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What Is a Boilermaker Special?

Mar 31, 2011

The men's basketball team at Purdue University had their NCAA tournament hopes dashed early. Nevertheless, the Boilermaker Special, their mascot, will survive to see another day. What is this unusual mascot and how did it come to represent Purdue?

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By Jeff Calareso

Purdue Boilermaker

Origin of a Nickname

It's possible that the best college mascots are created due to a fierce rivalry with another school. That's certainly the case with Purdue. In 1887, the Indiana university established its first football team and it was often crushed in a region dominated by Wabash, DePauw and Butler.

By 1891, things were changing. The season opened on the road in nearby Crawfordsville with a 44-0 victory at Wabash. The Crawfordsville newspaper responded with colorful hyperbole, referring to the game as a 'slaughter of innocents' wherein the 'Herculean wearers of the black and old gold' unfairly beat up the Wabash squad. Among other names, the Purdue players were disparagingly called boilermakers.

This nickname particularly suited Purdue. Founded as a land-grant institution, Purdue specialized in training working class students. In 1891, Purdue had just acquired a functional railroad engine that was mounted in a new locomotive laboratory. A boilermaker, fittingly, is a person who makes boilers such as those used in locomotives. While Purdue students had been called a variety of names, including pumpkin-shuckers, cornfield sailors and blacksmiths, boilermakers was the one that stuck.

Purdue

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Birth of the Boilermaker Special

Until the 1930s, Purdue had no mascot. Then students and alumni got together and decided that the university should have a mascot that represents their engineering excellence. They decided to create a faux Victorian-era locomotive. By mounting the frame on a truck chassis, the mascot could travel to football games and other events in ways an actual locomotive couldn't. Alumni who worked as executives in the rail and automotive industries delivered Boilermaker Special I to the university on the first day of classes in 1940.

Since 1940, there have been six iterations of the Boilermaker Special, with Boilermaker Special VI debuting in 1996. The fourth iteration, known as the X-tra Special, is built on a golf cart frame and its smaller body enables it to go to sporting events its larger version can't reach.

A group of students funds and maintains the Boilermaker Special. These students are part of the Purdue Reamer Club, which includes a cross-section of Purdue students who don't belong to a fraternity or sorority. Their main goal as Reamers is to preserve school traditions. As a perk, they get to drive this unique mascot, the Boilermaker Special.

Like Purdue's Boilermakers, the Georgetown Hoyas have a nickname that's deeply rooted in the academic focus of the institution.

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