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What’s a Billiken, and How’d It Find Its Way to St. Louis?

Saint Louis Billikens
Jamie Sabau, Aubrey Washington, Rob Carr / Getty Images

St. Louis University is seeded fourth in this year’s NCAA Tournament, and they’re a sentimental favorite for a lot of hoops fans this year. In December, their coach, Rick Majerus, died of heart failure at the age of 64. The team dedicated their season to the memory of their coach.

But an additional reason to root for St. Louis is their mascot: the Billiken. What exactly is a Billiken anyway?

The mystery around the Billiken is perhaps as interesting as the nickname itself. And while nobody can quite explain why the billiken got selected as the St. Louis University nickname, it’s known to date back to 1908. That year, Florence Pretz, a Missouri art teacher and illustrator, patented her “design for an image,” says the university’s website. The image had immense popularity right away, reproduced as dolls, candy, belt buckles, hood ornaments and more.

How did Pretz come up with the name for the obscure figure? It dates back to the Billiken Company of Chicago, who bought the design from a Canadian poet.

But how’d it find its way to St. Louis? Around 1910, according to legend, someone noticed that SLU football coach John Bender looked a great deal like the Billiken. Soon afterward, the team became known as “Bender’s Billikens.”

Other stories also exist to explain the connection. “It doesn’t bother me that there are multiple versions of the Billiken story,” said University archivist John Waide. “That’s the way history goes. It’s a constant search for the truth that will take considerable research, and we may never know exactly what is true.”

St. Louis takes on New Mexico State on Thursday afternoon. You can find a full bracket, tournament scores and schedules, and a great March Madness drinking game over at GuySpeed.

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