The University of Virginia Cavaliers share a nickname with the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA franchise but that is where the similarities end. The explanation for the University of Virginia Cavaliers nickname actually involves a story of historical significance to the region.
Located in Charlottesville, Virginia the school with a total student population of close to 20,000 is often referred to simply as UVA for short (based on the post office state abbreviation VA for Virginia). The orange and navy blue now worn by the Cavaliers first went into effect in 1888 when athletic teams representing the college used to square off with local YMCA teams for lack of more formal competition. Many people are interested to learn that in the earliest days of collegiate athletics playing games against local YMCA groups was the norm all over the country. In fact, the University of Kentucky basketball program that currently has the most wins of any college team in history began their success with a single victory in the 1903 season against a YMCA squad (the UK team finished a disappointing 1-2 in that first season).
The origin of the Cavaliers nickname comes from what was going on in this region of the world during the seventeenth century when England was involved in a civil war that pitted supporters of the Parliamentary system of government against King Charles I who asserted absolute power in terms of rule. The use of the word Cavalier predates the formation of the United States of America with a very similarly spelled version of the word being used by William Shakespeare in his famed Henry IV play. Shakespeare chose the word to describe a swashbuckler who was not unlike the current University of Virginia mascot that is a sword wielding fellow on horseback. Before being penned by Shakespeare in the final years of the sixteenth century the historic nature of the word Cavaliers dates back to the Spanish word caballeros (translation: horseman) which is actually a derivation of the Latin term caballarius -which has a similar meaning as the Spanish term.
With a solid foundation of the etymology behind the term Cavaliers it is important to understand how it relates to the Virginia program in Charlottesville. Before the days of the American Revolutionary War the modern day state of Virginia was known as the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Commonwealth of Virginia had a reputation of being home to a great many loyalists that were very supportive of the British Crown. When the University of Virginia officially took on the name the Virginia Cavaliers in 1923 it was to pay homage to a bygone era when during the tumultuous seventeenth century British Civil War the good people of the Commonwealth of Virginia aligned themselves with the Royalist supporters who were often referred to as Cavaliers.
The next time you are watching the University of Virginia Cavaliers square off against the University of North Carolina Tar Heels (the oldest rivalry in the South – dating back to 1892) feel free lean over to a buddy and impress him with your thorough knowledge of the seventeenth century British Civil War and the subsequent role that era played in the eventual selection of the UVA Cavaliers nickname.