Duke University Traditions


The Blue Devil nickname and the Cameron Crazies can only be associated with one school—Duke University. These two traditions give immediate recognition to the school and add to the color and pageantry of college athletics. Let’s take a look at the origins of the nickname and the student group.

After World War I, the school was known as Trinity College (became Duke University in 1924) and intercollegiate football, after about a 25 year hiatus, began play again in 1920. Trinity fielded a team in the late 1880s coached by school president John Franklin Crowell, a graduate of then-football power Yale University. However, the Trinity leaders banned the sport in the 1890s because of its brutality, eligibility disputes, scheduling problems, money, its improper role on the Methodist-sponsored campus, and a power struggle between Crowell and the leaders.

With the popularity of football growing in the South, Trinity students felt passionately that a proper nickname needed to be established for the football team and the other athletic programs. In 1921, the student newspaper, the Trinity Chronicle urged the student body to offer potential nicknames for the school. Some of the names submitted were the Catamounts, the Grizzlies, the Badgers, and the Dreadnaughts. Unsatisfied with the initial round of nominations, the editors of the paper urged the students to think of appropriate names associated with the school colors of dark blue and white. The editors offered suggestions such as the Blue Titans, Blue Eagles, Blue Warriors, and Blue Devils. Again, none of the names inspired public passion and the football season passed without one.

The seniors of the Class of 1923 took it upon themselves to pick a school moniker. Many of them had fought during World War I and remembered a well-trained and courageous French unit known as “les Diables Bleus,” the Blue Devils. They wore distinctive blue uniforms with flowing capes and a blue beret. The editors of the Chronicle began referring to the athletic teams during the 1922-1923 academic year as the Blue Devils. While the rest of the college press and the cheerleaders declined to use the name that year, they did not oppose its use by the Chronicle. Not even the Methodist college administration put up any resistance. The Chronicle continued to use the Blue Devil nickname for the teams and eventually the name became accepted as the official moniker for Duke sports.

On the other hand, the Cameron Crazies are a more recent phenomenon. The term Cameron Crazies took root in 1986 to describe the raucous and entertaining behavior of the Duke students during the school’s home basketball games at Cameron Indoor Arena. No one knows for certain the origin of the name. In the early 1980s, the students berated opposing players and coaches using obscenities and other outrageous methods. This prompted Duke president Terry Sanford to write a letter to the students expressing his dissatisfaction with their methods, “Resorting to the use of obscenities in cheers and chants at ball games indicates a lack of vocabulary, a lack of cleverness, a lack of ideas, a lack of class and a lack of respect for other people.” He urged the students to “think of something clever but clean, devastating but decent, mean but wholesome, witty and forceful but G-rated for television, and fix it for the next game.”

Not long after Sanford’s letter, the students began to achieve fame for their cleverness and wit. They invented the term “air ball,” an errant shot that hits nothing but air. When University of North Carolina guard Jeff Hale, who had suffered from a collapsed lung, came to Cameron, the students regaled him with “In-Hale, Ex-Hale” the whole game. Current UNC coach Roy Williams left the University of Kansas to coach the Tar Heels in 2003. When he came to Cameron for the first time in 2004, he found much of the Crazies dressed as characters from The Wizard of Oz movie and a temporary yellow brick road outside his team’s locker room to give him the not so subtle message that he was no longer in Kansas.

The Crazies took aim at a skinny player on the Lehigh basketball team who wore knee-high socks and goggles. He was known for two hours as “Urkel,” a character from a popular television show in the 1990s. Smaller players would hear “Webster” yelled at them the whole game. Webster was another television character from a popular television show that ran in the 1980s. Maybe one of the wittier chants involved a diminutive player from the Australian National team. The Crazies yelled “Shrimp on the Barbee” every time he touched the ball.

Duke University is consistently recognized as one of the best academic institutions in the country. Its Blue Devil nickname and famous Cameron Crazies resonate with those enthralled with college athletics, and these two traditions are two more reasons why college sports rank at the top of entertainment sources.