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20th March 2024 EDT FEATURES

It’s March Madness, So Let’s Pay Tribute to Nike’s College Colorways

There's a major confluence between one of the biggest sporting events in America and one of the biggest brands in the world. We pay homage to Nike's college-inspired colorways this March.

It’s March Madness, So Let’s Pay Tribute to Nike’s College Colorways
It’s March Madness, So Let’s Pay Tribute to Nike’s College Colorways

It’s that time of year again—brackets are being filled out, analysts are picking games, and excitement is palpable as 21 March 2024 approaches. That’s when the first round of the 2024 Men’s NCAA Tournament kicks off, signifying the beginning of March Madness.

If you live outside the US of A, chances are you might not be familiar with one of the biggest sporting events in American history. And what connection does it have with Nike’s college-inspired colorways? Let’s break it down.

What Is March Madness?

The NCAA is short for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. In other words, March Madness is a college basketball tournament—one that makes a lot of money. According to Investopedia, “the NCAA earned US$1.28 billion in revenue in 2022–2023, with about US$1 billion coming from March Madness alone.”

The reason why college sports is a marquee event for millions of Americans, is because for a long time, professional sports—with the exception of baseball—wasn’t really a thing.

“The biggest American Football stadiums were all for college sports,” says YouTuber Zealand.

Before the NBA came onto the scene in 1949—a decade prior to that, in fact—the first NCAA tournament kicked off. In the 85 years since, there have been countless moments that have shaped basketball history, and just as many players who have gone on to be successful in the NBA (think: Al Horford, Stephen Curry, Gordon Hayward, Anthony Davis, and Tyus Jones, among others).

Stephen Curry’s 2008 March Madness run

Players’ careers can be made—and broken—in a singular moment in the NCAA, because, unlike in the NBA, where games are played in a best-of-seven series, NCAA games are just a single round.

This, coupled with eight minutes less on the clock, a closer three-point line, and no home court-advantage, makes for volatile games that can lead to unlikely outcomes—situations known as “upsets”. Case in point: Marquette beating UNC-Charlotte at the absolute last second in 1977.

What all this means is that the infrastructure of March Madness makes it a fertile ground for the underdog to shine—and we all know that people love a good Cinderella story. As Vox put it in one of their explainers, “…in a lot of ways, March Madness is more fun than the NBA.”

The Iconic Be True To Your School Campaign

“The mid-’80s was the last golden era of sports,” says Jeff Staple in an interview for a documentary Nike made on the story of the Dunk.

In the mid-’80s, the stage was set for college basketball to be the most significant among all the sports played in college. The Final Four became one of the biggest sporting events in America. And in 1985, Nike seized the opportunity and seeded all four teams playing in the NCAA semifinals with their shoes.

That game featured 11 future NBA players—stars like Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing.

Then, Nike did something even wilder in August that year. Riding on the hype train, they released a Frankenstein—albeit a beautiful one—the Dunk High. It’s an amalgamation of four of the best basketball shoes the Swoosh had at the time: the Legend, the Terminator, the Air Jordan 1, and the Air Force 1.

Nike’s 1985 “Be True To Your School” Campaign

“They took what was happening in the stadiums, and then they took what was happening in their shoes, and then they put [the] two records together and did a remix,” explained Jeff Staple.

The secret ingredient they used was color-blocking. Back then, that was a disruption to the sneaker game, because shoes were a lot whiter then. A big part of the reason was the NBA’s rule that 51% of shoes had to to be white. Of course, the Air Jordan 1 started the disruption, but the Dunk added to the fray.

Another reason why it worked so well, was that the ‘80s was a time period where shoes were a lot more uniform, and wearing what was most popular wasn’t as frowned upon as it is today.

Thus, Nike’s iconic “Be True To Your School” campaign was born as a genius way to market the shoe.

