NCAA Tournament: Why Is Kansas Called the Jayhawks?

While Kansas’ biggest contribution to popular culture is probably a line from The Wizard of Oz, the state is a major player on the college basketball scene. The University of Kansas has one of the country’s elite men’s basketball programs; you can almost guarantee the Big 12 squad will be making a run at the national championship each season.

Although there’s no doubt about KU’s status as one of college basketball’s blue bloods, one thing is a little less obvious: the basis of their name and mascot. What actually is a Jayhawk?

The answer, it seems, has more to do with American history than basketball.

What is a Jayhawk, and what does it have to do with the University of Kansas?

The University of Kansas' Jayhawk mascot during an NCAA Tournament game.
The Kansas Jayhawks mascot during the 2022 NCAA Tournament. | Jeff Haynes/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

On the whole, most sports team nicknames tend to be either something intimidating — think the Tigers or the Bears — or a reference to their location, like the Tar Heels. While you might think the Jayhawks fit firmly in the former category, they actually belong to the latter.

Let’s get this out of the way first. The Jayhawk is not a real bird. Instead, it’s tied to Kansas’ state history.

As explained by KU’s Athletics website, “The term ‘Jayhawk’ was probably coined around 1848. Accounts of its use appeared from Illinois to Texas, and in that year, a party of pioneers crossing what is now Nebraska called themselves ‘The Jayhawkers of ’49’. The name combines two birds — the blue jay, a noisy, quarrelsome thing known to rob other nests, and the sparrow hawk, a quiet, stealthy hunter. The message here: Don’t turn your back on this bird.”

That isn’t the end of the historical context, though. During the “Bleeding Kansas” period, pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces clashed, each trying to ensure that Kansas entered the union with their preferred stance. Over time, the free-staters became known as Jayhawkers, and, when the Civil War broke out, a regiment was even known as the Independent Mounted Kansas Jayhawks.

Over time, the term evolved to simply represent anyone from Kansas, making it a fitting nickname for the state’s major university.

As you might expect, drawing a fictional creature created somewhat of a logistical challenge. There have been several variations of the Kansas Jayhawk over the years, but one thing has remained rather constant: Most versions of the bird are wearing shoes. Thankfully, the same athletics webpage offers an explanation for that tradition.

“Henry Maloy, a cartoonist for the student newspaper, drew a memorable version of the Jayhawk in 1912,” the write-up explains. “He gave it shoes. Why? For kicking opponents, of course.”

What about the ‘Rock Chalk, Jayhawk’ chant?

Now that we’ve run through the history of the Kansas Jayhawk, let’s move on to the school’s iconic chant. What do rocks and chalk have to do with the fictional bird?

The connection, as you might expect, is mostly the rhyme scheme. As explained by the school’s official athletics site, E.H.S. Bailey, a professor of chemistry, created a cheer of “Ray, Rah, Jay Hawk, K.U.” for his science club in the late 1800s. A colleague from the English department, however, stepped in with some edits.

An English professor suggested that “Rock Chalk” be substituted for “Rah, Rah” because it rhymed with Jayhawk and because it would be symbolic of the chalky limestone formations found on Mount Oread.

The University of Kanas Athletics Department

The chant stuck, and, from there, the rest is history.

The University of Kansas has a chance to add to its illustrious history against North Carolina

When you think of legendary college basketball programs, the University of Kansas has to be near the top of your list. On Monday, April 4, the Jayhawks can add another feather to their metaphorical caps.

Kansas, of course, will be playing the University of North Carolina for all the marbles. While both teams are obviously talented, the Big 12 squad will hit the hardwood as the favorites. As noted by CBS Sports, Caesars Sportsbook gives KU a 4.5 point edge.

Looking at the matchup, it’s easy to see what the oddsmakers are thinking. Ochai Agbaji shot the lights out against Villanova, and David McCormack looked like an unstoppable force in the paint. While there’s plenty of skill across the Jayhawks roster, those two could be a particular thorn in the Tarheels’ side.

If you consider how UNC outlasted Duke, they relied on Armando Bacot’s ownership of the glass and clutch three-pointers from Caleb Love and Brady Manek. McCormack, however, is a formidable post-presence who will certainly keep Bacot’s hands full. Agbaji also has the firepower to allow Kansas to keep pace during any North Carolina scoring runs.

The schedule could also play into the Jayhawks’ hands. While both teams are working with the same amount of rest, Kansas enjoyed a (relatively) comfortable win against Villanova. The Tarheels, on the other hand, poured everything into an epic clash with Duke. It’s fair to question how much they have left in the tank heading into Monday night. The quick turnaround could also be bad news for Bacot and his ankle injury. While the big man is prepared to take the court, we’ll have to wait and see how he looks. If he’s at anything less than 100%, David McCormack could take over the game.

At this point, only time will tell who claims the 2022 title. The folks in Lawrence, however, have to feel pretty good about their Jayhawks’ chances.

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