so it is the perfect time to revisit the topic.

"I'm sure everybody would be open to the discussion," Susan Du (class of 2014) said. "That's just the culture of our school."


Northwestern was not always known as the Wildcats and nearly adopted a different nickname in April 1972.

Royal purple became the school's official color in 1892, and the football team became the Northwestern Purple. Because of its founders' religious affiliation, it also was unofficially known as the Fighting Methodists.

Its first mascot was not Willie the Wildcat.

Furpaw, a live, caged bear from the Lincoln Park Zoo, was driven to the playing field and wore a Northwestern sweater to greet fans before each game in 1923. After a losing season, however, the team blamed Furpaw for its bad luck and banished him from campus.

(Judging by some of the winless football streaks, Furpaw probably deserves a pass on this one.)

In fact the origin of Wildcats occurred during a loss -- albeit to a then-college football power. Following University of Chicago's 3-0 victory against Northwestern in 1924, Chicago Tribune sports writer Wallace Abbey wrote:

"Football players had not come down from Evanston; Wildcats would be a name better suited to (Coach) Thistlethwaite's boys ... Stagg's boys, his pride, his 11 that had tied Illinois a week ago, were unable to score for 57 minutes. Once they had the ball on the 9-yard line and had been stopped dead by a Purple wall of wildcats."

Though that article led Northwestern to adopt the Wildcat nickname, some never saw it as a great fit.

After graduating from Northwestern in 1971 and before attending law school, Jim Bendat campaigned to change the name from Wildcats to Purple Haze.

"It was basically half for fun and half serious," Bendat said.

Bendat, now a Los Angeles county public defender and author of "Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President 1789 to 2013," was motivated by how schools like the Alabama Crimson Tide, Minnesota Golden Gophers and Tulane Green Wave had memorably adopted colors into their nicknames.

He thought the name of the song recorded by Jimi Hendrix in 1967 would make Northwestern's nickname more original.

"There's so many Wildcats all over the place," Bendat said. "It was time for something unique and different."

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The Purple Haze drew major publicity. The Daily Northwestern endorsed it, and several football players, including Rick Telander, now a sports columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, became proponents.

National media outlets sought Bendat, and he even debated Northwestern football coach Alex Agase on WGN Radio.

After receiving petition signatures, Purple Haze was placed on the student body election ballot, and 59 percent voted in favor of it on April 12, 1972. Several national newspapers and wire services even reported that Northwestern changed its name.

Despite the student majority, however, the school administration declined to approve the change to Purple Haze.

"They ignored the will of the people," Bendat said.

They expressed similar resistance lately, declining to make the athletic staff or president available to discuss the nickname.

"The University has no plans or interest in changing the name of its teams," vice president for university relations Alan Cubbage said via email.

Bendat's daughter, Francine, is class of 2009 and during her freshman orientation, a staffer mentioned that the school voted to change its nickname during 1972.

Francine laughed.

"Yup, I know about that," she said. "That's my dad."


Northwestern has shrewdly rebranded itself as "Chicago's Big Ten Team."

What better way to further identify itself with Chicago -- whose teams include the Bears and Cubs -- than to adopt a bear nickname like Grizzlies or Black Bears?

Bears defensive end Corey Wootton, who knocked out Brett Favre during the quarterback's final contest, does not advocate a change but likes the suggestion of a Bear-related nickname.

"Something like that would be kind of cool," said Wootton (class of 2009), "because all the Chicago teams would be within the Bear family."

Moreover, this new nickname has tradition. (Furpaw, the original mascot, would nod assuredly.) It is both tough and unique. The Black Bears would even fit the color scheme as Northwestern often wears black and purple uniforms.

As a play on this theme, Zessis jokingly suggested the nickname Colbears in honor of alum Stephen Colbert (class of 1986.)

Zessis, the president of The Northwestern Flipside, the school's satirical publication, and his staff hashed out several other nicknames poking fun at Northwestern's reputation, including the North Faces, Harvard-Wests and Cardinal Directions.

Both Zessis and Goldfine, a producer for Northwestern Sketch Television, brainstormed Fighting Armadillos because of an annual spring party called 'Dillo Day, which was originally started by students from Texas.

But Armadillos seem more appropriate for a more southern school where the animal is indigenous. And a creature who defends itself from predators by rolling into a ball would not exactly strike fear into opponents.

"Armadillos aren't very ferocious," Goldfine said.

Because of the alliteration, the Northwestern Norsemen would roll off the tongue. Since that term literally refers to ancient Scandinavians, it might be considered offensive (though more politically correct than the Fighting Methodists.)

Instead of Norsemen perhaps Vikings -- a common term for Norsemen during the Middle Ages and representative of warriors who thrived in cold temperatures -- would work.

"I see the correlation," Wootton said. "It's just kind of weird."


Change can be awkward especially regarding college nicknames because alumni often have a special reminiscence for their school.

"You like whatever you got used to in the four years that you were there," Wilbon said.

But sometimes change is good.

Du, a sophomore, could certainly use one. By the time she graduates from Northwestern, she will have been a Wildcat for 11 years first at Washington (Ill.) Junior High and then at Neuqua Valley (Ill.) High. Her current Wildcat affiliation played at the Alamo Bowl in 2008, losing to Missouri, 30-23.

Zessis attended that game in San Antonio, which demonstrated why Northwestern might benefit from a new nickname. He said many Texans knew neither Northwestern's location nor anything about the school.

"Something more unique," he said, "would help with people who have never heard of our program."

-- Jeff Fedotin graduated from Northwestern in 2001. He had various nicknames bestowed upon him during college, but none are suitable for print.

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