Ahead of the Final Four game between KU and Villanova, we explore what a Jayhawk is and why the University of Kansas are named the Jayhawks.

The Final Four is here and March Madness (despite it now being April) is cranking things up a notch.

The Jayhawks are the only No. 1 seed still alive in this year’s NCAA Tournament, and take on No.2 Villanova in the first Final Four matchup tonight.

Ahead of the game, fans are wondering what a Jayhawk is and how it relates to University of Kansas.

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What is a Jayhawk?

The University of Kansas is home to the Jayhawk, which is a mythical bird and sadly not a real-life creature. The origins of the bird are unknown, but Dr. F.W. Blackmar, the first Dean of the Graduate School attempted to explain the Jayhawk in 1926.

He said the creature combines two birds – the blue jay, a noisy, quarrelsome thing known to rob nests, and the sparrow hawk, a stealthy hunter, who is also a courageous and cautious fighter.

So why are University of Kansas called the Jayhawks?

So how does this relate to Kansas? Well, the Jayhawk is rooted in the historic struggles of Kansas settlers. It was first coined around 1849 by a group of California-bound travelers passing through Kansas who called themselves Jayhawkers. 

However, during the 1850’s, the Kansas Territory was a battleground between those wanting a state where slavery would be legal and those committed to a Free State.

Tensions were immediate between the opposing factions, which led to the Kansas-Missouri Border War and several others skirmishes and battles. The anti-slavery proponents were often referred to as Jayhawkers, and the pro-slavery advocates were referred to as Bushwhackers or Border Ruffians.

However, there are some historical sources that say for a time, ruffians on both sides were called Jayhawkers.

When Kansas was eventually admitted as a free state in 1861, the name Jayhawkers stuck to the ‘free staters’. Over time it became a patriotic symbol synonymous with the impassioned people who made Kansas a Free State.

In 1886, the mythical bird “appeared” in a cheer during a University of Kansas athletic event – the famous Rock Chalk chant. When KU football players first took the field in 1890, it was natural to call them Jayhawkers.

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There have been many different iterations of the famous bird

There have been many different iterations of the Jayhawk throughout the years. Henry Maloy, a cartoonist for the student newspaper, drew a memorable version of the Jayhawk in 1912. He gave it shoes, apparently for kicking opponents.

Since then there have been more sombre looking birds. In 1941, Gene “Yogi” Williams opened the Jayhawk’s eyes and beak, giving it a contentious look.

However, it is student Harold D. Sandy’s 1946 design of a smiling Jayhawk that survives to this day. The design purchased from Sandy and was copyrighted in 1947 by the KU Bookstores. It remains one of the most recognizable and unique collegiate mascots in the country.

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