Sometime in the early 2000’s college football programs decided it was time to ditch the traditional uniforms and go with something completely different. It started as a single alternative uniform. Sometimes it was all black and other times it was all white. Then a few programs expanded their helmet selection. Matte black got popular and then came chrome. Before we knew it, almost every university in the country was wearing crazy colors. Some teams were wearing colors that weren’t even their school colors! In the last two or three years it has gotten completely out of control. Teams will do anything to get attention even if this means they have to grab a bucket of paint and throw it on a helmet to see what happens. When it all comes down to it, the only reason teams are doing this is to be the “cool kid on campus” that gets the recruits.
Recruiting and Alternative Uniforms
The Oregon Ducks were one of the first teams to try out alternative uniforms. There is a very good reason for this. The creator of Nike, Phil Knight, is an Oregon graduate so he is willing to let the Ducks become the test case for all kinds of crazy uniforms. During some of the bowl games in the early 2000’s the Ducks would wear “throwback” uniforms that were all yellow with a huge Duck on the helmet. This garnered tons of interest which caught the eye of the Oregon football administration. Getting attention is very important in college football as there are well over 100 programs. If it takes a unique uniform to get attention there are many teams that are willing to go that route.
College football recruiting has changed drastically over the last three decades. Years ago high school students were not recruited until their senior year and many of them wanted to go the university in which their parents received their degree or to the school they grew up cheering for. That is no longer the case. In fact, some recruits will change their mind three and four times during their senior year just because they want to do something different. High school football players are attracted to the shiny object. Sometimes that shiny object is a brand new helmet worn by Arizona State or a unique pair of cleats worn by Notre Dame. This sounds a little bit superficial but it is the reality of recruiting in 2013 and beyond. There are a large number of high school athletes that will choose a college based on the glitz and glamour of the school rather than the education.
High school athletes also get caught up in the moment. If they are on a recruiting trip and the team runs out in alternative uniforms they see the reaction of the fans. This might entice them to sign their letter of intent to that particular school. Strong recruiting coaches know when a team will be coming out in an alternative uniform. They schedule all the big recruits that weekend and hope to show them a unique experience. Prior to the proliferation of the alternative uniform, recruits would come during any given weekend out of the season and just watch the game. My how things have changed.
Traditional Football Uniforms
When I was at NC State from 2000-2004 I can remember making fun of teams like Notre Dame, Alabama and Penn State for being too traditional. Penn State has worn the same uniform since the beginning of their program. They have a white helmet with a blue strip down the middle. This has never changed. The same is true with Alabama. They have a crimson helmet with the players number on each side. No matter what year you watch an Alabama game you are going to see the exact same helmets. At the time it was very boring. Who wanted to wear the same thing every single week? Well, now the traditional uniforms are the new “cool” uniforms. With Maryland and Texas Tech wearing different uniforms every single week some fans have forgotten what their traditional uniforms look like.
The University of Maryland has gone above and beyond to avoid being traditional. The creator of Under Armour graduated from the University of Maryland and his goal is to put the craziest color combinations together when it comes to the Terrapins uniforms. They have worn everything from all black to camouflage. Their helmets are sometimes a completely different color from their uniform. Their cleats are a complete joke. Everything from red to yellow to neon colors have been worn by the Terrapin players. I know the ultimate goal is to get attention but they have taken it too far. In the next few years I would expect to see the Terrapins tone it down a notch rather than spending all of this money on a uniform that will last for about three or four hours.
I am glad to see some teams wearing traditional uniforms today. This does not happen very often. My alma mater, NC State, has given into the alternative uniforms and they look terrible. They have even worn pink uniforms. While the cause was great I feel as if a ribbon or a sticker can be worn to support a cause. Once again, when I was in school things were much different. NC State had two sets of uniforms. At home, they wore white pants and red jerseys. On the road they wore red pants and white jerseys. This was tradition and it rarely changed. During a very important game or a nationally televised game the Wolfpack would come out in all red uniforms at home. This got the crowd pumped up and it was something the players enjoyed. It is important to note that all the equipment staff had to do was set out away pants with home jerseys. They did not have to come up with a completely new outfit.
One of the defining moments of my NC State career, as a football fan, was when the Wolfpack came out in all white versus UNC in Chapel Hill. I still have several pictures from this game. It was one of the biggest games of the year and the coaching staff realized that all white would get the team fired up. Maybe once or twice a year the team would come out in all white or all red. Unless it was a very important game, the team wore traditional colors. That is not the case today. On any given Saturday NC State and other teams will wear alternative uniforms just to get a little bit of attention. This makes me cry inside. The big games are no longer big because the unique uniforms are worn every single week.
Other Ways to Get Attention
Rather than coming up with the craziest color combinations possible there is one way to get interest from high school recruits – win! The Alabama Crimson Tide have never had alternative uniforms. They wear the same uniforms week in and week out yet they still have some of the top recruiting classes in the country. They have won three of the last four national championships. All they have to do is continue to win. If the Alabama Crimson Tide continues to win they will never had to worry about wearing some crazy looking uniform to get the attention of high school kids.
Unfortunately, some programs have struggled to produce a consistent winning product on the field so they feel as if they have to go in a different direction. Many of these programs will come up with the “hottest” colors possible when it comes to a helmet or uniform. They will also hire coaches that are a little bit out of the ordinary. They may run a unique offense or dress in an unusual way. We have often heard that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. After my four years of undergraduate studies at NC State I can confirm that any publicity is better than no publicity. Just last week the NC State Wolfpack lost to Wake Forest and no one cares. Apathy is the worst thing for a college football program. It is better to have fans that are up in arms about the success of the program rather than fans that could care less what happens on any given Saturday afternoon.
One of the reasons the SEC continues to be the best conference in college football is because their fans. Some would argue that SEC fans care too much. Well, this is the exact reason SEC schools get some of the best coaches in the sport. The athletic departments are willing to pony up the cash because they know fans will pack the stadiums every Saturday. This is not true in the ACC and PAC 12. Getting fans to a stadium is like pulling teeth in some other conference. Rather than trying to do it through crazy college football uniforms it is best to just win.