What College-Inspired Colorways Meant for Fans

The campaign tapped on people’s desire to represent something larger than themselves. Big panels of the Nike Dunk were blocked off in signature colors of the school they represented.

In total, BTTYS featured apparel and Dunks for 12 colleges. The sportswear giant teamed up with powerhouses like the University of Iowa; University of Kentucky; University of Michigan; Georgetown; St. John’s; Universtity of Nevada, Las Vegas; and Syracuse—making the all-new Dunk High their official shoe.

What this did for fans was give them the chance to wear the exact same shoes they saw adorning their heroes’ feet. It gave people a chance to represent, in no understated way, their college colors.

But what probably set the college colorways apart the most and caused them to strike such a chord with fans, is that they made kids feel like they had a shoe that was their very own. A sort of yeah, sure, Jordan has his own shoe—but now I do, too.

A Look At Some Nike College-Inspired Colorways

In the spirit of March Madness, we’ve decided to take a look at some classic college-inspired Nike colorways. Some of the silhouettes we’ve chosen span further than the Dunk, which is a testament to how much these colors resonate with fans and how they aren’t restricted to a type of shoe.

The University of Iowa: Iowa Hawkeyes

The University of Iowa’s colors are black and gold. In 1887, a disgruntled student named Marvin H. Dey felt that the school needed its own official colors, and thus gold was chosen by a committee. After a debate between “old gold” and “plain gold”, the former was officially declared as the university’s color.

The Nike Dunk High SP “Iowa” 2020 is a great throwback to the original BTTYS collection launched in 1985. It features the classic colorway of the Iowa Hawkeyes—a sleek Black base contrasted by bold Varsity Maize overlays.

The “Wu-Tang” Dunks of 1999 may have borrowed this iconic scheme, but the “Iowa” definitely rocked it first. The pair boasts a premium all-leather upper, a comfortably light padded nylon tongue, and a touch of heritage with a woven Nike tag.

Michigan State University: Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State University rocks a Spartan green and white color palette. While the origin story behind this color scheme is murky, we do know that in 1899, records show discussions about adopting a green monogram for athletes. Additionally, many believe that the colors became more widespread when the school’s first full-time athletics director, Chester L. Brewer, arrived on the scene.

The Nike Dunk Low “Michigan State” takes a page from the Spartans’ playbook and joins the court in a familiar green and white colorway. This low-top iteration stays true to its 2020 high-top counterpart, featuring a classic BTTYS aesthetic.

A crisp White leather upper serves as the canvas for bold Green accents on the Swoosh, toe box, and heel overlaps. Tradition is kept with a woven tongue label, and durability is ensured via a tough rubber outsole that features the same tread pattern originally designed for domination on the hardwood.

The University of California: UCLA Bruins

Back in the 1930s, UCLA’s jerseys and logo sported a combination of dark blue and white. Then, change came in the 1950s: to make player numbers more distinguishable, especially on film, UCLA went bolder with a darker shade of blue.

Finally, in 2004, the university officially adopted a specific shade of blue (Pantone 285) and gold (Pantone 123) to ensure consistent branding. These official colors continue to represent UCLA today.

The Nike Dunk Low “UCLA” boasts a University Gold upper that’s accented by crisp Blue Jay overlays and a matching Swoosh. For a touch of heritage, a woven Nike tag sits on the breathable nylon tongue, balanced by the embroidered Nike wordmark on the back.

This low-top rides on a classic rubber outsole, featuring clean White sidewalls and a grippy Blue Jay outsole geared for performance on hardwood.

St. John’s University: St. John’s Red Storm

The St. John’s Red Storm color palette consists of red, blue, and gray—with red standing out as the boldest color. Its significance points to an event that took place much further back in history than the university’s founding in 1870.

Former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the late Fr. James W. Moore, S.J., selected red because of St. John the Baptist’s martyrdom for his faith. Ultimately, this unwavering heart position to stick to one’s beliefs and to accept the consequences—come what may—is the kind of boldness reflected in Nike’s iteration of a shoe dedicated to the Red Storms.

