Column: A Rat By Any Other Name

Ann Arbor's Huron River Rats win the mascot name game
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Michigan towns invest a lot in their high schools – and they should, because those schools represent them. That’s why you see those signs at the city limits boasting about their Class B state baseball champs or Class D volleyball team – from 1994. I’ve always thought that’s pretty cool – and even cooler for the state champs who get to see it every time they come home.

A town’s pride often carries over to the team’s mascots, like the Midland Chemics, the Calumet Copper Kings, or the Bad Axe Hatchets – great names, every one of them. When you pull those jerseys over your head, you know you’re wearing a piece of your home, your history, your very identity.

But if you play for the Panthers or the Wildcats or – heaven forbid – the Eagles, you’re one of a hundred. Actually, you’re one of 103. That’s how many high schools have those names in Michigan alone.

Ann Arbor’s newest high school is among the unfortunate.

Instead of letting the students pick their mascot, a committee of 50 did it for them. And really, a committee of 50 isn’t a committee. It’s a small village. The committee did what committees do: it picked the lamest possible names.

They called the new high school Skyline, which makes no sense at all, because Ann Arbor doesn’t have a skyline – and if it did, it wouldn’t be in the northwest corner of town, where the school is. No, in that neighborhood, you have a treeline. See the difference? The committee couldn’t.

But the mascot the committee picked is worse. After careful study and lots of discussion, they came up with – yes! – the Eagles! Just like 44 other schools in the state, Michigan’s most common nickname. Awesome.

Which is why I feel grateful to wake up every morning and know that I am … a River Rat!

Yeah, you heard me right. The mascot for my alma mater, Ann Arbor Huron, is the River Rats. And yes, there’s a story behind that.

For well over a century, Ann Arbor had only one high school, whose teams were called the Pioneers. So, when they opened Ann Arbor’s second high school in 1969, Ann Arbor’s first school decided to call themselves the Pioneer … Pioneers! Hey, it rhymes. Get it? And only three teams in our hockey league are called that!

The question was, what to call the new school? They were building it hard by the Huron River, so that was easy: Huron High. Nice.

Now, what about the mascot? Years before Huron was even finished, Pioneer students started calling their new rivals the “sewer rats.” This being the sixties, and this being Ann Arbor, the Huron students weren’t offended, but flattered, converting the name to the River Rats, and claiming it as their own.

The administrators hoped the students would pick the Highlanders or the Hawks, but the counter-culture crowd voted for “River Rats” in a landslide. So the administrators decided to start the school without an official mascot.

The name finally caught on for good during football camp a few years later. Huron was so overcrowded in its early years, the joke went, that even the rats left the building. So when the football players sat down to eat, and a huge, hairy rat ambled into the cafeteria, the football players didn’t need a committee to start their spontaneous chant: “The rat is back! The rat is back!”

So what if the principal later found that rat under Huron’s trademark arch – and clubbed it to death with a two-by-four? Those players, inspired by that rat, beat Pioneer for the first time in 1976, and the name stuck.

Yes, other schools might make fun of us – as I’m sure they do the Hematites, the Flivvers, and the Nimrods, all great names – but they know who we are, because we’re the only River Rats around. And because we have a story, we know who we are, too.

Poor Eagles. Poor Pioneers.

Go Rats!

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By Rod Johnson
    October 29, 2010 at 8:41 am | permalink

    I rarely find much to agree with in your columns, John, but in this instance I am solidly with you. My daughter is a Skyline Eagle, and I wince at the mediocrity of that every time I hear it. River Rats FTW, you lucky bastards.

  2. October 29, 2010 at 8:52 am | permalink


    I always find something to agree with in your columns and this one is no exception, even though I am a “Pioneer”. For what it is worth, I have two Rivers Rats in the family also and I have spent so much time around the Huron pool I feel like a Rat sometimes.


  3. By jcp2
    October 29, 2010 at 10:36 am | permalink

    It should be the Skyline Salamanders. Their mascot would be Sally.

