You can’t get more traditional than North Carolina’s baby-blue-and-white uniforms with the block “North Carolina” on the front. They’re so sports Americana you half expect them to have their own Tom Rinaldi special on ESPN. And yet prior to the 1999-2000 season, the school decided it would try a major design change to the uniform, led by a former Tar Heel. In fact it was THE former Tar Heel: Michael Jordan. Unfortunately, on this occasion, “Air Jordan” was more like “Err Jordan.”
In an attempt to build his Air Jordan brand which had now become a subsidiary of Nike, Michael Jordan entered the world of outfitting college basketball teams in 1999, something Nike had already perfected.
To commemorate the new relationship between the school and Jordan’s company, Jordan and local designer Alexander Julian created a new jersey for the 1999-2000 season. The jerseys featured the interlocking “NC” logo which in-and-of itself is iconic. While the design was a major break from the jersey design the Tar Heels used for decades, it was actually a call back to North Carolina’s jerseys from the 1920s.
Said Julian at the time: “We’re one of the few teams, like the New York Yankees, who could just put the logo . Very few schools have the charisma to pull that off. When Carolina is on the court, people know it is the University of North Carolina, even without the words. It’s still Carolina blue and white.”
According to a newspaper article in the Charlotte News & Observer, the website GoHeels.com first posted a picture of the new jersey on a Monday. By Wednesday, 2, 795 people had voted their opinion with 82.4 percent saying they didn’t like it (fans couldn’t vote twice). Over 600 fans also sent e-mails to the site with over 90 percent of them being negative.
Said one fan: “It’s not that it isn’t a nice jersey, but it breaks from the tradition of having the ‘North Carolina’ across the chest. Just the fact that North Carolina is spelled out in block letters on the chest [on the old jerseys] is a traditional staple.”
The biggest problem with the jersey is that while the UNC logo is classy and the old-time picture of the team wearing a similar uniform is great, just displaying a logo on the front of a jersey was unlike any team in college or the NBA wore. The jersey just looked naked without any words on the front at all. It didn’t help that Jordan was tinkering with what could be the best uniform in college basketball.
The Tar Heels wound up having an up-and-down regular season. They struggled to find consistency all year, never winning more than three games in a row. But even after losing in the first round of the ACC Tournament, North Carolina got hot and rode that momentum all the way to the Final Four as a No. 8 seed.
But unlike the team, the new basketball uniform never caught its stride and in August 2000, the school announced it was going back to the more traditional jerseys.
Said former coach Bill Guthridge at the time: “I was surprised that people got as emotional as they did when we made the change, because we have modified our uniforms before. I’ve said repeatedly that it illustrates how much interest there is in Carolina basketball. … Some of our alumni, students and fans wanted us to go back to `North Carolina,’ so we put it back on the uniforms.”
Let that be a lesson to school officials in the future. If Michael Jordan, the most successful pitchman in the history of sports, can’t sell something to the fan base of his alma mater, it’s probably a bad idea.