Alternate uni-verse: Football teams change look to chase recruits, revenue

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 4, 2013 

— North Carolina already possessed the kind of energy that only arrives before games against N.C. State, but then the Tar Heels finished their warm-ups and went inside their locker room. A surprise awaited: shiny chrome helmets, with a Carolina blue heel stretched around the side.

The scene inside the locker room was chaotic and jubilant. It was as if the Tar Heels had won something, when really they would only be wearing something they never had before.

“That was crazy,” Tre Boston, the UNC safety, said earlier this week of finding the helmets that UNC wore during its victory last season against N.C. State. “I’ll let you know that. We came in – first of all, to be in all navy (jerseys) was kind of crazy, because we hadn’t done that in a while. But to see the chrome was something new.

“We were excited. It got us pumped up. It gets your blood flowing, gets a little something in you.”

The Tar Heels haven’t worn those chrome helmets this season. Yet they are wearing the new jerseys that Nike designed, and new helmets. And Saturday they play at Virginia Tech, which earned attention last week during its victory at Georgia Tech for wearing a grey stone-patterned helmet design inspired by the “Hokie Stone,” which adorns many of the buildings on Virginia Tech’s campus.

Welcome to college football in 2013, when schools receive almost as much attention for what they wear as for what they do while they wear it. Perhaps it’s the Oregon effect – a trickle down fashion phenomenon traced to the Pacific Northwest, where Nike in the mid-2000s collaborated with the Oregon football program to turn out uniforms that became more and more outlandish.

Metallic helmets that changed colors depending on the angle they were viewed? Sure. Mix-and-match jersey and pant combinations that allowed for a vastly different look every week? Why not? Accents on the jerseys, like feathers and wings and whatever else? Yes. And another thing happened, too: Oregon began winning in style, figuratively and literally.

“Oregon showed that you could do this and by ‘this’ I mean change your uniforms, push the envelope in terms of design, change the notion of what a uniform can be,” said Paul Lukas, who writes about the aesthetics of sports for ESPN.com and his popular website, uni-watch.com. “Basically Oregon has paralleled its transformation of these designs from athletic uniforms for athletes to superhero costumes.

“That’s what it’s based on. These are superhero costumes.”

Designers , Fedora collaborated

In just the past two weeks, Lukas’ website has chronicled more than a dozen nontraditional designs – from the “smoky gray” uniforms Tennessee will wear against Georgia on Saturday to the throwback jerseys Georgia Tech wore against Virginia Tech last week, to the “Hokie Stone” helmets Virginia Tech wore in the same game, to a fire-inspired flaming helmet Arizona State will wear against Notre Dame. And the list goes on.

Lukas began writing about sports aesthetics – with a focus on uniform design – in 1999. By 2004, he was writing regular features on ESPN.com. Back then, college football uniform designs were far more constant. Teams rarely changed their look. But now?

“It’s gotten crazy,” he said. “It used to be teams would change their uniforms once in a generation and then once a decade and basically the cycle of change has gotten faster and faster. Once a decade went down to once every five years, and then every couple of years. And now, you have an awful lot of teams that make at least some change every year, and you’ve got a few teams that make a change every week.”

UNC hasn’t gone to that extreme – yet – but the Tar Heels have changed their look considerably since hiring Larry Fedora in late 2011. The chrome helmets represent its boldest fashion statement to date, but the Tar Heels will go all black – including a matte black helmet – when they host Miami for a nationally-televised Thursday night game on Oct. 17.

That game has been billed “Zero Dark Thursday” and, according to a statement UNC put out in the spring, it will wear black because of inspiration from “the black in the Tar Heel logo.”

Fedora played a large role in the overhaul of UNC’s uniforms, which include the all black alternate and two other full designs – white tops and pants, blue tops and pants – that can be mixed and matched. He met twice with Justin LaRosa, who led Nike’s design team that revamped the Tar Heels’ look.

During the first meeting, LaRosa said, he was “trying to get into (Fedora’s) mind, and trying to figure out what inspires him and what he instills in the guys to get them inspired. That’s kind of the first way it started.” LaRosa and his team spent time on campus, searching for inspiration in and around Kenan Stadium.

“We were really inspired by the curl of the ram’s horn, and the stance that the ram has – this really super low-to-the-ground, really aggressive stance,” LaRosa said. “It’s all about forward attack, and a forward movement, which is just what (Fedora’s) playing methods are.”

The ram’s horn inspired the stripes on the shoulders. On the back of the jerseys, the words “smart, fast, physical” – Fedora’s motto, one that is prominent inside the Kenan Football Center – are embroidered on the neckline.

Chasing recruits, revenue

When Fedora began coaching at Baylor in 1990, few coaches thought about uniform design. That has changed, though, for many reasons. When Oregon began wearing its funky uniform combinations, and began winning big, the dynamic changed.

“I think it’s so important in recruiting right now,” Fedora said. “Because it’s kind of the thing. It’s the thing to do. So I think you definitely better take advantage of it and you better have an idea of what you want to do, or you better have somebody on your staff that’s good at that.

“We’ve got a staff that understands the importance of it.”

Lukas, though, doesn’t buy that argument. He has made his living chronicling what sports teams wear and thinking about how and why college football has reached this point – with teams breaking tradition to wear black and gray and helmets that look more befitting of a costume show than a football game.

The recruiting explanation is one. Another: These new designs represent a new revenue stream. In the online merchandise shop attached to UNC’s official athletic website, a black UNC No. 2 football jersey – similar to the one quarterback Bryn Renner will wear against Miami – goes for $89.95. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is auctioning 12 Hokie Stone helmets, with the minimum bid for each starting at $600. A portion of the winning bids will go to charity.

Still, coaches say the new designs are important because they attract recruits. Not that there’s much evidence to support that claim.

“Most of what I’ve seen shows that recruits actually don’t treat the uniform as that big an issue,” Lukas said. “They may be an impressed by given designs, they may go, ‘Oooh and aaah,’ but they don’t actually make their decision on where to commit based on that. Also, I certainly note that schools like Alabama and Auburn and Texas, which have stayed the course with fairly plain uniforms, don’t seem to have any trouble with recruiting.”

UNC, though, isn’t Alabama or Auburn or Texas. It’s like Oregon was, before the Ducks started a college football fashion revolution that likely has yet to reach its peak. Lukas doesn’t see the change slowing down.

If anything, he said, alternate designs will only become more prevalent in part because now there’s competition – and not just among teams. What Nike did for Oregon, Under Armour is doing for Maryland, which has become known in recent years for its elaborate, state flag-inspired red, black and yellow jerseys and helmets. Adidas has pumped up Tennessee, UCLA and Nebraska’s look, among others.

Fedora credits this uniform craze to Oregon, the first school to embrace it. Many more have. N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest have multiple helmet options. Indiana, which has won six-plus games once since 1994, has six helmets. Even Notre Dame has worn metallic helmets and an alternate jersey.

At UNC, Fedora has spoken often about change. He wants to change the culture of his program, and the environment that surrounds it. And he’s not opposed to changing the look, either.

When Nike was redesigning UNC’s uniforms, Fedora received renderings in the mail. He offered feedback. One process ended and another began. Fedora said UNC has already met with Nike to discuss the next iteration.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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