Blue Genes

Is it in the sky or on your sweatshirt? More than 200 years after Carolina’s school colors were chosen, debate still reigns about which blue is the right hue.

Jay Salas assures me that if I’ve called looking for hot Latinos in Colorado, I’ve phoned the right place. He is co-founder and owner of Suavecito’s of Denver, “The World’s Leader in Zoot Suits and Latino Fashion.” When I tell him that I’ve actually called in search of an answer to the question, “What is the true color of Carolina Blue?” Salas is, surprisingly, unfazed. He is a reformed Chicago social worker who went to prom in a zoot suit and figured that selling and renting them to others would be a superb way to add some zeroes to his paycheck. In addition to outfitting Snoop Dogg and Ice-T, Salas, taking note of my mild Appalachian accent, adds that he has had the pleasure of providing suits for Reba McIntyre and Garth Brooks.

Although Salas didn’t attend UNC and prefers Georgetown on the hard court, his company makes a Carolina Blue zoot suit. It is detailed with “gangster pinstripes.”

“Oh yeah – that. Well, we don’t really call it Carolina Blue. To us, it’s just blue. We eventually had to add that description because everybody would call and want to know, ‘Is it Carolina Blue, or darker?'”

“Why not sky blue? Or baby blue?” I ask.

“Are you serious?”

Salas is exasperated. As a zoot suit salesman, he leans a bit to the brash side of confidence, and the tone in his voice says I should know better. Everyone knows what Carolina Blue is, right?

“I’ll tell you what it is. It’s Michael Jordan,” says Salas. “It’s basketball, man.”

Charles Perrin would agree. He is a University of Missouri engineering graduate who works for Boeing on the International Space Station by day and by night takes up a less cerebral pursuit: a home office of knowledge on the sneaker. Among the items in his footwear glossary is an entry specifically for Carolina Blue.

No entry for Duke Blue. Not even a Stanford Cardinal.

One has to wonder if the revered old bones of the Dialectic Society, which gave us our slippery school color more than 200 years ago, are rattling around in their graves at the campus cemetery. Zoot suits? Sneaker glossaries? Certainly this is not what the Di had in mind when it began pinning blue ribbons to its society diplomas to symbolize honor and excellence. (The Philanthropic, its sister debate society, chose white for truth and virtue.) Could they have imagined then that their light blue would become a proper noun, that it would become [gulp] …cliché?

The Di may not be a household name, but its symbolic hue sure is. Few other colors associated with a single university – if any at all – have come to mean what Carolina Blue does, not just to alumni and marketers, but to the pop culture landscape.

Carolina Blue is going to proms, swing dancing in clubs, running down grassy trails and working out in gyms. It is even growing in your garden. It is the sky, it is the streets (certain inner-city gangs use Carolina Blue as an identifier), it is as ubiquitous as Jordan himself.

The difference between Jordan and Carolina Blue is that there is only one of him.


The Dialectic Society chamber in New West is an immaculate jewel of flip-top cherry desks and senatorial trappings. One would not be terribly surprised to find Jimmy Stewart striding to the lectern to filibuster, Capra-style. Members of the Di and Phi filed into the room one Monday night in April to debate the question that Alderson presented, and they did so with portraits of alumni of the oldest student organization on campus enveloping the walls like a curtain. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling of the chamber, where a skylight shines midnight blue during the evening and sky blue in the afternoon.

Otherwise, every morsel of decorative blue in the chamber matches, from the drapes to the trim on the walls and doors. Too bad even the Di-Phi senators agree that it’s the wrong light blue.

When UNC began to participate in intercollegiate football in 1888, team members adopted the societies’ colors as a symbol of the University’s unity. But today, the variations of Carolina Blue found on merchandise, in print and on campus itself look like a bad cloning experiment when compared with the Di’s old whisper-blue diploma ribbons.

Dominic Morelli has been an equipment manager for UNC football since 1980. He is cheerful but decidedly no-nonsense concerning his job and the colors that surround him. Just beyond his office in the Kenan Field House is a warehouse of shelves and drawers full of enough gridiron accessories to entirely outfit the town of Cary, give or take a knee pad. Imagine Home Depot, without the orange. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that one of Morelli’s most important colleagues is the color blue itself.

“This is actually what they call Columbia Blue,” he says, tapping a helmet made by Riddell. He tosses a pair of uniform pants on top of the jersey already in my outstretched hands, both made by Nike, “both called ‘Carolina Blue,’ but both of them a slightly different shade from each other” and a completely different shade from the helmet. Then come the practice T-shirts, one officially called Dark Columbia Blue by Russell Athletics, and the other, Heather Blue.

