Grizzlies, polar bears and dreadnaughts, oh my! One of these could have been Duke's mascot.
The history of the Duke Blue Devils traces back to the 1920s when the University was still known as Trinity College. At the time, the school did not have a singular nickname, so The Trinity Chronicle started a campaign in 1921 to select one.
But the first “Blue Devils” were not football and basketball fans, but rather French troops who fought during World War I.
The Chasseurs Alpins—French soldiers who engaged in trench warfare in the French Alps—gained the nickname "les Diables Bleus" for their eye-catching blue uniform that included a cape and beret, according to Duke Archives. After the United States entered the war in 1917, bands of French Diables Bleus toured the country to raise money for the war effort.
As World War I came to an end, the Trinity College Board of Trustees decided to lift the 25-year ban on football. In 1920, Trinity began playing in an intercollegiate football competition. During its first season back, the football team was called a variety of names, including the Trinity Eleven, the Blue and White or the Methodists.
On Sept. 28, 1921, The Trinity Chronicle printed an editorial column that called for a new name to represent Trinity College and replace the assortment of nicknames that had cropped up during the football team’s first season.
“It must be something, What shall it be? Trinity is again on the eve of a great season in student activities where rival forces are to be met and still there is no catchy name or appellation by which her representatives shall be known,” the column stated. “The time is at hand when something other than broad and indistinctive terminology needs to be applied, and just what that term or name shall be must be decided very, very soon.”
The student newspaper editors then started the search for a “catchy name” for Trinity College. This was a matter the “Chronicle intends to see through,” the column stated.
They organized an on-campus pep rally and encouraged all students to attend and to bring suggestions to submit to an executive committee.
On Oct. 12, 1921, The Trinity Chronicle reported nine names had been approved by the committee in another editorial column.
The proposed names were the Catamounts, Blue Titans, Grizzlies, Blue Eagles, Dreadnaughts, Badgers, Polar Bears, Royal Blazes and the Captains.
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The newspaper editors favored names that included the color blue, which was the Trinity College school color.
“It is well if this can be included, although it is not altogether necessary,” the column stated.
The name Blue Devils gained recognition from some students but also criticism from others who feared it was a controversial name for a Methodist campus, according to the Duke Archives.
Despite the newspaper’s efforts, no one name was a favorite among students. On Oct. 19, 1921, the editorial “paragraphics” section of The Trinity Chronicle stated that “It was decided, after all, that the name suggested Friday night really was bad.”
The newspaper announced it was turning responsibility for the mascot search over to the Athletic Council November 1921. However, it seems that the Athletic Council was also unsuccessful in choosing a name.
Since the results of name-selection by student nomination and voting were inconclusive, the leaders of three campus publications—The Trinity Chronicle, The Archive and The Chanticleer—decided to select the name themselves.
The editors of The Archive and The Chanticleer decided to defer to The Trinity Chronicle, whose top editors began using the Blue Devil name.
William Lander, who was then editor-in-chief of The Trinity Chronicle, and Mike Bradshaw, the newspaper’s managing editor, began to refer to athletic teams as Blue Devils in Fall 1922. The first reference to Blue Devils was made in the newspaper on Oct. 4, 1922 in the headline “Guilford defeated to tune of seven touchdowns by Blue Devils.”
Through constant repetition, the name caught on, and the former Methodists became the Blue Devils.
Editor's note: This article is a product of a service run by The Chronicle called Chronquiry. A reader submitted a question, other readers voted on the question and The Chronicle got the answer. If you have a question you would like answered about anything related to Duke, visit dukechronicle.com/page/chronquiry or submit a question below: