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Collegiate Sports Fan Flags (U.S.)

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by Terence Martin, Connecticut, USA

Watch any major NCAA sporting event, especially a football game, and you are likely to see flags in the crowd proclaiming the waver's loyalty. Given the many manufacturers of such flags, there can be variations seen in the crowd. However, for some schools, there is significant uniformity with one design becoming a de-facto standard. In these cases, the flag could be considered the "collegiate sports fan flag" for that school. These flags can become a symbol for the team in the same way as the flag of a country is a symbol for that country. This can even be taken to the extent that an opponent's flag will be burned at a pep rally or flown upside down to signal the distress the team hopes to inflict on the opponent. This paper attempts to explore some of the characteristics of these collegiate sports fan flags (CSFFs).


First, all statements in this paper are made "to the best of my knowledge." I welcome additional information from anyone to expand on my points, or even contradict them where I have gone astray. Second, I am an alumnus of the University of Michigan. Therefore, my examples are drawn heavily from the Big 10 conference. I welcome additional information on other schools and conferences, as well as practices in other parts of the world. Finally, this paper makes no attempt to address the myriad of variations available from flag and banner manufacturers. With the increased popularity of decorative banners on houses, flag manufacturers have greatly increased the number flags available for each school, and also the number of schools for which flags can be purchased. This paper only attempts to address what appears to be the most common flags used by the fans of each school discussed. For only a few schools have I expanded the discussion to more than one flag. Indeed, the existence of many variations indicates that no one design has become dominant. Therefore, such schools should be considered to not have a CSFF at all.


CSFFs are not typically the official flag of the institution. Unfortunately, the official flag is usually a "Logo on a Bed Sheet" flag consisting of the institution's seal on a plain field.

The colors of CSFFs are typically the colors of the school, although they can be simplified versions of the school's official colors. For example, White is often substituted for Cream, Scarlet and Crimson are often replaced by Red. Substitutions of bolder versions of the official color are also common. For example, the University of Michigan's official colors are maize and blue, maize being a light yellow and the official blue being a medium/light shade (much like the blue in Luxembourg's flag). The Michigan CSFF typically uses a bright yellow and dark blue.

I have classified CSFFs into five general categories:

SINGLE LETTER FLAGS (Solid field charged with a single letter, and if defaced, the defacing element remains incidental.)

MULTIPLE LETTER FLAGS (Solid field charged with multiple letters which do not overlap, and if defaced, the defacing element remains incidental.)

LIGATURE FLAGS (Solid field charged with multiple letters overlapping or combined into a single character, and if defaced, the defacing element remains incidental.)

LOGO FLAGS (Solid field charged with a design depicting a team's nickname, including those with defaced letters or ligatures in with the defacing element become the most prominent element.)

CO-OPTED FLAGS (Any flag that was originally intended for a totally different purpose but which is now being used, sometimes with modifications, as a CSFF. If used in modified form, the CSFF must still bear a unmistakable resemblance to the original.)

The lines among the various groups can be blurry, especially in situations in which the main element of the flag is defaced, often with a depiction of the team nickname. In addition, some schools have distinctive letter forms and ligatures which are copyrighted and are probably, in a legal sense, logos. I will use "logo" to refer mostly to devices which are pictures of team nicknames and not primarily letters.

A short list of schools and the associated CSFFs appears at the end of this paper. I welcome additions and corrections to the list.


The most basic design for a CSFF is a plain field of one of the school's colors charged with a plain block letter of the school's other color. The reverse of the flag is typically the mirror image of the front, even if the letter is not correctly formed as a result. For left-right symmetrical letters (A, H, I, M, O, T, U, V, W, X, and Y), obviously, there is no difference.

[Collegiate flag] image by Terence Martin, 19 March 2003

A prime example of the Single Block Letter Flag is the Block M flag used by University of Michigan fans. (I warned you about the bias! But don't worry - other schools will be discussed as well.) At first glance, from a vexillological standpoint, these flags don't appear much better than a Logo On a Bed Sheet. However, they do have two advantages over such flags:

1) Colors: There is a wide variety of colors seen in the Single Letter Flags. This is in contrast to the blue background commonly used for US State flags and the white background commonly used for corporate flags.
2) Simplicity of Design: Large single letters are easily differentiated from a distance, again in contrast to the seals seen on US State flags.

