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Football as an organized sport at UNC began in 1888. The university's first football game —and the first college football game played in North Carolina —was a loss to Wake Forest in a game played at the state fair. Many university traditions are tied to the growth of football and other sports at UNC in the 1890s: to share news about the team, the Athletic Association began publishing a weekly newspaper called the Tar Heel, the predecessor to the Daily Tar Heel; the "tar heels" nickname began to be more closely associated with the university during this period; when the team needed official colors, it adopted light blue and white, the colors of the two debating societies; and the words for the university's alma mater, "Hark the Sound," were also written during this period.

In the early twentieth century, the football team's biggest rival was the University of Virginia. The schools played several times in Richmond, Virginia, and the games were attended by large numbers of UNC students who traveled by train. With the sport gaining fans in the 1920s, UNC soon outgrew the limited seating at Emerson Field. Support from alumnus William Rand Kenan Jr. enabled the university to build a large, new stadium dedicated to football. Kenan Stadium, located in the woods south of campus, hosted its first game in 1927.

In the years following World War II, Carolina had a series of successful football teams led by star halfback Charlie "Choo" Justice. Justice was one of the best players in the country, twice finishing as a runner up in Heisman Trophy voting. The team went to several bowl games in the Justice era and rose to national prominence. One of the most memorable games of the period was a 1949 meeting between UNC and Notre Dame played in Yankee Stadium. Thousands of UNC students, many waving Confederate flags, traveled to New York for the game.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Carolina football entered the modern era. The university was one of the founding members of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953, and games began to be regularly broadcast on radio and television. In 1967 Ricky Lanier joined the team, becoming the first African American scholarship football player at the university.

Date Established: 1888

Date Range: 1888 – Present

Action shot from an early game at Kenan Stadium. The old field house is seen in the background. UNC Image Collection, North Carolina Collection Photo Archives, Wilson Library.

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