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Team traditions: The story behind OU's Boomer Sooner nickname

Fans can debate the merits of the SEC versus the Big 12, but when it comes to nicknames, it the Big 12 wins for creativity.

While the SEC has two different Bulldogs and three different Tigers in the conference, the Big 12 claims some of the more unique nicknames around. The Horned Frogs of TCU are certainly strange, as are the Jayhawks of Kansas. But there’s only one set of Sooners on earth, and they play at the University of Oklahoma. In the aptly named Sooner State, cries of “Boomer Sooner” ring out from OU campus to the panhandle and back.

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The name is a direct link to the frontier days of the Oklahoma Territory, when the land was unassigned (though hardly uninhabited). During the Civil War, President Lincoln signed The Homestead Act of 1862. This act allowed settlers to claim and farm up to 160 acres of public land for a period of five years, after which they would receive the land from the government.

Post-war, the U.S. Government assumed control of much of the land that now comprises present-day Oklahoma, stripping the land claims of many of the Creek and Seminole Indian tribes that called it home. They refused to allow homesteaders in, despite the Homestead Act, and for several years the Oklahoma Territory lay in limbo.

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It was a no-man’s land, and a grassroots movement to settle the land took hold around 1879 thanks to some fiery newspaper articles that described the land as a “Boomer’s Paradise.” Groups of would-be settlers, now referred to as Boomers, lobbied Congress to open these lands to settlement, but were rebuffed by both the government and the U.S. Army. Boomers tried to cross multiple times, only to find themselves forcibly removed.

It would take another decade before Oklahoma became open for legal settlement. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison signed a bill opening the Oklahoma Territory to settlement, which led to an enormous “land rush.” The first day of settlement went off like an Olympic race: settlers waited on the border for literal starter’s pistols to sound. At noon on April 22, the pistols went off. But some just couldn’t wait for the cue, and crossed too soon -- hence, Sooners.

The Sooners got the best land claims and the first route of access to this new territory. In the same way the Boomers railed against the establishment to try and claim Oklahoma, the Sooners simply couldn’t wait to get into the state.

The OU football team tried to capture the same energetic spirit. They began play in 1895, just a few years after the Sooner movement, but experimented with “Rough Riders” and “Boomers” as their official nickname. Much like the actual Boomer movement, the name didn’t stick.

In 1908, the team switched to Sooners, and soon thereafter notched their first undefeated season in 1915. In the interim, the Sooners have won 43 conference titles and have finished No. 1 in the final AP Ranking seven times. Not bad for a team name based on the ultimate false start penalty.