If you are familiar with school colors, you can usually tell the fan's loyalty from a distance, especially since you can often narrow the possibilities based on the geographic region in which you see the flag. (An "O" flag seen in the US's Pacific Northwest is more likely to be for Oregon than Ohio State.)

[Collegiate flag] image by Terence Martin, 19 March 2003

Some schools have distinctive letter forms associated with them. For example, the University of Minnesota uses a Yellow (Gold) M on Maroon, but the M has the outer legs slanting inward (much like an inverted W) with serifs at all five points of the letter. (see attached Uminn.gif. On the flag, the M is usually solid yellow or gold. Source: Univ. of Minnesota website)

Schools with multi-part names (other than the word "University" or "College"), such as Michigan State University, Notre Dame, and Ohio State University, have to make a choice. Either one letter has to be chosen, or a different form of CSFF must be used. The choice made appears to depend on the following factors:

1) Is one letter more important than the others? I can't imagine Notre Dame fans referring to their school as either just "Notre" or just "Dame." You can't have one without the other! Therefore, the Notre Dame CSFF is typically a ligature flag.
2) Can the school be confused with another? Ohio State University (OSU) and Ohio University are rarely confused. Ohio University is much smaller than OSU, which dominates the college sports landscape within the state of Ohio.

[Collegiate flag] image by Terence Martin, 19 March 2003

[Collegiate flag] image by Terence Martin, 19 March 2003

For schools associated with a region of a state, the directional letter is often chosen. For example, Eastern Michigan University uses a White E on Green. Michigan State University (MSU) is an interesting example, having chosen the S (White S on Green). For those outside of the upper mid-west, this may appear odd, but in fact it reflects two important aspects of the school. First of all, MSU alumni and fans often refer to the school as simply "State," and secondly, the team nickname, the Spartans, also starts with S.

Some schools will deface the block letter with a device, often related to the team's nickname. For example, Ohio State University uses a Gray O on Red (Scarlet) defaced with the leaves and nut of the Ohio Buckeye tree (Aesculus glabra), which refers to the team nickname, the Buckeyes.


Some schools with multi-part names choose to use all the initials. For example, Michigan Tech University uses MTU. In a creative solution to the problem of reversed letters, MTU is usually arranged vertically with the stem of the T inserted into the slot of the U. (Since the letters do not overlap, I did not classify this as a ligature flag.) In another twist, the letters are yellow, fimbriated in black, on a white background. The official colors of the school are Yellow and Black. (I'm working on memories from hockey games in the early 80's, so MTU alums, please correct me if I'm wrong!)


A ligature is a character combining two or more letters. Ligatures are often used by two types of schools

1) Multi-part name schools such as Notre Dame, and
2) One part name schools in combination with either a U or C referring to either "University" or "College," respectively.

A Notre Dame CSFF often seen is an interwoven Yellow ND on Blue (For more Notre Dame CSFFs, see the "Co-opted Flags" section below). Indiana University uses a White (Cream) I and U overlapping to form a ligature which looks like the Greek letter Psi on a Red (Crimson) field. (see attached IU.gif, source: Indiana University website)


Logos depicting a team's nickname, either with or with letters, are commonly seen. Penn State fans commonly fly a blue flag with the white Nittany Lion logo.


An interesting phenomena has occurred with a few schools whose fans have "borrowed" flags originally intended for other purposes (either with or without modification) and transformed them into CSFFs. (I don't intend the term "co-opted" to have negative connotations.) Fans of the University of Miami (Fla.) use the two red square flags charged with black squares which recalls the nickname "the Hurricanes." At Notre Dame ("the Fighting Irish") games you will often see the Irish vertical tricolor (Green, White, Orange), as well as a defaced variation of the Irish tricolor. This variation consists of a vertical tricolor of Green, White, Yellow in roughly 1:2:1 proportions, with the interwoven ND ligature in the White panel.  The colors chosen here add to Notre Dame's school color "ambiguity" (Is it Green or is it Yellow and Blue?).