None of these items appears to be the same color; but, says Morelli, they’re closer to what people think of when they hear Carolina Blue than when he first began working for the Tar Heels. In 1968, Bill Dooley darkened the football uniforms so they would photograph better – the theory went that it aided both spectators in the stands and coaches critiquing film later. About the same time, Dean Smith did the same for his basketball uniforms. Perhaps the can of paint the Di used on its chamber came from that era, for it is the same bold color of blue.

The change didn’t suit several alumni. In response to an article on “The Greening of the Blue” that appeared in the Review in 1979, Don Dotson ’60 sent a letter to the magazine. Or rather, he sent a Ramada Inn place mat that had a border fashioned of six strips of blue, each one darker than the last. Dotson wrote his message on the place mat: “Is nothing sacred?” and suggested the mat be used “to illustrate the creeping corruption of Carolina blue” in an upcoming issue.

When Dick Crum took over in the ’80s, calmer heads apparently prevailed. He lightened the shade, put more sky and less Duke in it. And in 1991, Smith called on fashion designer Alexander Julian ’69 to redesign the basketball uniforms. That Tar Heel footprint on the side seam of the shorts wasn’t the only thing to go when Julian got his hands on the project.

“The old uniforms before the redesign were what we affectionately know as ‘TV blue,'” Julian says wryly. “Brighter, more intense. It wasn’t a Carolina Blue. It was developed so that in the early days of color TV, the jerseys would show up better.

“Now, I love to watch them on TV,” says Julian. “I do watch them all I can from Connecticut; but I can see them just fine without a change in color. It needs to be the school colors. So I changed them back.” He did so, it should be noted, with Smith’s approval.

“He really liked the blue a little lighter, but I have to admit that I liked the deeper blue,” said Smith, chuckling. “But Alexander’s really the artist on this sort of thing, not me. I do remember that he wanted to do a denim coaching jacket in that lighter shade of blue. I don’t know that I would have worn it – maybe out on the golf course in the winter.”


Professor Laurie McNeil doesn’t really do color. She deals more in optical spectroscopy of semiconductors and insulators, which makes How We See Color sound like the topic of her kindergarten book report. McNeil herself dresses in drab brown. Her office in the physics department in Phillips Hall is a living monument to Flintstonian principles: It is granite gray.

She is, in other words, neutral on the subject of Carolina Blue’s true hue. But she knows how we see it, when we see it.

“What signals strike our eyes is determined by the mixture of wavelengths of light that strikes the eye, and that results from the mixture of wavelengths that strike the Carolina Blue object, and the degree to which each of those wavelengths is reflected by the object,” McNeil says. She’s now standing at her blackboard – the old green kind that uses chalk – plotting a graph. This is how a physics expert warms up. “So the same object in different light – sunlight vs. fluorescent light – will have a different color appearance.

“The response of the eye depends on first of all, whether or not you are color-blind, but also on the light level,” McNeil says.

Of course, when you’re trying to make an object Carolina Blue, the science gets more complicated: How a fabric will take a dye depends on the properties of the fabric itself. “Also, the reflection characteristics for textiles are different than those for paper. So the way it can reflect light is going to be different. And, in addition to the color, there are all sorts of other characteristics. Is it a matte reflection or a shiny reflection? That’s going to affect your perception of color, because if it’s a matte reflection, it’s rough – and depending on the scale of the roughness, that will affect how it reflects light.”

“So there are about 100,000 different possibilities for how we see color on objects?”

“Yep. Basically. Oh – and sweat on a jersey affects color, too.”

(For the record, Julian’s on her wavelength: But he says the fabrics that prevent discoloration as the result of perspiration just aren’t comfortable enough for setting a pick or blocking a shot.)

“I guess the question is: How do we define Carolina Blue?” says McNeil. “Is it a blue that is the same color as some standard object we keep buried under the Old Well or something? And if we find that standard of Carolina Blueness, who’s going to preserve it so it doesn’t fade over time? A fabric or a paper or any kind of ink or paint would probably not be a good choice. But a mineral is going to be much more stable. You might want to visit the geology lab.”

When he’s not running 50K ultra-marathons or writing papers titled “Timing of volcanism in the Sierra Nevada of California: Evidence for Pliocene delamination of the batholithic root?”, Professor Allen Glazner likes to study rocks and minerals, and one day he actually had a bit of time to look into McNeil’s suggestion of finding a true priceless gem.

Glazner said the closest measurable, unchanging form of Carolina Blue in nature is the copper phosphate mineral turquoise. Its intrinsic properties mean it has only a trace of impurity, making it a more consistent choice than, say, aquamarine, whose color is dependent on persnickety outside elements. Plus, an old legend says that Indian tribes believed that arrows shot from a bow adorned with turquoise always hit their mark and that it brought happiness and good fortune. Seems like a good choice.

