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Rob Curley: What exactly is a Jayhawk? Or a Zag, for that matter?

When you’re a college basketball fan who grew up in Kansas and now lives in Spokane, some questions are inevitable. Here are two:

Your friends in the Pacific Northwest want to know “Just what in the heck is a Jayhawk?”

Those back in the rectangle state would really like to understand “What in the world is a Zag?”

With Gonzaga and Kansas opening the weirdest college basketball season in hoops history, today seems like as good of a time as any to answer these questions. But be warned, you’re about to hear things explained a little differently than what you may have in the past.

Getting older makes the beauty of hindsight even more beautiful … you can tell a story pretty much how you want and then end it with, “At least that’s how I remember it,” and most people will nod and smile politely.

We’ll start with the smiling blue bird that’s wearing what has to be some of the world’s most uncomfortable shoes. Look, yellow shoes with big red buckles and spikes definitely make an impression, but you shouldn’t try to walk very far in them.

That’s another lesson that comes with age: Sensible shoes are always the right fashion choice.

Let’s clear up the first rumor: The Jayhawk isn’t second cousins with Toucan Sam, nor is he related to Woody Woodpecker. You can check 23andMe for yourself. There’s nothing there. Those are just coincidental doppelgangers with weird speaking voices. They are absolutely not family with Kansas’ mythical bird despite the similarities in appearance.

If you ask someone from Kansas who took a state history class back in the seventh grade, you’ll likely be told that a Jayhawker is the nickname of abolitionist soldiers from the state who fought in the Civil War. That’s true. But there is some nuance to that description that we probably should address.

Let’s start with Kansas Sen. Charles “Doc” Jennison.

In 1861, Col. Jennison led the 7th Kansas Volunteer Calvary Regiment, which was really more of a militia that patrolled the Kansas-Missouri border to keep secessionists out of the state, as well as any pro-slavery settlers. His troops were brutal, unforgiving and completely committed to keeping Kansas a Free State. They would fight, murder and rob in the name of their cause, quickly becoming known as “Jennison’s Jayhawkers.”

This almost-romanticized take on the phrase “Jayhawkers” – painting a picture of virtuous freedom fighters – is largely how most people from the Sunflower State will use it when it’s not being used to describe an elite college basketball team from Lawrence, Kansas.

This is also an almost perfect example of the winners getting to write the history books.

Another take would be that “Jayhawkers” were lawless thieves who also just happened to hate slavery. These soldiers would sometimes brag about how they had new horses or how they had acquired more land by saying it happened in the way that a “jayhawk gets its birds in Ireland.”

Yes, our story is now going to take a turn to Irish folklore, along with a dash of old-school newspapering.

One of these marauders returning to Kansas once explained he got his new horse in the same manner that the Irish jayhawk flew in the night’s sky to ravage the nests of other birds, taking their eggs and likely killing the original inhabitants.

Well, a story like that was just too good not to be repeated by a columnist for a newspaper in Osawatomie, Kansas. The Southern Kansas Herald’s explanation of the phrase “Jayhawkers” as violent and unscrupulous thieves was immediately picked up in newspapers both across the state and the nation.

Just so you know, there actually aren’t vicious birds in Ireland called jayhawks … unless, of course, you believe in leprechauns. And if that’s the case, you be you, boo.

By the mid-1800s, the word “jayhawk” even began to show up in dictionaries. It’s still there. You can check for yourself. It’s a verb that means to “make a predatory attack.”

Except in Kansas, where a Jayhawker is definitely a noun and was absolutely one of the good guys fighting for the most-righteous cause when our country needed them the most. Kansas Jayhawkers were so ferocious they were even called to Lincoln’s White House to protect the president during the Civil War … because they were so awesome.

So now you know what a Jayhawk is. Explaining what a Zag is should be a whole lot easier. Except it isn’t. And the Irish are about to make another appearance, though only briefly. And in a completely different way.

Gonzaga’s athletic teams haven’t always been called the Bulldogs. The canine cognomen certainly wasn’t the school’s first choice for a mascot. In the early 1900s, Gonzaga’s teams were called the “Fighting Irish,” illustrating the school’s desire to be known as the West Coast equivalent of Notre Dame.

In 1921, Gonzaga’s football team traveled to San Diego to play West Virginia University in a Christmas Day bowl game. Though they lost, a California sports writer noted the team from Spokane played with the tenacity of a bulldog. The team and the school really liked that, so the name stuck – they then became the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

This, however, still doesn’t explain what a Zag is, does it?

The problem with that question is those from this area know exactly what a Zag is – it’s simply a playful take on the university’s name, used as a nickname for those who go to school there. For decades, it was almost like a secret handshake. So when did this modern moniker start showing up everywhere, even being used as the primary reference for the school’s teams on most national game broadcasts and in stories all over the interwebs?

Well, that depends who you ask.

Now we’re going to get into a bit of Zags folklore that involves this newspaper, but when you’re still buying ink by the barrel and paper by the truckload, you get to tell the story your way from time-to-time. Especially when you’re the editor.

