The Story of the Duke Mascot
During World War I, the Chasseurs Alpins—nicknamed "les Diables Bleus"—were well-known French soldiers. They first gained attention when their unique training and alpine knowledge was counted upon to break the stalemate of trench warfare in their native region of the French Alps. Unfortunately the Vosges Campaign in March, 1915, failed to alter the status quo, even though the Blue Devils won accolades for their courage.
However, their distinctive blue uniform with flowing cape and jaunty beret captured public imagination. When the United States entered the war, units of the French Blue Devils toured the country helping raise money in the war effort. Irving Berlin captured their spirit in song describing them as "strong and active, most attractive . . . those Devils, the Blue Devils of France."
As the war was ending in Europe, the Trinity College Board of Trustees lifted its quarter-century ban of football on campus. After playing an intramural class schedule for one year, Trinity began intercollegiate competition in 1920. That first year the traditional nomenclature of the Trinity Eleven, the Blue and White, or the Methodists (as opposed to the Baptists of nearby Wake Forest) described the team.
In September 1921, the student newspaper, The Trinity Chronicle, launched a campaign for a "catchy name, one of our own possession that would be instantly recognizable nationwide in songs, yells and publicity." At a campus pep rally to stir up enthusiasm it was pointed out that Georgia Tech was gaining recognition as the "Golden Tornados" and that rival North Carolina State College had recently adopted the name "Wolf Pack." There were numerous nominations, including Catamounts, Grizzlies, Badgers, Dreadnaughts, and Captains, which was in honor of the well-liked Coach W. W. "Cap" Card.
Believing a choice utilizing the school color of dark blue to be appropriate, the newspaper editors urged a selection from among the nominations of Blue Titans, Blue Eagles, Polar Bears, Blue Devils, Royal Blazes, or Blue Warriors. None of the nominations won strong favor, but Blue Devils apparently had enough support to elicit the criticism that it would arouse opposition on the Methodist campus "for obvious reasons," and that it might prove risky and jeopardize football if a controversial name were used at that particular time. The football season passed with no official selection of a name.
As the campus leaders from the Class of 1923 made plans for their senior year, they decided to select a name, since the desired results by democratic nomination and vote had been inconclusive. The editors of The Archive and The Chanticleer, two of the other student publications, agreed that the newspaper staff should choose a name and "put it over." Thus William H. Lander, as editor-in-chief, and Mike Bradshaw, as managing editor, of The Trinity Chronicle began the academic year 1922-23 referring to the athletic teams as the Blue Devils*. Their class had been the first post-war freshmen and the student body was full of returning veterans so the name needed no explanation. Acknowledging that it was somewhat unpopular, they nevertheless believed it to be the best name nominated. Neither the other publications nor the cheerleaders used the name that first year. In fact, The Chanticleer made fun of the selection and process by quoting someone saying "We will use blew devvies even if no one else does." Much to the editor's surprise, no opposition materialized, not even from the college administration. The newspaper staff continued its use and, through repetition, Blue Devils eventually caught on.
Today the origin of the university mascot is virtually forgotten even though its instant, national recognition has long been established. With the popular Red Devil mascot frequently being challenged throughout the country, the origin of Duke's Blue Devil is one of the most often requested items of information in the University Archives. Questioners are universally surprised to discover its origin is more military and patriotic than religious.
*The first use of the term we've found in The Chronicle was on October 4, 1922.
For Further Research
- Blue Devil Reference Collection Records, 1860-2004 (view this collection's catalog record)
- Photos of the Blue Devil on Flickr