By Lee Pace
It's been nearly four decades since the Tar Heels have worn anything but Carolina blue helmets. That changes Saturday when they'll wear white from head to toe as part of the "White Out" promotion for the Virginia Tech game.
"Just going into the locker room and seeing something new is a big energy booster," Tar Heel quarterback Bryn Renner says. "I don't think the fans really know how much it means for us to wear a different helmet. We wear it with pride."
Tar Heel football uniforms over more than 120 years have featured Carolina blue, navy blue, gray, silver and white thread. Their helmets a century ago were leather and more recently the plastic headgears have been adorned with ram horns, interlocking NC logos as well as a nouveau stair-stepped rendering of the letters UNC.
The history of the Carolina uniform is an exact mirror of the rise and fall of the program's fortunes-part of the imprint of each head coach on the program has been his role as the team's haberdasher. Each era has been distinct and there's never been enough winning consistency from one era to the next that Carolina has never developed the ubiquitous helmet mark synonymous with many top programs-the steer at Texas, the "T" at Tennessee, the yellow "wings" at Michigan, the stark whiteness at Penn State.
Light blue, or "Carolina blue," has been a part of the UNC landscape at least as far back as the post-Civil War era. Light blue and white were the two colors identifying two of the university's most popular and active literary societies, the Dialetic and Philanthropic, and they evolved into the school's official colors.
But navy blue was nonetheless a dominant color in the Tar Heels' athletic uniforms in the early days of intercollegiate athletics. Football team photos in the early 1900s show players outfitted in heavy, dark jerseys with turtlenecks and long sleeves. The jersey fronts where emblazoned with the interlocking NC logo; it was not until 1930 that numbers were used on the front and backs of jerseys. Year-by-year perusal of team photos and Yackety Yacks show that it was not until 1937 that the Tar Heel football team wore Carolina blue jerseys. Yack photos from 1939 show the Tar Heels wearing navy jerseys at home, light blue on the road and never wearing white shirts.
Helmets in the first half of the century were made of leather and had no markings of any kind. Presumably they were the natural brown of the leather hides, though leather paint was available in the day, and the 1942 and '43 teams wore helmets painted white.
The Justice Era teams of the late 1940s had a distinct uniform evolutionary phase.
The 1946 and '47 teams wore white helmets and pants and either white or navy jerseys. Photos of Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice as a freshman show him in action in a white-on-white-on-white look, and images from the Tar Heels' trip to Austin, Texas, in 1947 show them in white pants and helmets and navy jerseys. Those dark shirts had to be miserable to wear under the hot Texas sun in early October; no surprise the Longhorns cruised to a 34-0 landslide.
Coach Carl Snavely eschewed the navy for the 1948 season and had his team outfitted in Carolina blue jerseys. He further tweaked the pants to a grayish-silver hue; the helmets remained white.
Then in 1949, the Tar Heels wore a funky two-toned helmet. The headgears were still made of leather, with at least five individual pieces stitched together. The portion covering the top of the players' heads remained white, but the pieces forming the front, sides and rear of the helmet were light blue.
Helmet manufacturing technology was evolving and by 1951 the Tar Heels were pictured wearing white plastic helmets. Plastic could be manufactured in colors and decals easily affixed to the surface, so helmet designs throughout football began to take off in the 1950s. The 1953 team under first-year coach George Barclay displayed the first design of any kind on a Carolina helmet.
The university in the early 1920s adopted the ram as its mascot, as head cheerleader Vic Huggins noted other schools with tangible, potentially ferocious mascots-Georgia with its bulldog, for example, and N.C. State with its wolf. He suggested the "battering ram" persona of fullback Jack Merritt would be appropriate for Carolina, and thus the ram was christened as the Tar Heel mascot.
Barclay outfitted the Tar Heels in white helmets with the likeness of a ram horn on either side-similar to the old Los Angeles Rams designs. That lasted only one year, though, and by 1954 Carolina was wearing a white helmet with a light blue stripe down the middle. The white numbers on navy jerseys in 1954 and '55 had a curious twist as well-the numbers featured a dark blue grid pattern interwoven against the white background.
Jim Tatum made his distinct mark on the uniforms when he took over in 1956. He left the helmets white, but replaced the light blue stripe with a navy blue stripe, flanked by thinner bands of Carolina blue. He put bold white stripes around the shoulders at the top of the arms. The 1956 team wore light blue and navy blue jerseys, and photos of road games at Notre Dame and Virginia in 1958 show the Tar Heels in white jerseys and grayish-colored pants.