Gonzaga’s athletic department says its teams have used the alternate nickname dating back as far as the 1960s. When going through years and years of team pictures, both at school’s archives and this newspaper’s archives, it’s hard to find any photographic evidence that date is right. Until you get to 1971.

Chris J. Nickola played for Gonzaga starting from 1968 on the freshman team and then played on the varsity team from 1969 until he graduated in 1972.  (Gonzaga digital archives)
Chris J. Nickola played for Gonzaga starting from 1968 on the freshman team and then played on the varsity team from 1969 until he graduated in 1972. (Gonzaga digital archives)

From 1971 through 1975, Gonzaga’s home basketball jerseys said ZAGS across the front in the biggest font you can possibly squeeze on a micro tank top. It looked oddly fantastic. So, how did that happen?

A longtime sports information director at the school guessed that “Zags” once showed up in a headline in The Spokesman-Review. Neither “Gonzaga” nor “Bulldogs” could fit in the newspaper’s space for the story, but Zags would. So that’s what ran in the newspaper.

Knowing how copy editors and page designers at newspapers work – especially on deadline – there is an air of resourceful truthiness to this.

However, confirming it is a lot harder. For argument’s sake, let’s just say that part is definitely true so we can move on to the rest of the story.

Legendary GU baseball coach – and noted Gonzaga athletics historian – Steve Hertz, arrived on campus in 1969.

When he became the school’s baseball coach in 1978, he wanted to come up with a one-syllable word that would capture who the team was, even its essence, but also be something that others could easily associate his players with. Soon enough, the baseball team’s practice shirts said “ZAGS” across the front.

Everyone loved it.

“It’s so catchy and something no other team comes close to having as far as an identity,” Hertz explained earlier this week. “Zags” as a secondary synonym started to build steam across the entire athletic department, but more as an informal – even internal way – to reference its teams. Still, in going through decades of old media guides, old press releases and old photos, the Zags name seems to have never made it to the court or field on game day in any official way.

Until 2009.

By this time, the Bulldogs had morphed from hard-to-pronounce small private college to hard-to-pronounce basketball powerhouse.

Nike wanted to give the team some snappy, custom-designed new uniforms. As well as a little of the shoe giant’s marketing muscle. Nike would take the team’s now iconic block lettering that spelled GONZAGA across the front of their jerseys, make the font even bigger and just use ZAGS.

It was a hit. As in a huge hit.

Matt Bouldin of Gonzaga scores in early action against North Carolina at the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in March 2009, in Memphis, Tenn.  (Spokesman-Review photo archives)
Matt Bouldin of Gonzaga scores in early action against North Carolina at the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in March 2009, in Memphis, Tenn. (Spokesman-Review photo archives)

The team’s profile just continued to rise. The Sweet 16 appearances kept racking up, the No. 1 rankings occurred more and more often and the “Zags” even played for the national championship. And that is what the majority of national sports broadcasters and sports writers now referred to the team as the most often – the Zags. Not the Bulldogs. But the Zags.

It’s also seemingly the easiest way to tell longtime fans of the team from newer fans: Do they say Bulldogs or Zags? The old-school fans typically still call them the Bulldogs.

Just like a “Jayhawk” is now a term of endearment for someone from Kansas, “Zag” is an affectionate term for someone from Gonzaga. Besides, “Zags” is so darn unique. There aren’t any other colleges with anything even close to it that accomplishes so many things. Listen to people from Gonzaga talk and you quickly realize they’ll use “Zag” as almost every word form – noun, verb, adjective, adverb … they can basically make “Zag” work however they need it to work.

Along with being flexible, there’s another big reason why “Zags” is such a great way to reference Gonzaga’s teams. Even practical.

All you have to do is watch coverage of the Bulldogs during March Madness. There is seemingly no national broadcaster who pronounces Gonzaga correctly. ZOG. It’s the collective Spokane equivalent of fingernails across a chalkboard. It’s painful to hear.

And it doesn’t matter how many times you tell people with studio-quality hair how to say it, they still get it wrong.

What if Gonzaga put ZAGS on the front of its jerseys so that it would be easier for TV people, especially those from the East Coast, to learn how to properly say the school’s name?

You can almost hear in your head a long-ago conversation from deep inside the Kennel after one of those nationally televised games filled with ZOG-uhs.

“We just can’t get these TV people to say our school’s name correctly. Maybe there’s a way we could make the pronunciation guide even more obvious for these broadcast journalists who seem to focus more on their make-up than their diction?”

“You’re totally on to something with this! Hear me out … what if we actually put the proper pronunciation on the front of our jerseys? And do it in massive type. There’s no way broadcasters could miss that. Even those from New York.”

“That is a fantastic idea. Let’s do it. And maybe we should even make the jersey black so that the ZAGS really pops on the front. Then no one could miss it!”

OK, that conversation never happened. But we all wish it had. Well, except for that black jersey part. The Zags just don’t play as well in that color of jersey. We all know that.

Regardless, now you know what a Zag and a Jayhawk really are.

Or at least that’s how I remember it.

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