Now, where can we get that sample for the Old Well’s basement?

“You can find turquoise most in the American Southwest and in the American Cordillera mountains,” says Glazner. “In ancient times, it was in Sinai, Egypt, and in Persia. In the U.S., it’s found in Nevada, California, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, and a little bit in Campbell County, Va.”

But nothing in the state of North Carolina is that color?

“Nope, not that I can find.”

But some longtime Tar Heels think turquoise just doesn’t jibe with Carolina Blue. When Shrunken Head Boutique owner Shelton Henderson says the color aloud, a great deal of shuddering and wincing commences. Turquoise, he says, just isn’t tradition.

Dean Smith noted that, while Carolina Blue once was known by manufacturers as Columbia Blue, named for the Ivy League university in New York that boasts a similar school color, the hue has simply come to be known as Carolina Blue in the retail business. Henderson still calls it Columbia, as does Riddell, the helmet maker. But Henderson will tell you that you can give the color any name you please, and some people will still say it belongs to UNC.

More than once, he has opened a package in his store that was filled with shirts meant for The Citadel or some other school with similar colors. Manufacturers who deal with a number of schools often see an item in light blue and assume it belongs in Chapel Hill.

Take a walk through Henderson’s 33-year-old Franklin Street souvenir shop some afternoon, and the blues will blow your mind. The store is as cozy as your dormitory closet, and as packed to the gills, too. But not all the waves in his sea of blue match – some are a little too shallow to be swimming there. When he does get a shipment in that’s wearing the wrong shade of Carolina Blue (his standard is the current uniform color), if it’s a small enough quantity, “you’re much advised just to keep it. And when you have to do that, you’ve messed up all your blues, by 12 pieces maybe. Only 12 pieces of it in the entire store,” he says, shaking his head.

Henderson moves to a clothes rack. “Now you take these three jerseys here. These are three different companies. This is the right blue. And this second one is close to the right blue, closer than this third one … well, maybe not,” he says disappointedly, waving it off like Goldilocks pooh-poohing cold porridge.

Rut Tufts, director of auxiliary services for the University, feels Henderson’s pain. “If you go to a store and look at a range of blues, I think you’ll get a sense of how difficult it is to reproduce this color,” says Tufts.

Like all retailers who sell UNC materials, Henderson sells products that have been approved by the Collegiate Licensing Co. You’ve probably snipped off one of their red, white and blue tags when you’ve bought a T-shirt or a cap. The CLC is a national consortium to which North Carolina and more than 180 other schools belong, with the purpose of helping campus licensing officials – in Carolina’s case, that would be Tufts – to protect and control the use of their trademarks.

Once a manufacturer is licensed by the CLC, it also must abide by the school’s guidelines for colors. And if you think the process was complicated before, settle in, because this involves a whole fiefdom of color rules to which university printing offices across the country are vassals. Their liege is known as the Pantone Matching System, and it is both aggravation and savior at UNC.

The Pantone system was developed in the early 1960s to correct color matching problems in the printing industry, to arrive at the sort of consistency that a copper phosphate mineral hidden under a campus landmark would bring.

It used to be that folks who needed Carolina Blue on a document would just bring in what their concept of the shade was, and the UNC printing office would try their best to match it. Now, it’s more scientific, and computer-iffic – the Pantone Matching System code is built into most popular desktop publishing systems. More than 1,100 colors are in PMS, each assigned a numerical code for reference – and that’s just for the publishing industry. Pantone developed offshoot systems in the years following, including color-matching for textiles, plastics and Internet use, each with their own color chips and guides that are available from the most basic sum of under $100 to upward of $4,000.

With PMS codes, it should be easy to define Carolina Blue. Certainly, if a cap maker in Japan gets an order to make UNC caps, he’d rather the customer give him a code than just a hunch. But what the system doesn’t do is force humans to find consensus. Walk into any UNC department where they produce publications and inquire what their PMS number is for Carolina Blue, and they’ll likely inhale deeply, tilt their heads and spew forth a half-dozen acceptable three-digit combinations. The athletic communications office at UNC peddles a blue-green 297 as their official Carolina Blue for use in publications, both by themselves and by other schools who use the UNC logo when Tar Heel athletes come visiting. Unofficially, they also use 291 (Columbia Blue) and 278, which is roughly the match of the current football and basketball jerseys.

Arnold Ferguson, who’s worked in the University’s printing office for 31 years, says the only Pantone code that officially can be called Carolina Blue for their purposes is 278. But he’ll also tell you that UNC Hospitals never uses anything but 543 in its publications. Other campus departments also deviate, at times because printing press variations and costs make it impossible to use the shade suggested.

