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Dennis: UND should get after a new nickname

There’s no need for the University of North Dakota to be shy at this point about choosing a new nickname.

But shy is how UND is choosing to proceed. That’s shown by comments such as this one, which Forum News Service reporter Anna Burleson quoted in her recent story on the issue:

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“We want to emphasize that the work of this group will be to establish a process, not to select a new nickname or logo,” said one administrator. And even that tepid description sounds fiery next to this one, which another official offered:

“We don’t have a process yet, but what we’re doing is preparing to create a process.”

In our view, this timidity on the part of UND’s administration is a mistake. The university has a lot to gain and not a whole lot to lose by striding confidently toward its goal, which is to line up lots of nickname suggestions, choose the most exciting one and then announce that choice with trumpets and confetti.

Here’s why.

A lot to gain. In both the business and athletics of college sports — in retailing as well as recruiting, in other words — branding counts. It matters. It matters a lot.

And that means UND’s lack of a powerful, inspiring and immediately recognizable nickname for fans to rally around hurts the university.

Sorry, but the current “University of North Dakota” moniker just isn’t enough. Harvard has the most recognizable academic name on the planet; but Harvard doesn’t call its sports teams, “Harvard.” They are the Harvard Crimson.

The Yale Bulldogs, University of Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes … the list goes on. In fact, it goes on forever, as virtually every other college in America has a team nickname, regardless of how famous the institution is.

Those schools are on to something. And by the way, that’s true for not only high schools and colleges, but also the pros. With millions upon millions of dollars at stake, does Boston call its baseball team, “Boston”? No. Since 1908, they’ve been the Boston Red Sox, and they’ll be the Boston Red Sox for the next 106 years, too.

When announcers at games say, “Here’s your University of North Dakota,” you can almost feel the frustration as fans wait for the catchy nickname that never follows. Among other losses, UND’s lack of a nickname has to be hurting non-Fighting Sioux merchandise sales — and if you pressed the marketing team at Ralph Engelstad Arena, we suspect they’d agree.

Not a whole lot to lose. We base this claim on one assertion and one fact. The assertion: The only reason UND gave up its Fighting Sioux nickname is that it was forced to do so. In other words, if the NCAA hadn’t imposed sanctions, UND still would be the Fighting Sioux, to the clear satisfaction of most people in the state.

Now, the fact: When forced to choose between enduring the NCAA’s sanctions or giving up the nickname, North Dakotans chose to give up the nickname. And they did so in the most decisive way possible: by a two-thirds majority in a statewide vote.

That 2012 vote settled the issue. Clearly, losing the nickname wasn’t North Dakotans’ first choice. But resisting the NCAA was futile, voters decided; and with their supermajority vote, they signaled the state’s broad willingness to move on.

Today, UND should acknowledge its need for a new nickname and then find one — and not on tiptoes.

The university needs a nickname and symbol to rally around. Let the search go forward with confidence and drive, lest UND athletes learn the wrong lesson and play with meekness and timidity under their eventual banner.

Dennis is the opinion editor of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at