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Big Four Nicknames And Where They Came From

Football Game
 People attending the football game between Duke Blue Devils against George Tech Yellow Jackets, Durham, North Carolina, November 1952
Photo by Mark Kauffman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

With the possible exception of the Wolfpack, and really not very much of an exception for that, the ACC’s Big Four North Carolina schools have pretty unique nicknames.

Duke’s is certainly different. Many of you may know that it came from a French military division, the Chaussers Alpin, which was formed in the late 19th century to fight the newly unified Italy in the Alps if necessary. They wore blue capes according to the main linked article but jackets according to Wikipedia. Eventually they became known as les Diables Bleus which ultimately came to Durham as the Blue Devils.

Intriguingly, some of the other choices were:

  • Duke Dreadnaughts
  • Duke Polar Bears
  • Duke Royal Blazes

We think we can dispense with the last one but Dreadnaughts? What a cool mascot we’d have had! And Polar Bears? Sacre Bleu! Can you imagine the marketing opportunities for the Duke Polar Bears?

On the other hand the headlines about Duke hibernating during a loss would have gotten old after a year or two so good thing good taste prevailed.

Apparently State was named the Wolfpack because a fan was upset about player behavior. Move it into the stands and really, nothing much has changed in the last 99 years.

Bada bing!

A chancellor didn't care for the nickname and asked for alternatives and got back, among other options, Cultivators, Cotton Pickers, Pine-rooters, Auctioneers and Calumets.

The students decided to stick with Wolfpack and again, good taste carried the day.

Demon Deacons came when Wake Forest football upset Duke in 1923 and the writer got creative and it stuck. It’s basically a riff on Devils. Wake Forest is forever trying to keep up with the neighbors.

And the Tar Heels? The origin of the term is in some dispute, but the writer points to the Civil War as the likely source. That would fit actually, since, as we all now understand, Kenan Stadium was named for a racist mass murderer, William Kenan Sr., who gunned down African-Americans in the streets of Wilmington in the 1898 insurrection.

The university changed it to be named for his son, swapping out the S for a J (for Junior) and let it go at that. But since the younger Kenan wanted it named for his father, really it’s still dedicated to a son who wanted to honor a father who did truly horrific things.

So having the Tar Heels run up and down the field at Kenan is appropriate. They might as well put Silent Sam at the back of the end zone and just call it a day.