A Jayhawk? What's In That Name?

By Jay Sedmak
SNPJ Publications Editor/Manager

Those of us who are diehard fans of college basketball are eagerly anticipating the upcoming weekend Division I conference tournament championships. More so than the annual 64-team NCAA tournament, the conference tourneys feature matchups of heated rivalries (assuming all goes as planned): Duke-North Carolina in the ACC, Louisville-Cincinnati in the Big East, Kentucky-Florida in the SEC, UCLA-California in the PAC 12, Indiana-The Ohio State University in the Big 10, and Kansas-Kansas State (or just about everyone else in the conference) in the Big 12. These pairings of conference foes offer a bounty of terrific games played in basketball’s most hallowed halls stretching from sea to shining sea. It’s a great weekend for college hoops, perhaps the best of the entire season!

Looking over the members of the various major Division I conferences, I got to wondering exactly what the story was behind the team mascot for the University of Kansas, the “Jayhawks.” It’s a nice name, I suppose... but then again, I’m not sure what a Jayhawk is. And what’s a Jayhawk got to do with Kansas anyway? So I did some research.

KU Basketball

Turns out, most people, at least those outside the University of Kansas, probably wouldn’t want to be referred to – or even associated with – a Jayhawk (sometimes referred to as a “Jayhawker”). The definition of a Jayhawker, according to the folks at Wikipedia, is a “militant band affiliated with the free-state cause” in Bleeding Kansas prior to the American Civil War. Jayhawks were “guerrilla fighters who often clashed with pro-slavery groups from Missouri, known at the time as ‘Border Ruffians.’ After the Civil War, the word ‘Jayhawker’ became synonymous with the people of Kansas, [and] today the term is a nickname for a native-born Kansan.” There’s a lot more to the story of the Kansas Jayhawks, but for the sake of brevity, this will have to suffice.

Apparently, Kansas in the 1850s wasn’t the most hospitable place on earth. Violent political clashes erupted over Kansas’ admission to the Union – would the territory become a slave state or a free state? – leading to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which nullified the Missouri Compromise and introduced the concept of popular sovereignty, a process which allowed the inhabitants of each territory or state to decide whether it would be a free or slave state. For a time, Kansas even had two governments (each with its own constitution, but only one of which was officially recognized) before being admitted to the Union in January 1861 as a free state. The dispute over Kansas is often cited as the final division between North and South leading up to the Civil War, which started just three months after Kansas was granted statehood.

Okay, there’s one theory to explain the evolution of the term Jayhawk(er). After a little more research I discovered the following definition, again in reference to the Kansas territorial dispute: “In Ireland a bird, which is called the Jayhawk, flies about after dark, seeking the roosts and nests of smaller birds, and not only robs [the] nests of eggs, but frequently kills the birds.” Hmm... an Irish bird of prey and a St. Patrick’s Day NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday. Aside from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, maybe the Kansas Jayhawks are this year’s NCAA men’s basketball team of destiny. If not, at least they may qualify for a number one seed in the tournament brackets, and heading into the Big 12 Conference tournament ranked seventh in the nation, they may just play their way into one of those coveted top four seeds.

The University of Kansas is a perennial powerhouse among Division I basketball programs, and year after year Jayhawks fans delight in their team’s domination during NCAA bracket play. And why not? Those roguish, villainous, treacherous KU Jayhawks always seem destined to fulfill the legacy of their Kansan ancestry (on the hardwood, that is): those “Unionists who professed to rob, burn out and murder only rebels in arms against the government.” Is it any wonder that KU has built so many rivalries in the Big 12 Conference over the years?

Needless to say, I think I’ll be pulling for the University of Kansas in this weekend’s Big 12 Conference tournament. And depending on their play this weekend, I just might like those Jayhawks to win the NCAA title come April. Let me put it to you this way – I certainly wouldn’t want to incur the wrath of the oft’ feared Jayhawks, particularly when they’re on the offensive!

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