The Nike Dunk Low Retro SP “St.John’s” gets a retro makeover, honoring the shoe’s 35th anniversary and its roots in college basketball. Inspired by the original BTTYS series of 1985, this low-top Dunk features a clean two-tone look featuring White and University Red.

The upper is crafted from premium leather, with a crisp White base contrasted by bold University Red overlays and the signature Swoosh. Classic Nike branding completes the design, gracing the woven tongue tag, sockliner, and heel tab.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: North Carolina Tar Heels

UNC’s iconic color palette, consisting of Carolina blue and white, boasts a rich history intertwined with the very foundation of the school. Back in 1795, shortly after UNC opened its doors, two prominent student organizations, the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, rocked their own distinct colors; light blue and white, respectively.

Fast forward to the late 1880s, when intercollegiate athletics was now a pursuit for the school, light blue and white were a natural choice. The light blue resonated so strongly, that by the 1920s, it had earned its own distinctive name: Carolina blue.

Perhaps what gave it even more recognition was the fact that the man, the myth, the legend himself—His Airness, Michael Jordan—rocked the colors when he played on the team during his college days.

The Nike Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG “University Blue” honors Michael Jordan’s collegiate legacy and offers a fresh take on a classic silhouette. It showcases a color scheme reminiscent of his alma mater and is crafted from premium leather. The base is crisp White, and it pops against the University Blue overlays.

The iconic Swoosh gets a bold Black treatment, complementing the Black accents on the collar, tonuge tag, and the recognizable Wings logo. In keeping with the heritage theme, the outsole is a brighter shade of blue. It offers a superior grip with its multi-directional traction pattern and a pivot point strategically placed under the forefoot.

Georgetown University: Georgetown Hoyas

Blue and gray are the colors of choice for this university in Washington, DC. Their origins are intertwined with the Civil War, which took place from 1861 to 1865. During the war, over a thousand students and alumni answered the call of duty and fought on both sides of the conflict.

Eleven years after the conclusion of the war, in 1876, Georgetown students selected blue and gray as the official colors of the school—a choice that has been interpreted as a gesture of unity, aiming to bridge the divides left by the war. The colors symbolize reconciliation between former classmates who fought on opposing sides.

The Nike Air Jordan 3 Retro “Georgetown” celebrates the Georgetown Hoyas—a powerhouse team that Michael Jordan famously faced on his path to an NCAA championship.

This shoe features a premium Midnight Navy tumbled leather upper, a classic choice of material for Jordans. The familiar elephant print overlays appearing on the toe and heel add a touch of texture and heritage. For branding, Jumpman logos grace the Cement Grey synthetic leather tongue and molded Midnight Navy heel panel.

To continue the legacy of comfort and performance, the sneaker boasts a lightweight polyurethane midsole with a visible Nike Air unit tucked under the heel for optimal cushioning.

University of Kentucky: Kentucky Wildcats

Back in 1891, on the eve of a football game against Centre College, UK students were deciding which shade of blue to use for their school colors when Richard C. Stoll—who lettered in football at UK at the time—pulled off his necktie and held it up. And that was the choice. However, it was accompanied by a light yellow at the time.

White came into the picture and replaced yellow a year later, and those colors have been synonymous with the Kentucky Wildcats and their passionate fanbase ever since.

The Nike Dunk Low Retro SP “Kentucky” pays homage to Nike’s BTTYS series of 1985, borrowing the UK’s unforgettable colorway.

Originally a high-top basketball shoe designed for the Wildcats, this version gets a modern twist with a versatile low-top build. The upper is crafted from crisp white leather, accented with bold Varsity Royal overlays that echo the school’s spirit.

Breathability is ensured via a mesh tongue, and the pair is finished with a woven Nike tag to stay true to its roots.

Image Source: NCAA; Complex

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