It’s Texas vs. Oklahoma week, and as part of the annual sports talk and general buzz, I saw a trivia contest broadcast through Twitter. The question: What was the UT football team called in 1900? The posted answer was “Varsity.”
Well, yes and no.
At the start of the 20th century, the term ” ‘varsity ” – with the apostrophe at the front – was a nationally accepted abbreviation of the word “university.” (university -> ‘versity -> ‘varsity) Look through old Austin and UT student newspapers, as well as Cactus yearbooks, and you’ll find mentions of the ‘varsity football team, ‘varsity band, ‘varsity glee club, and so on. This doesn’t mean UT was home of the “Texas Varsities.” It was a general term for a UT group (university band, university glee club), and was commonly used throughout the country. In Texas at the time, a person who was “going to ‘Varsity” was understood to be enrolled at the University in Austin, as opposed to be “going to the College,” which was a reference to the A&M College of Texas – or AMC – in College Station.
As for football, a university’s “A” team was known as the ‘varsity, while the “B” team was called, for better or worse, the “scrubs.” At some point (I don’t know exactly when), high schools began to use the same term for it’s “A” teams, which is the origin of varsity and junior varsity squads.
In the early 1900s, as sports, particularly college football, grew in popularity nationally, newspapers began to set aside extra room for coverage of games and scores, which evolved into today’s sports sections. But journalists who covered the games couldn’t simply refer to a team as ‘Varsity, as that could be used for either school, and always writing out the full name – the University of Texas football team – was too cumbersome. Instead, sports writers began to create nicknames for teams, some of which were later adopted formally by the universities. Sometimes these were simply the school’s colors; Harvard’s football squad is still known as the Harvard Crimson. Other monikers came from local wildlife or unique characteristics of the area: the University of Florida Gators, the Michigan Wolverines, and Cal’s Golden Bears, for example. (The bear has long been a symbol of California and appears on the state flag.)
There were several attempts to label the UT football team. In 1903, Texas defeated Oklahoma, and The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City) published a headline: RANGERS WON IT. But the name “Rangers” didn’t stick.
The following year, two members of The Texan student newspaper, then a biweekly, decided on the term “longhorns” as an appropriate symbol of strength and determination, and began to write about UT teams with the name. They encouraged future Texan staffers to “keep it up,” and as the years passed, more fans began to follow the newspaper’s lead. In 1913, recent grad (and future University regent) H. J. Lutcher Stark purchased blankets for the football team with the term “Longhorns.” (photo above) Soon after, the Board of Regents voted to make the name official. Bevo, the live longhorn mascot, arrived in 1916.