UNC Now

They used to wear Converse sneakers. How UNC’s long, close relationship with Nike began.

North Carolinas Theo Pinson (1) poses for a portrait during the Tar Heels media day holding a basketball featuring the Nike swoosh logo.
North Carolinas Theo Pinson (1) poses for a portrait during the Tar Heels media day holding a basketball featuring the Nike swoosh logo. rwillett@newsobserver.com

In early April, 1993, North Carolina won its third NCAA basketball championship, and second under coach Dean Smith, in its final game wearing Converse-brand sneakers. By then the university was already in talks with Nike, which was already a worldwide athletic shoe and apparel giant, but one that had only recently thought to enter the business of college sports.

That was changing. UNC’s relationship with commercialism was about to change, too. First, though, Smith had to be convinced. His teams had worn Converse shoes throughout his tenure at UNC, which began in 1961, and he had his own, personal deal with Converse. College basketball coaches in those days often operated outside of their schools and signed with whatever shoe company they wanted.

For decades, Smith had been a Converse man, and the Tar Heels a Converse team. UNC’s basketball museum these days includes old Converse sneakers – these massive, chunky-looking things, compared to the sleek, lighter shoes of today. After Smith won his second national championship, here came John Swofford, the UNC athletic director at the time, with the goal of completing a deal with Nike.

“Dean, as he was in most things, and this was a great trait, was extremely loyal to people he was associated with, starting with his players,” Swofford, the ACC Commissioner since 1997, said recently, recalling his early discussions about Nike with Smith. “And it was not easy for him to consider changing companies, because of his history with Converse.”

Twenty-four years later, UNC’s origin story with Nike seems quaint, a tale from a different time. The Tar Heels are one of Nike’s flagship brands – a brand within a brand. Last week, UNC, along with Duke, another Nike school, competed in Portland, Ore., in the 16-team PK 80 – a Nike-sponsored tournament that served as an 80th birthday celebration of Phil Knight, the Nike founder.

The involvement of sneaker companies such as Nike, adidas and Under Armor in college sports has had a dark side, too. In September, the FBI announced a wide-reaching investigation into shoe-company money and allegations of six-figure inducements being paid to high-profile basketball recruits, resulting in charges and indictments.

The swoosh

When UNC agreed to its deal with Nike, only seven Division I basketball programs were preparing to wear Nike uniforms, and wear Nike shoes, during the 1993-94 season: UNC, Arizona, Duke, Georgetown, Michigan, Seton Hall and UNLV.

Now the swoosh is ubiquitous in college athletics. It is on, literally, just about everything that one can think of involving sports at Nike-sponsored schools. It is on the footballs and basketballs and soccer balls in competition. It is on not only the shoes, but the socks, and the gloves, and every other part of a uniform. It is on the sideline, all over the gear that coaches wear in some sports.

At UNC, a Nike-inspired logo – that of the Jumpman, the Michael Jordan silhouette representative of a separate brand that is a Nike subsidiary – is even atop the tunnel the Tar Heels run through at Kenan Stadium. Along with it are the words “the ceiling is the roof,” Jordan’s verbal gaffe that many UNC supporters, and the football program, have celebrated if only because it came from the man they reverently refer to as “the GOAT.” (greatest of all time).

Indeed, UNC and Nike have become so symbiotic that it is difficult to envision a time when the swoosh wasn’t everywhere. Trying to remember that time is like trying to envision the Tar Heels wearing something other than Carolina blue. Like the basketball team’s mid-court logo depicting the state of North Carolina, the swoosh just always seems to have been in existence at UNC, omnipresent.

There was such a time, however, and that time was any time before the fall of 1993, when UNC’s basketball team wore Nike shoes and Nike uniforms for the first time. Smith, loyal for so long to Converse, eventually relented for two reasons: One, his seniors approved of a switch to Nike. And, second, the deal with Nike would ensure shoes and uniforms for all of UNC’s teams.

“The apparel killed Converse,” Smith told reporters at the time, according to an Associated Press story that detailed UNC’s first deal with Nike. “They didn’t have it.”

No uniform deal

At the time, that had been Swofford’s primary selling point: That an athletic department-wide deal with Nike would benefit not just men’s basketball, but every sport that UNC sponsored. In those days, each team had separate apparel deals with separate entities. Even the uniforms within specific sports weren’t, well, uniform.

The UNC basketball team, for instance, wore Converse sneakers, but its jerseys were made by another company. The women’s soccer team wore adidas shoes. The football and baseball teams wore jerseys made by different manufacturers. And, in most cases, the university had to pay for all of it. And so a deal with Nike would be cost effective, too: All of a sudden, uniforms would be included.

“And that was appealing to Dean, and that’s what really got us over the hump so to speak, in terms of Dean’s willingness to switch from Converse to Nike,” Swofford said.

At the time, few schools in the country had athletic department-wide deals with any apparel company. UNC was one of the first to agree to such a deal with Nike, joining the University of Miami (Florida) and the University of Southern California, both of which had already agreed to contracts with Nike. UNC’s original Nike contract was for four years, and worth $4.7 million, Swofford said at the time.

