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Saving EMU football: What’s in a name?

August 25, 2010

“EMU” can commonly refer to one of three things: a large flightless bird native to Australia, a Christian liberal arts college in Harrisonburg, Virginia, or a public university in Ypsilanti, Michigan. When referring to the bird, it’s proper to use lower-case letters. Eastern Mennonite University has an enrollment of about 1,600 students, does not field a football team, and competes athletically in NCAA Division III. Eastern Michigan University has an enrollment of about 23,000 students, and competes athletically in NCAA Division I, with the football team in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest collegiate tier.

My point is that the term “EMU” will refer to Eastern Michigan University better than 99% of the time. The school should embrace the acronym, and in athletics, it should be preferred over spelling out “Eastern Michigan” or other abbreviations such as “E. Mich.”

Why is “Eastern Michigan” a problem?

First, it’s “Michigan” with a modifier, which reinforces the image of them as “little brother” to the University of Michigan. While this creates a problem also for Central Michigan and Western Michigan, the problem is reduced in those cases due to their distances from U-M (or indeed from any other Division I program). Eastern Michigan is right in U-M’s back yard, just 7 miles away. That proximity creates enough problems for EMU without the similar branding.

Second, it allows for little differentiation between Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, and Western Michigan, which in addition to having similar names, all play in the West Division of the Mid-American Conference. This has led to the derisive “Directional Michigan” moniker, which has, at times, seen frequent use in’s Bottom 10. Thankfully, Northern Michigan competes in the GLIAC in Division II; if they were also in the MAC West this headache would become a true nightmare. This lack of differentiation is only exacerbated by the use of the ultra-generic “Eagle” mascot, but that’s another topic for another day.

Third, it’s too long for sports tickers and the like, and there are only a few ways to shorten it. Either “E. Michigan” or “E. Mich.” would retain the previously mentioned problems, but “EMU” is not currently recognizable enough outside MAC/Big (11) Ten country.

One solution would be to follow the lead of schools like Southwest Missouri State University, University of Missouri–Rolla, Southwest Texas State University, and the University of Southwestern Louisiana, and change the name of the school. (Here’s an interesting article on the topic of school name changes.) There are a number of problems with this option. First, it’s expensive to rebrand an entire university, and money is tight right now. Second, there is a significant risk in losing alumni support, similar to the fallout from the nickname change to “Eagles”. Perhaps most problematic is the question of what name Eastern Michigan might end up with. “University of Michigan” and “Michigan State University” are already claimed. In some states they could become “UM-Ypsilanti” or “MSU-Ypsilanti”,  but those seem pretty unlikely here, and I’m not sure that either one would really be an improvement. Probably the best result from a name change would be to take a cue from Ohio’s public universities and become “Ypsilanti State University”; that would help give the school its own brand, but could be perceived as a step backward from using the name of the state — even directionally — to using the name of a city.

The only option left then is rebranding within the athletic department, and “EMU” seems to be the best choice. If they do this, the department will need to go 100%, in a similar fashion to UCF. In fact, take a look at UCF, to examine how scrupulously the program avoids referring to itself as “Central Florida”.

With this kind of scrupulous attention to branding, UCF has been able to avoid the stigma of being a “directional” school and distinguished itself from the other major college athletics programs using the name of the state such as Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Florida State, South Florida, and of course Florida. I’m confident that a similar branding effort would serve Eastern Michigan EMU athletics well.


As an aside on names, I need a name for this blog. Please share any suggestions you can think of — no matter how silly — in the comments on this post. If I get a bunch of good ones, maybe we’ll vote. I don’t make any money on this, so I can’t pay you, but I promise that if I end up using your suggestion I will 1. post a permanent attribution indicating that the name was your idea (using your name, nickname, screen name, or whatever you’d like) and linking to your blog/website (if you like) and 2. if this ever turns a profit, I will donate the entire profit of the first profitable month to the EMU department, athletic team, fund, or non-political student organization of your choice (in your name, or anonymously if you prefer). That and my sincere thanks is all I can offer. Suggest away!

11 Comments leave one →
  1. BeatNavy permalink
    August 25, 2010 10:05 am

    Good article — renaming can indeed result in some strange things…

    …several years ago, whatever the system of higher education in Georgia is called decided that true “universities” should have that word in their name. My father-in-law happened to work at Georgia College (in Milledgeville, which became pretty well-known as the location of a certain NFL QB’s bad behavior this summer), and it was one of the schools that underwent a change. I can’t remember the list of possibilities, but it ended up as “Georgia College & State University”. Ugh.

