On February 7, 2009, the Duke men's basketball team pulled off an astounding comeback against the University of Miami Hurricanes, rallying from sixteen points down in the second half. The Blue Devils went on to win by three in an overtime nail biter.
Four days later, the game was still on the minds of many fans. They were on the Duke Basketball Report website offering their reflections and getting ready for that night's showdown with the Tar Heels. But one of the DBR's message boards was alive with debate over a topic that had nothing to do with the game—one that, over the years, has aroused curiosity and, at times, triggered heated debate among Duke students, alumni, visitors, and fans: What color, exactly, is Duke blue?
An alumnus from the Class of '88 wondered: "Was the school's color always royal blue?" He recalled that the uniforms were darker in the past. "Was this a gradual shift? Was there a particular year when the color became lighter or was that a gradual migration?"
The daughter of two Duke alumni chimed in: "My mother attended Duke in the 60s. Everything she has is navy and white. Seems to me navy is the official Duke blue."
"I graduated in '65," wrote another poster. "I just look at my letter sweater. royal blue, it ain't." Another named KBCrazie issued a call to action: "I feel that all this color diversity defeats the notion that there's a 'Duke Blue.' "
In fact, there is an official Duke blue: It is designated No. 287 in the Pantone Matching System (PMS), a set of standards for graphic designers and printers to ensure consistent color reproduction. Still, the confusion is understandable. Achieving that color (darker than royal, lighter than navy) depends on a variety of factors often difficult to control, including the vagaries of material (fabric, paper, plastic, LCD), cost, and manufacturer. University officials, from the athletics department to the president's office, go through a complicated and inherently imperfect process whenever they choose the color of a T-shirt, bumper sticker, mug, athletic uniform, campus sign, logo for the annual report, or one of the thousands of items sewn, printed, painted, and published every year.
Coaches work within the contractual agreements made with sponsoring apparel firms. Different fabrics require different dyes, and manufacturers try to keep their costs low by offering buyers only a set palette of color choices. Painters must pick and choose from a set of color-matching systems and adjust their work accordingly. Printers and graphic designers must make decisions about readability and the time it takes for a particular color to dry.
As a result, although the administration makes an effort to oversee the color that Duke uses to represent itself—by publishing style guides, for example, and helping departments negotiate with contractors to ensure they get the colors they want—realistically, officials cannot authorize every one of the thousands of choices made every day by merchants, graphic designers, webmasters, and facilities managers.
Tallman Trask III, the university's executive vice president, looks at the Duke memorabilia—plush toys, basketball jerseys, and plaques—lining the shelves and bookcases of his Allen Building office. He notes the range of different shades represented in an accepting manner. "I'm looking right there, and I see eight colors of Duke blue," he says.
"I like to remind people that we do have an official color," Trask says. "Duke blue is Duke blue. That's not a choice." But, he adds, "on a list of things you worry about, it's just not up there."
Pragmatic considerations are one factor. History is another. Over the decades, the shade of blue designated as Duke's has changed because of priorities, tastes, trends, and technology. Indeed, how the university arrived at the standard color, PMS 287, is a story rooted in Randolph County, circa 1888, with Trinity College and its new president, John Franklin Crowell, a young minister who was a Yale University graduate.
Trinity's board of trustees decided to hire the twenty-nine-year-old Crowell in 1887. Within a year, the new president had introduced the relatively young sport of football—Harvard and Yale universities had played the first intercollegiate game
in 1875—and was serving as the coach. In November 1888, Trinity took the field in Raleigh against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the first athletic contest between the two institutions.
The Carolina side wore light-blue uniforms for the first time in history, and Trinity players wore an approximation of Yale blue—a grayish dark blue—chosen by the student body to honor their coach and president. According to The Trinity Archive, a cheer arose among the Trinity faithful at the game's close (Trinity won, 16-0), in answer to the Carolina cheer, which "literally woke Raleigh up" in the morning before the game. Carolina fans chanted:
Rah! Rah! Rah!
For the white and blue!
Hoop la! Hoop la!
The Trinity fans, in a move that presaged the cheeky chants of Cameron, answered:
Rah! Rah! Rah!
For the deep dark blue!
Hoop la! Hoop la!
We beat [you].
In all likelihood, football, or at least the need for distinctiveness in competitions, prompted Trinity's decision to adopt a color of its own, according to William King '61, A.M. '63, Ph.D. '70, university archivist emeritus. "The Trinity people were always called 'The Methodists.'" They didn't like that designation, he says, and so "they were always looking for a way to distinguish themselves."
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