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Did the Florida Gator originate at the University of Virginia?

February 1, 2012 |  8:27 am

FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: The nickname and the logo of the Florida Gators football team was created and developed at the University of Virginia. When it comes to the origination of college football team's nicknames and mascots, they typically come from one of two sources. One would be a school newspaper (sometimes even newspapers outside the school), like the Stanford Cardinal (who got their name from the coverage of the first "Big Game" against Cal, where the headlines read "Cardinal Triumphs O'er Blue and Gold") and the other would be the student populace itself (like the Yale students who decided to name their football team the Bulldogs after their self-adopted mascot "Handsome Dan"). In the case of the University of Florida and the Gators, however, not only did their name and mascot not come from a newspaper or a Florida student, it may not even have originated in Florida!

Read on to discover how the famed Florida Gators of the University of Florida may have been born in Charlottesville, Virginia at the University of Virginia.

What we know today as the University of Florida was formed in an odd manner in the early 20th Century. Florida legislator Henry Holland Buckman pushed a piece of legislation through the Florida legislature in 1905. The legislation, known as the Buckman Act, reorganized the universities in Florida into three distinct major universities - one for Caucasian men, one for Caucasian women and one for African-Americans, regardless of gender. As a result of the Buckman Act, four separate schools; the University of Florida at Lake City, the East Florida Seminary (in Gainesville), the St. Petersburg Normal and Industrial School and the South Florida Military College (in Bartow) were merged into the new University of the State of Florida.

Football had begun at a number of Florida universities beginning in the late 1890s (two of the schools merged into the University of Florida had even played against each other), so it was no surprise that the newly merged University also had a football team. Florida State College's football coach, Jack Forsythe, became the first head coach of the new school's football program, which began play in 1906, the first year that the University opened their Gainesville campus (for the first year of the University's existence, classes were held in Lake City).

When the school opened the Gainesville campus, one businessman that greatly benefited from the new university was local store owner Phillip Miller. Miller (born 1857) had opened the very first wholesale and retail grocery store in Gainesville in 1875. After moving to Jacksonsville to open a similar operation at the tail end of the 19th Century, he returned to Gainesville around the turn of the century to open a stationery office supply and soda fountain business known as Miller's that he would run for the next three decades. Upon the opening of the new consolidated university in Gainesville, Miller's became a popular sport for students to pass the time (drinking their malts, or whatever college students did for fun in 1906).

Miller's son, Austin, enrolled in the University of Virginia's School of Law in 1907 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Phillip went to go visit with his son at the school in the fall of 1907. While in Charlottesville, Miller decided to do a little business during his visit with his son by also paying a visit to the Michie Company, which was a company (founded in 1897) that was best known for producing law books (they were purchased by LexisNexis in the 1980s) but also produced school pennants and various other school regalia (banners and the like). Miller thought that it would be a smart idea to get some pennants for the new school that he could sell in his store. However, in the Fall of 1907, the school had not yet come up with a nickname or a mascot. In the early years of the football program, the team was simply called "Florida.” Austin Miller later recalled that he and his father determined to change this.

After consulting with the Michie manager over what animals were used by other schools, the younger Miller suggested an alligator for the Florida mascot. After all, alligators did live in Florida and no other school was using an alligator as their mascot. Their endeavor hit a bit of a snag when the Michie manager explained to the men that he did not know what an alligator looked like. So Austin went to the University of Virginia's library and returned to Michie with a drawing of an alligator.

The orange and blue pennants and the banners went on sale at Miller's store in time for the beginning of the 1908 school year. They proved popular. The 1911 football team (coached by George E. Pyle, who had taken over as head coach from Forsythe in 1909, the same year that the school shortened their rather cumbersome name "University of the State of Florida" to simply "University of Florida") was the first Florida football team to be known as the Florida Gators. That team finished 5-0-1, the first (and so far the only) Florida Gators team to finish the season undefeated.

Austin Miller graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1910. He moved to Jacksonsville where he practiced law for decades, including a two decade stint at Jacksonsville's City Attorney. His father, Phillip, passed away in 1939.

However, while the University of Florida has essentially accepted this story as the origin of the Florida Gators nickname (they list it on their history section here), Carl Van Ness, the Curator of Manuscripts & Archives Department for the University of Florida, wrote in to posit that the story is likely untrue. Here is Carl on the story:

The most likely source for the nickname is Neal "Bo Gator" Storter and a quasi-mythical student organization called the Bo Gator Club. The Bo Gators were founded in 1907 with Storter as the Club's Chief Bo Gator. Fictionalized accounts of the Bo Gators were featured in the student paper and the yearbook from 1907 to 1910. (The original name of the yearbook was The Seminole. How weird is that?) Storter captained the 1911 football team which, as you note, was the first team to be called the Alligators. Alligators and Gators were used interchangeably for about five years and then everyone agreed it was the Gators. The problem with the Bo Gator explanation is that Storter denied the honor when it was first offered in 1928. Instead, Storter pinned the name to a 1910 football game with the Mercer Bears in Macon. The day before the game a headline in the Macon Telegraph declared "Macon to be invaded by a bunch of alligators from Florida." The Bo Gator explanation resurfaced in 1962 and this time Storter remarked that the story "bordered on the truth." However, he stuck with the headline explanation throughout his life although he later placed the headline in South Carolina in 1911. This version actually jibes with the naming of the team during a road trip to South Carolina in October of that year. Finally, there is the explanation offered by Klein Graham who served as the university's business manager from 1905 to 1950. When asked, he stated that there was no real explanation other than it was a good name for a Florida team and pointed to the existence of alligators in Lake Alice, one of our signature campus landmarks. The Miller explanation has a problem. We have a number of photographs of people holding pennants from that time period and I have never seen a Gator on a pennant. I have also never seen a wolverine on a vintage Michigan pennant or a yellow jacket on a Georgia Tech pennant, etc. In fact, it was very rare to place graphic elements on sports pennants in 1907. Austin Miller probably confused the school colors with the mascot. In 1907, most people thought the school colors were Blue and Gold, and they may well have been. Others thought the colors were Blue and Orange. If Miller ordered Blue and Orange pennants in 1907, he may have influenced the decision to gowith orange over gold in 1910. He told the mascot tale in 1948 and, in the space of forty years, he may have simply mixed up the story.

Carl convinced me, so I’ll change my answer to…

STATUS: Likely False.

Thanks to the late Austin Miller and the Florida Times-Union for his version about the formation of the "Gator" name (plus thanks to the Times-Union for information about the elder Miller from his obituary). And, of course, thanks to Carl for the amazing information. You rock, Carl!

--Brian Cronin

Be sure to check out my website, Sports Legends Revealed, for more sports urban legends. I have archives of all the past urban legends featured on the site in the categories of: Baseball, Football, Basketball, Hockey and the Olympics. Also be sure to check out my Entertainment Legends Revealed for urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies, Music and more! Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com. And please buy my book, "Was Superman a Spy? And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed! here.

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