Arts & Culture

College Football Decoded: Carolina Blue

Baby blue? Sky blue? Robin egg? What shade really is the Tar Heels’ iconic color?

Photo: UNC Athletics/Andrew Dye

The Tar Heels celebrate in Kenan Memorial Stadium, surrounded by a sea of Carolina blue.

There’s no question that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has claimed a color and made it undeniably its own, different from the blues worn by Blue Devils, Jayhawks, Bruins, or Wildcats. We don’t just call it light blue. It’s Carolina blue. But a color that seems so obvious hasn’t always been so easy to identify. Since its arrival at UNC more than two centuries ago, slightly different shades of blue have popped up around Chapel Hill, and it wasn’t until 2015 that the color was finally defined. 

Light blue appeared on the university’s campus shortly after its students did in 1795, first used by the Dialectic Society, one of two debating societies on campus. Members of the “Di” wore light blue ribbons to distinguish themselves, perhaps to symbolize honor and excellence. In contrast, their counterpart, the Philanthropic Society, wore white. “Societies were really at the center of student life. They had libraries, they had social events. It was a big deal,” says Nicholas Graham, university archivist and co-author of UNC A to Z with Cecelia Moore. “[The color] has been a part of the campus life and culture for almost as long as the university’s been here.” 

photo: Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC-Chapel Hill
An early 19th century Dialectic Society diploma, indicated by the light blue ribbon.

When UNC entered the world of intercollegiate athletics in the late 1880s, there was no debate as to which colors their sports teams would adopt. “Because the societies were so prominent on campus, I think it was probably an easy decision to use those colors as the official school colors,” Graham says. Over the years, light blue became inextricably associated with UNC, especially in the world of men’s basketball as stars such as Phil Ford and Michael Jordan gained worldwide notoriety in the color. The earliest known instance of the hue being referred to as “Carolina blue” is in a 1930s newspaper article, Graham says. 

But still, the official shade was left to interpretation. For many years, different variations of so-called Carolina blue appeared around campus—powder blue, baby blue, aqua blue. The athletic uniforms, diploma ribbons, official publications, fans’ attire, and other Carolina memorabilia, didn’t match. The color even started to turn increasingly darker—almost teal-like—possibly due to efforts to make the team uniforms show up better on TV. 

After more than 200 years and countless shades of blue, the university decided to officially define their signature color. In 2010, UNC alumnus and fashion designer Alexander Julian redesigned Carolina’s graduation gowns and in 2015, Nike standardized the school’s athletic uniforms and logos. Julian once claimed that true Carolina blue is the color of the sky on a clear day in Chapel Hill. The university and Nike said it was Pantone 542—now, the official Carolina blue.

Pantone 542, the official color of UNC as defined by the university’s brand guidelines.

This article is part of a G&G series that decodes widely used but little understood phrases in college football.