  4. By A rose by any other name
    October 29, 2010 at 12:17 pm | permalink

    Are there no creative energies on the north side:
    More appropriate:
    Skyline Buzzards would lead to the Skyline “Scavengers”- a powerful opponent dead or alive.

  5. By Joan Lowenstein
    October 29, 2010 at 12:44 pm | permalink

    John, I am shocked that you did not discover the greatest of mascot names from my high school in Columbia, Missouri. I am proud to be a Hickman Kewpie.

  6. October 29, 2010 at 12:46 pm | permalink

    What’s the school’s fight song?

    “Let the eagle soar,
    Like she’s never soared before.
    From rocky coast to golden shore,
    Let the mighty eagle soar…..”

  7. By Mary Morgan
    October 29, 2010 at 12:53 pm | permalink

    @Aaron, thanks for the reminder: [link]

  8. By peter honeyman
    October 29, 2010 at 12:58 pm | permalink

    It should have been Bo Schembechler High, and the Schembechler Team. Alas.

    Is it any surprise the students call the team the Sky High Bong Hits?

  9. By Kerri
    October 29, 2010 at 1:34 pm | permalink

    I’m with JCP on this.

    I always thought it should be the salamanders. Didn’t they try to save the native salamanders when they were clearing the site? Wouldn’t it be nice to honor those hardy little creatures that are often endangered?

    Salamanders are mythical creatures, which allows for a great mascot and logo. The mascot would be unique and fun and something the kids could get behind.

  10. By Commie kid
    October 29, 2010 at 2:55 pm | permalink

    We at Community high school in Ann Arbor have a rainbow colored zebra to represent us. Glad I played sports at Huron. Go rats.

  11. By Kathy
    October 29, 2010 at 3:40 pm | permalink

    I was in the first class to go all the way through Huron High. (We shared Pioneer’s building with them the first year — split scheduling, with Pioneer in the morning and Huron in the afternoon.) We had several votes and chose “River Rats” each time — because no contest, that was the best name! (I don’t even remember what the other choices were.) The administration didn’t want to honor our choice — that’s why we had to have more than one vote. But the students finally prevailed!

  12. By Stephen Landes
    October 29, 2010 at 4:29 pm | permalink

    My son and daughter are River Rats and I will send them a copy of your column. I totally agree — absolutely no creativity in the name and mascot for the new high school. I had not thought about salamanders, but it would have been a good starting point. Salamanders bring up the image of lizards and from there to dragons — breathe a little fire into the new school.

  13. By Amy
    October 29, 2010 at 5:12 pm | permalink

    This article is just in time for the Huron vs. Pioneer field hockey state championship! It’s tomorrow at River Bank Stadium, and Huron beat Pioneer twice during regular season play. It should prove to be a great game.

    Good luck Rats!

  14. By Reid
    October 29, 2010 at 8:34 pm | permalink

    I always thought they should be the Skyline Salamanders, since there was that hubbub about the endangered Salamanders that lived on the sight where the school was built. That would be way cooler than the Eagles. Or, they could do the opposite of Eastern and be the Skyline Hurons!

  15. By Dan Ezekiel
    October 30, 2010 at 8:35 am | permalink

    For the record, the 8th grade students who were to be the first Skyline class DID vote on the mascot name, from a list submitted by the committee (I don’t remember whether there were 3 or 5 names on the list). Eagles was the easy winner. They also picked the colors (sky blue and white). I personally like the name Skyline, as the school sits atop one of the highest hills in town. Once you have the name Skyline, the colors and mascot make sense.

  16. By Ruth Kraut
    October 30, 2010 at 11:47 am | permalink

    Dan, it is true that the eighth graders (I think all the 8th graders in that part of the district) were polled–but I don’t think that Salamanders or Scavengers were on the list…

    I don’t mind the name Skyline, but the light blue color is not a great choice for making uniforms stand out.