Jim Hickey took over in 1959 following Tatum's death and made no apparent uniform changes his first year. But the 1960, '61 and '62 teams were outfitted with brand new designs-silver helmets and pants and Carolina blue jerseys. Hickey altered the uniforms again going into 1963, introducing the white helmet with a Carolina blue stripe and interlocking NC logo on each side. Carolina wore white pants at all times, with light blue jerseys at home and white on the road. The uniforms remained the same through the end of Hickey's tenure in 1966.
Bill Dooley arrived in 1967 and told his players, "Good guys wear white hats," and promptly changed the helmets to Carolina blue and made a statement about the team's mindset in the process. Carolina's uniforms under Dooley were remarkably consistent. He floated a blue interlocking NC logo in a white oval on either side of the helmet and put a light blue stripe down the side of the pants. By 1969 he added stripes across the base of the short-sleeve jerseys (white stripe on blue shirts and blue stripe on white shirts) and blue stripes around the top of white mid-length socks.
Dick Crum redesigned the helmets for his first year in Chapel Hill in 1978. He removed the white oval and in its place put a larger interlocking NC logo, but the letters were skinny and deep and didn't have the traditional look of the old NC logo. Seeking a unique look that would set football apart from other Tar Heels sports, Crum in 1979 ditched the interlocking NC altogether, replacing it with a stair-stepped UNC that would remain on the headgears throughout his tenure.
Crum also espoused the view that light blue was not a very "tough" color and was not in keeping with the violent nature of football. He attempted to work more navy into the uniforms but was met with resistance in many quarters from those who said navy is Duke's school color and is not Carolina's traditional color. Both criticisms were wrong: Duke's color is actually more of a royal blue or "Prussian blue," and as noted, the Tar Heels wore navy jerseys during many periods through the late 1950s. Crum also introduced light blue pants for a game at Clemson in 1984, and the Heels wore blue-on-blue for a home game against Maryland later that year. Two seasons later, Crum brought out silver pants for the Duke game in Durham to end the 1986 season; the Heels wore those silver pants on the road during the 1987 season as well.
Mack Brown promptly returned the Tar Heels to a classic interlocking NC logo on the helmet flanks in 1988, and the Tar Heels adopted the light blue pants as their standard away-game ensemble. But Brown eventually was of the same mind as Crum-that there was a reason folks in Charlottesville and other rival ACC towns liked to talk about the "boys in gay blue"-that phrase dating to long before the word gay took on any sexual connotation. Following the 1994 season, Brown put as much navy on his players as possible without offending those who felt light blue was sacrosanct. Brown's last three teams in 1995-97 wore bold navy stripes and borders on their pants, jerseys and helmets, and Carl Torbush carried the theme by making no changes of note during his three seasons as head coach.
John Bunting was a Dooley-era traditionalist, and the Tar Heels' uniforms during his six-year tenure moved closer toward the styles Bunting wore as a Tar Heel in the early 1970s-limited use of blue pants and minimal navy trim. He removed stripes of any kind from the pants worn during the 2004, then brought back a simple Carolina blue stripe down the pants' sides the next two seasons. But the players liked the blue pants and talked Bunting into letting them wear them for the 2007 season-that decision coming before Bunting was fired in October 2006.
One of Butch Davis's initial opinions on the Tar Heel uniform upon arriving in December 2006 was that "our helmets are among the best-looking in college football." He took that helmet design and used it to create a football-oriented logo that is visible through Kenan Football Center and on the coaches' attire. Davis also pursued the use of navy pants, which the Tar Heels unveiled at Rutgers in 2008 for their 42-12 dismantling of the Scarlet Knights on national TV.
"Navy has been a part of our history and tradition," Davis said. "Charlie Justice and his team once wore navy. Maybe that's a way to pay homage and tribute to a great generation and great era."
"I love the look," quarterback T.J. Yates added. "It all goes well together. Little stuff like that kind of gives a team a spark."
What's in store in the future for Tar Heel uniforms? Larry Fedora arrived in Chapel Hill in December 2011, too late to affect the order of uniforms from Nike for the 2012 season. But he hints that since players and recruits embrace cutting edge uniform design, there might be tweaks in the future. Certainly the "White Out" concept might return if all goes well Saturday.
"I think the fans love it," Fedora said Monday of the "White Out" concept. "I think the players get excited about it. Anytime you're changing uniforms, anytime you're doing anything that's different-I mean our guys were excited about putting the flag on the side of the helmet, they really were. That just adds to it and it's kind of the wave of the future and the way it is with players now and fans and everybody. It adds one more element to the game."
Lee Pace (email@example.com) has written "Extra Points" since 1990 and has reported from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network since 2004. He would be happy if the Tar Heels never, ever wore Carolina blue pants on the football field.