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North Carolina Tar HeelsBet On The BCS Championship

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Football History - North Carolina Tar Heels History

Why "Tar Heels"?

University of North Carolina athletic teams are known as the Tar Heels because North Carolina is "The Tar Heel State."

One legend has the nickname being applied to the state's residents as long ago as the Revolutionary War. According to this story, the troops of British General Cornwallis were fording what is now known as the Tar River between Rocky Mount and Battleboro when they discovered that tar had been dumped into the stream to impede their crossing. When they finally got across the river they found their feet completely black with tar. Their observation that anyone who waded North Carolina rivers would acquire tar heels led to the nickname first being used.

Others say the nickname was acquired during the War Between the States. During one of that war's fiercest battles a column supporting North Carolina troops was driven from the field. After the battle, the North Carolinians who had successfully fought it out alone, happened to meet the regiment which had fled to safety and were greeted with the question, "Any more tar down in the Old North State, boys?"

"No, not a bit," shot back one of the North Carolina soldiers. "Old Jeff's bought it all up," he went on, referring to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy.

"Is that so? What's he going to do with it?"

"He's going to put it on you'ns heels to make you stick better in the next fight."

Upon hearing of the incident, Robert E. Lee smiled and said to a fellow officer, "God bless the Tar Heel boys."

A letter found in 1991 by State Archivist David Olson lends credence to another more direct theory. A letter from Maj. Joseph Engelhard describes a fight involving men from North Carolina in which Lee was heard to have said, "There they stand as if they have tar on their heels."

The letter, dated August 24, 1864, told the tale of a battle on the outskirts of Petersburg, Va. Engelhard was elected secretary of state for North Carolina in 1876.

The adoption of light blue and white as UNC's colors dates back to the 19th Century. When the University reopened following the Civil War, most social activities were directed by two literary societies, the Dialectic and Philanthropic. The official color of the Di was light blue and that of the Phi white. Since society membership was compulsory for all students, the opinions and activities of these organizations were by nature of circumstances all embracing. It was the custom for all men from localities west of Chapel Hill to affiliate with the Di and generally for students from the east to become members of the Phi.

On public occasions the student officers, marshals and ball managers were chosen equally from the membership of the two societies. It had long been the custom of each society for its members to wear its color on such occasions. However, the chief marshal and chief ball manager, one from the Di and the other from the Phi, wore combination light blue and white regalias and rosettes signifying that they represented the whole student body.

Later, when intercollegiate athletics were established, the question of what to wear became a problem. Certainly, the students wanted to be associated with the University, but the school had no official colors. So it seemed only natural for the fans to adorn themselves with the same combination as that used by the chief marshals and ball managers, colors which represented not membership in a society, but a University student body.

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