The Citadel uses the State of South Carolina flag with the Blue changed to Red. According to the FOTW website, this has historical roots back to the Civil War.

Finally, Ohio State fans can be seen waiving the State of Ohio flag. It appears to me that an unmodified state flag can only used when these two situations coexist:

1) The state flag is better than a Logo on a Bed Sheet.
2) There is no in-state competitor for its use.

The State of Colorado has a distinctive flag, but both Colorado and Colorado State could claim it. Georgia State is not the athletic power that Georgia is, but the State of Georgia's flag is, well, let's just not go there! Do fans of the Tennessee Volunteers wave Tennessee's state flag? Do Maryland Terrapins use the State of Maryland's flag? If not, perhaps they should! Again, I welcome further insight from those familiar with teams beyond my Big 10 bias.


I have seen opponents deface a CSFF by putting the international "No" symbol (circle with a slash) over the device on the flag. In the instance I saw, the opposing team's colors were Orange and Blue, so the "No" symbol was in Orange instead of the typical Red.

Near the end of the regular college football season and during the post season bowl games, you will sometimes see CSFFs temporarily defaced by their own fans. For example, Big 10 team flags will sometimes be defaced with a rose to indicate the team's appearance at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. With the advent of the Bowl Championship Series, and the associated breakdown of traditional conference/bowl game associations, it will be interesting to see if this practice diminishes.


I welcome additions and corrections to this list. A few rules for this list:

1) It must be a flag. Notre Dame's fighting leprechaun is seen in many places including shirts, bumper stickers, etc. However, at the stadium, you don't often see the leprechaun printed on cloth and attached to a pole. I don't want this list to degenerate into a list of logos, ignoring its use.
2) It must be a dominant design. If you see lots of different designs and no one design dominates, then nothing has become the de facto standard. Michigan and Michigan State are perhaps the most illustrative. In the crowd at the Michigan-Michigan State football game, you will see the Yellow M on Blue, and the White S on Green, and virtually NOTHING else.

I found a website which had many animated flags for schools. That website is well done, however the designs used are not necessarily the dominant designs for schools. For example, the design used for Ohio State is an O defaced with the words "Ohio State" in an arc. While I have seen that flag, the O defaced with the Buckeye leaves and nut is much more common.

If your favorite school doesn't have a CSFF, that doesn't make your team less worthy, nor its fans less loyal. It just means that there isn't any dominant design or that the fans express their loyalty in different ways (That makes you all creative people instead of mindless sheep!). If that is the case for your favorite school, feel free to add your school to the last category in the list. With that in mind, here is my pitifully short list, which I hope will quickly expand:

University of Michigan: Yellow M on Blue
Michigan State University: White S on Green

[Collegiate flag] image by Terence Martin, 19 March 2003
University of Illinois: Orange I on Blue
Purdue University: Gold P on Black
Eastern Michigan University: White E on Green
Ohio State University: Gray O on Red, defaced with Buckeye nut and leaves
University of Minnesota: Yellow slant-legged M on Maroon

[Collegiate flag] image by Terence Martin, 19 March 2003

Northwestern University: White stylized N defaced with a Wildcat on Purple
University of Wisconsin: Italicized White W on Red


Michigan Tech University: Yellow MTU, fimbriated in Black on White, arranged vertically
University of Oklahoma: White OU on Red or Crimson


[Collegiate flag] image by Terence Martin, 19 March 2003

Indiana University: White IU (Psi) ligature on Red
Notre Dame: Interwoven Yellow ND on Blue


Pennsylvania State University: White Nittany Lion Logo on Blue


The Citadel: State of South Carolina substituting Red for Blue
Notre Dame: Irish Tricolor
Notre Dame: Irish Tricolor, bands reproportioned to roughly 1:2:1, Orange changed to Yellow, center band defaced with interwoven ND ligature.
Ohio State University: State of Ohio flag
University of Miami (Fla.): Hurricane storm warning flags

(That is, they have no dominant CSFF)

Terence Martin, 27 November 2002