Photos by Brooke Stewart
This past weekend marked the unofficial commencement of the partnership between UNC Football and Nike’s Jordan Brand, as the team’s new uniforms and gear were unveiled at Meet The Heels. The uniform design itself wasn’t much of a revelation. Jordan Brand smartly didn’t alter the classic design with argyle accents that their parent company introduced a couple years back. While the switch from black to navy alternates was a welcomed change, talk surrounding the Jordan Brand reveal quickly focused on another piece of equipment.
Rather than carrying the interlocking NC logo or simply being left blank, the Tar Heels’ new practice helmets are emblazoned with the Jumpman logo. While the silhouette of His Airness soaring through the air is the sigil of the entire apparel line, social media wasted no time dragging UNC football for using a basketball logo on a football helmet.
Before going any further, it’s important to address two points. First, social media in its current form pretty much exists to make fun of things. As such, rival fan bases cracking jokes about a “basketball school” slapping the image of its most famous hardcourt alumnus on a football helmet is certainly fair game. Second, these helmets are not actually going to be worn in any game. To quote one of the great sports philosophers of our time, “WE TALKIN BOUT PRACTICE?!?”
As such, I’m not going to passionately defend the use of the Jumpman logo on a practice helmet. Honestly, it does look a bit silly to me, but this isn’t for me -- it’s for recruits and current players who by all appearances love it. Instead, I think now is as good a time as ever to dissect the criticism of “basketball school” that frequently gets thrown at the Gridiron Heels.
The University of North Carolina is absolutely is a basketball school (Though if you want to account for non-revenue sports, perhaps Dean Smith was right when he called it a “women’s soccer school”). And that’s not only fine, it’s awesome. There are only handful of programs whose hardcourt accomplishments cast such a large shadow that no other revenue sport can fully step outside it -- UNC, Duke, Indiana, Kentucky, UCLA, and Kansas (maybe throw Louisville and Connecticut in as well). Other programs may tend to be better at basketball or have had periods of fleeting success, but don’t have the enduring greatness that prevents football from ever taking the spotlight.
Being a “basketball school” doesn’t preclude a successful football program or vice-versa. Michigan, Florida, and Ohio State –all traditional “football schools– have reached Final Fours in the past decade. In that span “basketball schools” Louisville, Duke, UCLA, and UNC have all notched double-digit win seasons in football.
Yet, because the tradition of basketball at places like UNC looms so large, any setback or gaffe by the school’s football program tends to be quickly met with the dismissive “basketball school” label. Blew a chance at a marquee win? Typical basketball school. Lost a bowl game in disappointing fashion? It’s basketball season anyway. Empty seats for a noon kickoff? Ah, the fans only care about basketball.
It’s understandable that under those circumstances a football program may want to distance itself from basketball as much as possible. Last season, wideout Bug Howard jokingly suggested having an exhibition basketball game at halftime to up football attendance. Yet, somewhat counterintuitively, embracing the school’s Jordan Brand connection may be North Carolina’s quickest path to football relevance.
It’s hard to blame anyone for associating Jordan Brand with basketball. Even putting the Jumpman logo aside, the Nike subsidiary is inseparably linked with the Air Jordan basketball shoes from which it originated. Yet, in reality, Jordan Brand has long since expanded its reach beyond sneakers. Jordan has been selling branded apparel and performance training gear for years. Last season Michigan -inarguably a “football school”– became the first college football program to wear Jordan Brand gear on the gridiron. That North Carolina became the second this summer is undeniably related to the fact that Michael Jordan played college ball in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina football is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Michigan football, but at the moment those two stand alone as the only programs in college football with Jordan Brand endorsement deals. The impact of that can’t be understated. At the moment, Carolina can showcase gear to recruits that only one other program can offer, and no other program can claim MJ himself. Combined with the overall upward trend in on-field performance under Fedora, the Tar Heels are well-positioned for a significant update in recruiting success, particularly once the NCAA case is finally put in the rearview.
So yes, North Carolina is a basketball school . . . and its college football team has a chance to take a leap forward as a result.
John Tobben is a 2010 Carolina graduate and currently a radiology resident in Indianapolis.