  17. By John Floyd
    October 31, 2010 at 12:40 am | permalink

    Conspiracy theory being such a great parlor game, I always figured the the name “Skyline” was chosen to re-inforce the zoning plans of the ruling class, because it was chosen around the time that A2D2 was in play.

    The Ann Arbor Amphibians would be alliterative, unique, and recognize that salamanders were not the only representatives of their order on the site.

    My eldest sister was the in first sophomore class to occupy the Huron building. She always told me that the original mascot was The Braves, or something like that , and that the administration actively suppressed the use of River Rat for several years before finally caving to student sentiment.

    “Eagles” sounds like a deliberately safe choice, so bland that no one would be put off – or even notice. At least it isn’t like we mimicked a local college or anything. Mr. Ezekiel does make a good point – sky blue makes some sense if the mascot is an eagle. It’s not obvious how to make uniforms look bald.

  18. October 31, 2010 at 10:41 am | permalink

    I’ve heard that the “rat” name referred not only to the nearby river, but to Huron’s location on a former U-M Hospitals medical waste dump. Can anyone confirm this?

    As a proud Rat, I’ve sometimes been troubled by the fact that some of the mascot images seem to more resemble mice; then again, I’m no expert in rodent physiognomy.

    I hope we didn’t lose our last chance for “Bidlack High Bailiwicks” with the Skyline naming.

  19. By Jeff Mortimer
    October 31, 2010 at 6:44 pm | permalink

    My first beats when I joined The Ann Arbor News as a sports writer were U-M hockey and Huron High athletics. It’s hard to say which I knew less about, but the only instruction I remember receiving was not to call Huron High athletes River Rats. Absent an “official” nickname, I was to call them “Hurons,” no doubt to conform to the Pioneer Pioneers precedent. I soon got tired of the charade, not to mention the dissonance (that’s how the coaches and athletes and fans referred to *themselves*, for pity’s sake), and started calling them River Rats whenever I knew someone sympathetic would be editing my copy. And I believe I was the first to have the audacity to use River Rats in a headline. I was later told, although I never substantiated it, that one reason for the administration’s adamance on the subject was the fact that Huron’s principal had had some close and disagreeable encounters with rats when he was a POW in either Korea or World War II.

  20. By Mitch
    November 1, 2010 at 8:50 am | permalink

    Yeah, the committee did not choose so well for Skyline. After all you were there to put in your two cents worth. How about those River Rats? That was only a nick name cause Huron High was built on the town dump after all, and it stuck.

  21. By Liz Nowland-Margolis
    November 1, 2010 at 10:02 am | permalink

    Okay John, I am a bit late in this response but I feel the desperate need to correct your assumptions – from one River Rat to another!! Students were involved in the selection of the school name and most importantly the colors and mascots!

    Incoming Skyline students were involved in a rigorous selection process led by the Huron graphic art class for the color and mascot. A slate of potential school colors were presented, over 12 variations, to over 400 students who then narrowed down the process. Visits were made to the middle schools feeding into Skyline and brainstorming was done with the students for the mascot. Believe me that I was so hoping Salamander would be selected but it didn’t even make the final cut. In fact students hated it!

    Because Skyline is located on one of the highest peaks in the city, the students were really stuck on the Eagle, soaring high over the city. They also like that Eagles could soar and swipe up a River Rats and fly ahead of those Pioneer covered wagons. So the process for the selection of the Eagle (have you seen the logo with the talons?) and the North Carolina blue were strickly student selected. Don’t blame the adults on this one! And remember – we needed something that was a far awary from Purple/White and Green/Gold as possible. I think the kids did a great job!

  22. By jcp2
    November 1, 2010 at 11:53 am | permalink

    For some reason, I have trouble reconciling focus group surveys with creative vision, but then, the students have spoken.

  23. By Liz Nowland-Margolis
    November 1, 2010 at 12:35 pm | permalink

    The students participated in a brainstorming and then voting method. They were active participants in the process which they dictated. It was led by then Huron High School students who talked to the middle school students about mascots, representations, colors which best work on clothing and costs for reproduction. It was not a survey method.