    It seems like it would be difficult for alumni. Do you tell people you went to “Former Name University” or to “New Name University”? Update your resume, which then would not match your transcript or diploma?

    I happened to live in Maryland when they dropped “State” from many (most? all?) of the “city-name” schools. Towson State University became Towson University, etc. A common argument was that there is no state named “Towson”, so the name was confusing. I fail to understand how “Towson University” is any less so.

    Of course, I graduated from a school that is well-known by many names, so what do I know? United States Military Academy. West Point. Army.

    • August 25, 2010 10:23 am

      As with the current mascot, the current name, “Eastern Michigan University”, is relatively recent compared to the history of the school itself. For the first 50 years, it was “Michigan State Normal School”, then 57 years as “Michigan State Normal College”, then 3 years as “Eastern Michigan College”, and now 51 years as “Eastern Michigan University”. The fight song never quite caught up, and the last lines (“So fight! fight! for old EMU and vic-tor-y!”) only make sense in light of the historical name (“So fight! fight! for MSNC and vic-tor-y!”).

      I doubt that a change in the name of the school — if done with care — would be nearly as difficult for alumni to swallow as the 1991 mascot change from “Hurons” to “Eagles”. That’s still a VERY sore point for an awful lot of people. But it’s a moot point, because I don’t think a name change is realistic, which is why athletic department branding is so important.

  2. August 25, 2010 11:12 am

    You’re spot on about taking EMU over any other term but if you’re going to rebrand the school name than the nick name ‘Eagles’ Needs to be re-examined.

    It is a shame that the U had to drop Hurons, but why replace it with the Generic Eagles. Ideally the school should try to get the blessing of the Wyandot Nation by letting them have a say in the Logo, Mascot, and approved traditions.

    Assuming that you can’t get their blessing maybe find a new name which is more unique? You’re city is named after a modern day Greek Hero, why not work with that?

    * The Argos? – In honor of The Defense of Castro Larissa at Argos, sure there is a CFL team of that name but it’s still way more unique than the Eagles.

    • August 25, 2010 11:44 am

      BTW on the Blog Name

      1) Forever Huron (just kidding)
      2) The Other Michigan (still kidding)
      3) Green Talons
      4) The Mighty Green and White

    • August 25, 2010 12:08 pm

      I agree that the generic mascot is an issue, but I wanted to focus just on the name for today. Mascot change will be an upcoming topic (probably next week).

  3. Rimshot permalink
    August 25, 2010 2:11 pm

    Who says the school must be named after the state or city? Why not name it after a well-known (kind of) natural feature? And in so doing, pay homage to the old mascot?

    Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: “Huron University”

    • Rimshot permalink
      August 25, 2010 2:15 pm

      . . . or better yet, “Huron State University.” Has a better ring to it.

      With a new name, of course, we’ll need a new mascot. What better way to close the circle than to take the field as the “Huron State Fighting Emus”?

      (I’m gonna have me a sweatshirt printed up right away)

  4. guardsman insurance kingston permalink
    October 3, 2010 4:22 am

    Great read! You might want to follow up to this topic 😛

    -Warmest Regards

  5. October 9, 2010 3:36 am

    I was going to Eastern when they changed the name to Eagles and quite frankly they couldn’t have handled it in a worse way. First of all, the Huron tribes had no real problem with the name and in fact they would have preferred Eastern would have kept it. Second of all, since President Shelton was dead set on changing the name, he really should have called for a school wide contest to come up with a new name. I think the reason he didn’t was because he was afraid that the overwhelming choice would be Huron or a variation on Huron. So basically he alienated a group of future alumni by doing it that way. And he already alienated the alumni at the time because they were happy with the name.

    So then the name gets changed to probably one of the most boring names out there (Don’t get me wrong, I like eagles they are cool birds but Eagles is such a generic team mascot ) and is pretty much fostered on the school. It took me a good 10 years to accept it and now I have a hat with the eagle logo (mainly because my poor hat with the Huron logo is just about gone now).

    So quite honestly, I think changing the name of the University itself will be a an even worse move.


  1. Friday open thread « Eastern Michigan Eagles
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