All of which steams up Alexander Julian good and proper. “That’s just wrong,” says Julian, who notes that he knows a little something about marketing color. “They really should have just one [PMS number]. I think we ought to pick one, and I volunteer to be on the committee.

“It just goes to show that color is as open to interpretation as a rare steak – which, by the way, we should start ordering by Pantone number. I think it would help.”


In Frankfurt, Germany, scientists discovered last year that whales and dolphins, despite spending all of their time in that portion of the earth that is blue, lack the visual pigment needed to actually see the color. Paleontologists, the New Scientist reported, believe that early whales and seals lived in shallow, coastal waters where materials built up to “blot out” the blue. Eventually, as the animals’ vision became prejudiced toward receptors for other colors, the species dropped the blue vision cone altogether.

“Those species which have moved to deeper water might want their blue cones back,” researcher Leo Peichl told the New Scientist, “but they can’t undo their genetic deletions.”

Although alumni may not be facing anything as extreme as genetic deletion when it comes to seeing Carolina Blue, the gradual acceptance of a shade that’s not quite right is what worries Julian, who won the Color Marketing Group’s top award in 1998. And, the New Coke debacle excluded, most of us do indeed come to accept changes gradually, if grudgingly. In 1979, David C. Bailey ’44 felt passionate enough about the changes being done to his alma mater’s colors that he sat down to write a letter about it. Today, he not only doesn’t remember the letter but admits that he hasn’t noticed any changes in the color blue since then.

“We spend a lot of time and money making sure the colors on our label are consistent,” said Julian of his fashion and home labels, “and we should be doing the same with Carolina Blue.”

It’s difficult, of course, to monitor all references to Carolina Blue – particularly when UNC clothing items have become such a staple for inner-city youth. The Museum of the City of New York last year used a Carolina Blue football jersey, manufactured by popular hip-hop clothesmaker FUBU, as an example of typical 2001 youth fashion for its historical exhibition on what can be learned from the way New Yorkers dress. It wasn’t a random selection. Jay Salas says many of his customers are from the inner-city and appreciate Carolina simply because it is known for a sport that has been revolutionized in their own backyards. In Chicago, Carolina Blue is a marker for membership in certain gangs like Folks. It stands to reason that manufacturers want the word “Carolina” on their product description.

Tufts, however, says he’s not as concerned with retailers using the correct shade of Carolina Blue as he is in them doing so legally and in a tasteful manner. He has a doctrine: “When they’re not licensed and approved by us, we don’t want them to call it Carolina Blue. We don’t even want people to use ‘Carolina’ alone to describe items, much less Carolina Blue. If you imply some connection to the University in the way you label a product, we have a problem with that.”

Which is why Salas will be hearing from Tufts, who will tell him that his zoot suit can be any kind of blue he likes, as long as it’s not Carolina. Whether they are approved or not, the fact is that dozens of companies – mainly in the athletic apparel world – use Carolina to describe their blues. Some are smart enough to mask a connection: DC Shoes’ light blue footwear never says Carolina; it says “c_blue.” Independent shoe sellers drop that mask.

UNC sells more products officially licensed by the CLC than any other NCAA school; for the past two years, according to the CLC, Carolina purchases have made up more than half of all sales at sporting goods stores in the major-market Northeast. Tufts doesn’t really care for you to know that, however, because he doesn’t understand why any of that matters.

No one can know what motivates a consumer to purchase a UNC item, he said. He could be a sports fan, alumnus or a fashion loyalist who just likes light blue. “Now, when you have a fantastic athletic team, or, even better, a faculty member who completes an extraordinary research project that will help others – those are the efforts of people on campus doing an excellent job, and that’s worth mentioning. But sales levels? Realizing that people may be buying this stuff who may not even know about the University, much less be able to read. … It would be a mistake to pound on your chest for that.”

The Di likely would agree; after all, its blue was just a symbol for its practices and eventually emblematic of the entire campus’ achievements. The societies were the first voice to call for academic departments in law, medicine, American history, music, journalism, pharmacy, education, social sciences – and, in 1892, race relations. Ironically, though they gave us our traditional hues, the Di-Phi seemed to understand long before many people that color shouldn’t matter.

Maybe the Di left us with our blue just to keep the conversation going, to spur us to wrap the faith of all our pursuits around a symbolic color that can’t be defined by science, just to see if we could do it. To that end, Bobby Ellis ’89, director of video services for Tar Heel Sports Marketing, presented a resolution with which the societies’ ghosts would find no debate.

“Whoever invented that color,” he said, “is a genius.”

Copyright 2002 UNC General Alumni Association

Published in Carolina Alumni Review, July/August 2002. Winner of CASE Gold Medal for Best Articles of the Year, 2003.