The Story Behind the Iconic NCAA Championship Hats 🏆🧢

The final buzzer sounds in the NCAA or NBA Finals. The referee blows his whistle to signal the end of the Super Bowl or the NCAA FBS championship. The last out is made in the MLB or NCAA World Series.

The winning team rushes the court or field and, amid the ensuing celebration, championship hats are passed around and immediately rocked by each player—a mark of their crowning achievement.

So how, when and why did this tradition start?

It dates back to the 1989 NCAA men’s basketball Final Four and is tied in with Nike’s ubiquitous “ Just Do It” campaign. That now-iconic tagline was introduced in a series of ads beginning in 1988. Given their initial overwhelming success and how quickly “Just Do It” became associated with Nike and a part of popular vernacular, it was in the company’s interest to expand the efforts around the slogan. Nike made strides to get fans to associate it with the teams they rooted for. This mission was focused on colleges, as hand pennants featuring messages like “Go Buffaloes [Colorado]” and “Go Hawkeyes [Iowa]” began appearing in the stands during games.

A natural outcome of these efforts was to try and associate the slogan with the team that went on to win the championship. The FBS championship playoff didn’t yet exist, which always led to arguments about who the No. 1 college football team was at the end of every season. In basketball, however, a new champion was crowned each year at the Final Four.

Opportunity knocked.

In 1989, Michigan played Seton Hall in Seattle for the NCAA title. Nike had a great relationship with Seton Hall’s head coach, P.J. Carlesimo. Michigan was led by first-year coach Steve Fisher, who Nike had only recently become associated with. Fisher had taken over the job in the last week of the regular season under somewhat unusual circumstances, as previous Michigan coach Bill Frieder [a longtime Nike endorser] announced he was moving to Arizona State. Although Frieder offered to stay with Michigan through the NCAA tournament, the Athletic Director, Bo Schembechler, made the decision to let Fisher assume control immediately.

As an employee in Nike’s marketing department, I was watching Seton Hall win their semi-final game when a way to promote “Just Do It” suddenly hit me. I had some hats made for the Pirates in the event that they won the championship. But since the hats would be worn AFTER Seton Hall emerged victorious, I realized “Just Do It” wouldn’t make sense. “Just Did It” was much better.

I didn’t have much of an “opportunity marketing” budget. This phrase is best described as the steps a company takes when they aren’t an official sponsor of an event, but have endorsed athletes and teams that are a part of it. We asked ourselves, How can we celebrate an incredible feat and our relationship to each athlete that contributed to it? We had to find a lane and go for it.

I worked with our apparel folks and had 25 of the least expensive hats they could find screened with “Just Did It #1.”  There was no mention of Nike. There was no swoosh. The phrase had so quickly become a part of pop culture after its 1988 debut that I was confident viewers would make the connection. 

The hats were made and delivered to Seton Hall with the instructions that if the team won, each player was to be given one to wear on the court as they celebrated.

The game turned out to be one of the all-time great NCAA championship battles. Michigan eventually prevailed, 80-79, in overtime. Seton Hall was up a point with .03 seconds left when referee John Clougherty called a controversial foul on guard Gerald Greene. It sent Michigan’s Rumeal Robinson to the free throw line, where he sank the two free throws that put Michigan ahead by a point. Seton Hall inbounded the ball to Darryl Walker and his desperation potential game-winning shot bounced off the backboard.

Game over.

Michigan wins.

No use for the hats.

By Seton Hall, at least…

Despite the heartbreak that everybody on the Pirates’ sideline was feeling, somehow the hats got to the Michigan players. My guess is that a Seton Hall student manager had the presence of mind at the final buzzer to get them to the Wolverines. (If so, I would like that person to come forward and claim his or her place in sports history.)

It was the first time that a team—in any sport, college or pro—had worn championship hats during their celebration.

I followed it up in 1990 by making ones for UNLV. Same deal: “Just Did It #1.”

The ensuing year, however, I put a little wrinkle in the messaging. UNLV was favored to repeat as champions, so instead of “Just Did It #1,” I changed the text to say, “Just Did It AGAIN.” UNLV was undefeated heading into the semi-finals. Counting the season prior, the Running Rebels hadn’t lost in 45 games.

The hat seemed like a no-brainer…but Duke somehow managed to pull off the upset against UNLV in that semi-final matchup. And of course, we couldn’t ask the Blue Devils to wear a “Just Did It AGAIN” cap.

So I got out of the “opportunity marketing” hat business. However, folks at the NCAA, MLB, NFL and NBA realized there was money to be made by licensing the rights to make and sell the hats to apparel companies.

What the Wolverines started with those cheaply made products in 1989 has since evolved into a lucrative opportunity for sports organizations to commemorate title moments. The hats are now produced by corporate sponsors with their names and logos on them. They also include the year of the championship. They are well-designed and comprised of the highest quality material—a far cry from what the Michigan players donned in 1989.

But that day was the start of a long-lasting and special tradition.

The only remaining question is: Who will wear ’em this year?

Mark Thomashow is an OG Nike legend and contributor to SLAM. He hopes this story will be a part of a book that tells behind-the-scenes stories of iconic Nike ads from the 80s through 2005.

Photos via Getty.