According to Swofford, the most significant financial part of UNC’s first deal with Nike was the amount of money that Smith received. The contract called for Smith to receive $300,000 annually, and a one-time bonus of $500,000, and Swofford said, “he gave a lot of it away.”

At the time, Smith said he’d donate the bonus to charity. He gave nearly half of what he received annually to his assistants.

The late Paul Hardin, then UNC’s chancellor, said in a 2016 interview published in the Chapel Hill News that he told Smith to make the details of the contract public, despite Smith’s objections.

That first Nike contract included 200 pairs of basketball shoes for the Tar Heels for the 1993-94 season, according to the AP’s report, and 500 pairs of football shoes for the UNC football team for the 1994-95 season. Soon enough, every UNC sport – all 28 of its teams, from fencing to football – would be outfitted in uniforms and equipment marked with the swoosh. The women’s soccer team, meanwhile, took its time.

When UNC completed its Nike deal, after all, the company hadn’t yet established itself in soccer equipment. The way Swofford remembers it, Anson Dorrance, who is still the UNC women’s soccer coach, “was telling me, this is just not a quality shoe in the soccer world. And the football shoes were more than fine, but (Nike was) way behind from a soccer standpoint.”

“And eventually they upgraded tremendously their soccer product, and then we moved soccer gear into Nike, as well,” Swofford said.

A new contract

Twenty-four years later, UNC’s relationship with Nike continues and is unlikely to end any time soon. The university is in the final year of a 10-year agreement with the company – a contract that was finalized in 2008, and Bubba Cunningham, the university’s athletic director, said recently that he hoped to have the next contract finalized within the next month or so.

UNC has been working on the new contract “for over a year now,” Cunningham said. “So I’d love to get it done before the turn of the year.”

The current contract called for Nike to supply UNC with $31.6 million of Nike “product” through the duration of the deal. This year, the final year of the contract, UNC is set to receive $3.4 million in Nike product. The university’s relationship with Nike, though, extends well beyond shoes, uniforms and equipment.

UNC’s agreement with Nike allows the company to request appearances by head coaches at Nike’s request for things like “photo shoots for posters,” or “internet chat sessions,” or “celebrity events and other public appearances.” It also affords Nike special access to UNC games at Kenan Stadium, the Smith Center and every other venue on campus.

Nike receives 10 “VIP” season tickets for UNC football (“VIP” is not defined in the contract), as well as two sideline passes and one press box pass. The company has eight season tickets for UNC men’s basketball, and receives 12 tickets, per game, during the NCAA tournament. For one football game every season, Nike receives 40 additional tickets. For one men’s basketball game every season, Nike receives 22 additional tickets. Language in the contract details the company’s hope for good seats.

UNC, according to the contract, “shall use best efforts to ensure that all football tickets shall be field level and between the 40-yard lines; that all basketball tickets shall be in the lower bowl at court level at or near center court; and that tickets for all other programs shall be prime location seating.”

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North Carolina coach Roy Williams talks with official Roger Ayers during a game earlier this season. The Nike swoosh logo adorns everything from the basketballs, clothing, uniforms, and shoes. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Roy Williams, the UNC basketball coach, recently described the growth of the relationship between shoe companies and universities as “unbelievable.” He remembers well his years as a student at UNC, and then later as an assistant coach under Smith, when the Tar Heels wore Converse, and when UNC’s athletic department wasn’t subsidized by a corporation.

“Most everybody was wearing Chuck Taylor Converse at one time,” said Williams, who has a separate contract with the company. “Then all of a sudden Nike came in. And adidas had been in a little bit before that, but Nike came in and Phil Knight just did an incredible job of leading the company for a long time on a shoestring, and then all of a sudden things opened up for him.

“It was a ton of money that helped athletic programs around the country. I think that’s the biggest thing, is financially they’ve really contributed a great deal to so many schools.”

Though UNC was among the first schools to agree to a deal with Nike, it didn’t take long for others to follow, like Florida State and Michigan. Soon enough, it became commonplace for every university’s athletic department to have an apparel deal with Nike, Reebok or adidas – or, eventually, with Under Armour, which has emerged as Nike’s chief domestic competitor.

In the ACC, more than half the league’s schools have deals with Nike: Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, in addition to UNC. The first of those, though, was UNC, which unwittingly was the start of a trend toward college athletics commercialization that has no shortage of critics.

“I can’t say I could see where it was all going,” Swofford said, “that it would become as big as it has become. But you could see the trend – that was very much in the early stages of that trend. But I’m not sure you could see exactly where it was headed, in terms of the multi-year and multi-million dollar actual cash arrangements that are now part of that.”

The trend has also included the spreading of the swoosh, which is everywhere in UNC athletics. UNC, in some ways, is ever-present at Nike, too. The largest building on its corporate campus is named after Mia Hamm, the former UNC soccer star.

Another building at Nike is named for Michael Jordan. On Nov. 21, two days before the start of the PK80, the UNC men’s basketball team received a tour of the facilities at Nike. In some ways, the players are part of the company’s advertising machine, and now they were surveying part of that machine’s headquarters.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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