In this newfangled tradition called the College Football Playoff, the two remaining teams have mascots a bit more ancient. And Clemson and LSU, which will face off Monday night in the national championship game in New Orleans, share the same nickname: Both are the Tigers.

Reigning national champion Clemson took on the mascot in 1896, borrowing it from Princeton, a national power at the time. The Princeton players wore orange and black stripes on their socks to contrast with rivals Harvard, which wore crimson, and Yale, which wore blue.

Apparently seeking to match Princeton’s success, Clemson adopted the moniker, too, at the suggestion of a student whom historians know only as “Thompson,” according to research by the school’s historian, Paul Anderson.

(Some Clemson fans incorrectly suggest that the inspiration came from the Auburn Tigers, but the school’s official account cites Thompson.)

The story of LSU’s adoption of the Tigers is a longer tale. When 11 states seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861, local governments organized volunteer companies of men to march north and join Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. One such company consisted of a few hundred Irish and German immigrants who worked on the New Orleans docks. They processed and shipped cotton that came down from plantations along the Mississippi River, said Patrick Lewis, the scholar in residence at Filson Historical Society in Louisville.

When the shipments dried up with war on the horizon, the men joined the Confederate ranks and journeyed north. They wore Zouave uniforms, in the style of the French army in Africa, to distinguish themselves at camp in Virginia, where they drank, swore and boasted that they fight like tigers in battle. The name stuck, and others from Louisiana were referred to as Tigers as well.

“By the end of the war, everyone wants to claim they were as wild and successful as those guys,” Lewis said.

Military regiments from throughout the country also took on nicknames, some of which gained similar levels of renown.

“There’s a real folklore element to it,” Aaron Astor, an associate professor of history at Maryville College, said of the regimental nicknames. Civil War soldiers “want to preserve their own cultural elements. Part of it is that they’re just bored. They want a level of trust in each other, especially if a battle is going badly. They want something to think about and lean back on. But then people remember them, and they have reunions, and they’re photographed together, and they become part of local legend.”

The South’s economic recovery from the Civil War coincided with the expansion of the American university system and the arrival of football on college campuses. When teams formed, they often looked to their local histories for fearsome nicknames. More than a few chose mascots that commemorated their Civil War past: the Mississippi Rebels, the North Carolina Tar Heels, the Kansas Jayhawks, the Missouri Tigers.

  • Troops from North Carolina were sometimes known as Tar Heels, a reference some link to the Carolinians digging in their heels during battle as if they were stuck to the ground with tar (or to troops from other states failing to do so).
  • Abolitionists in Kansas were known to raid plantations in neighboring Missouri and free enslaved people by spiriting them back across the border. They called themselves Jayhawks or Jayhawkers, although the term also had other uses.
  • In Columbia, Mo., a company of Union supporters assigned to guard the local courthouse called themselves Tigers, too. But the guards never saw battle. “The company might with propriety have been called the ‘Snow-White Lambs,’ so harmless were they, and so gentle,” one historian wrote.
  • Before Southern Mississippi changed its nickname to the Golden Eagles in 1972, the school was briefly known as the Confederates before becoming the Southerners, and for a time its mascot was General Nat, after Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Charles E. Coates Jr., an LSU administrator at the turn of the 20th century and the school’s first football coach, said by the end of the war that he knew of one company of 200-some Louisianans known as “tigers,” of which only 28 men returned. The “Louisiana Tigers,” according to Coates, “seemed to have the faculty of getting into the hardest part of the fighting and staying there, most of them permanently.” And so LSU’s athletic teams became the Tigers.

“This inescapable nostalgia goes back to the Civil War and is tied to defeat,” Lewis said. “And sports, especially for white Southerners [soon after the war], is a safe place to have state pride and regional pride and to experience victory.”

Many generations later, few fans root on a team named the Tigers with Civil War-era military units in mind. Instead, they might think of a team’s fearsome defense, Lewis said, or admirable character traits associated with the mascot.

“This is about degrees of separation from the war itself,” said Matthew E. Stanley, assistant professor of history at Albany State University.