The latest tactic in the college football recruiting game is right there in the closet.
Detractors may dismiss the wide array of Oregon uniforms and the burnt-orange helmets Virginia Tech broke out for the Orange Bowl as marketing gimmicks — Don’t let your collection be incomplete! Get the latest ‘must-have’ jersey! — designed to wring money out of loyal fans. But multiple jerseys, along with the gloves, helmets and cleats that go along with them, are mighty enticing to players.
“Being the University of Nike, essentially, we get a lot of cool stuff. A lot of new stuff all the time. It’s definitely a recruiting tool,” Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl said. “When I was coming up on a recruiting trip, they showed me all the different jerseys and told me about the 100 different uniform combinations.”
College football’s resident fashionistas are about to add one more to the mix, debuting another new look for Monday night’s BCS title game against top-ranked Auburn.
“It’s nice knowing you’re in for a surprise each and every week,” Oregon receiver Josh Huff said.
For years, football uniforms were fairly standard. Baggy, cloth pants eventually gave way to fitted spandex, and some schools would add a flourish to their jerseys here and there. Notre Dame even broke out — gasp! — green jerseys on occasion. But a fashion revolution along the lines of what the Fab Five did for basketball? That just didn’t happen.
Then came the Ducks.
“We’ve used Oregon as a test pilot for a lot of innovations and a lot of the mix-and-match (uniforms),” said Todd Van Horne, global creative director of Nike football.
Just as it has done with apparel in other sports, Nike has improved the functionality of its uniforms over the years by making them more lightweight and breathable, reducing the amount of material used and adding padding to the fabric itself. It’s improved the grip technology on its receiver gloves.
“‘Listen to the voice of the athlete’ is our principle,” Van Horne said. “They want innovations. … They want it lighter, they want it more flexible, they want it more breathable, they want super tight-fitting jerseys but that are not restricting.”
But the players want to look good, too, and having one primary color jersey for home games and a white one for the road is so 1990s — 1980s and ’70s, too, for that matter.
“I feel like our tradition is the unexpected,” Oregon linebacker Spencer Paysinger said. “It’s our tradition to mix it up and shock the nation.”
Oh, shock the nation the Ducks did when they unveiled their “Fighting Highlighter” uniforms in the 2003 season opener. Temporarily blinded a few fans, too, with Day-Glo yellow jerseys and pants so bright they could be seen clear to SEC country.
And that was just the start. Beginning in 2006, Nike rolled out four different uniforms for Oregon, giving the Ducks almost 400 possible combinations when you considered the various jerseys, pants, helmets, socks and shoes. As if that wasn’t edgy enough, the numbers on the jerseys were futuristically funky — think “Rollerball” — and the diamond patterns on the shoulders and knees gave the uniforms a moth-eaten look.
The diamond pattern has given way to wings on the shoulders, but the Ducks are still setting the fashion trend. In the past two years they’ve sported green jerseys, black jerseys, yellow jerseys, white jerseys with silver numbers and trim, white jerseys with green trim, silver pants, black pants and green pants.
Got all that? Good, because for Monday’s BCS game against Auburn, No. 2 Oregon has yet another twist, this one to its all-white, so-called “Stormtrooper” look. The numbers have neon-yellow piping around them, and matching neon-shaded cleats and socks that are designed to make the players’ feet a blur as they dart downfield.
“I like them,” Paysinger said. “They’re going to make us look fast on the field. As it gets darker in the day, the color starts glowing.”
As anyone who’s ever been around teenagers knows — kids of any age, really — what one person has, others soon want.
Asked about Oregon’s uniforms, Auburn’s All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley’s eyes lit up. Not only is he a bit jealous of the Ducks’ duds, there’s one combo in particular he likes.
“I like the all black one they have with the black helmets,” Fairley said.
The more other schools have seen of Oregon’s flashy fashions, the more they’ve clamored for unique looks of their own. Maybe not to the degree the Ducks have, but options.
Ohio State, Oregon State, Alabama, Boise State, Florida, Miami, Pitt, West Virginia, TCU and Virginia Tech all wore specially designed uniforms for one game this year. TCU updated its uniform for the Rose Bowl, its first BCS appearance, and Florida and Boise State got new looks for their bowl games, too.
“Kids today, they’re impressionable. They like these type of things, they like to be on the cutting edge,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “That’s something that’s important to our kids today, so we also saw it as a recruiting opportunity to show we are innovative, we are creative and we can do things differently.”
For the second straight year, Ohio State wore a throwback jersey for its game against Michigan. This year’s honored the 1942 team, Ohio State’s first to win a national title, and featured simple scarlet jerseys with gray trim around the sleeves and scarlet helmets.
Souvenir merchandise sales benefited the university, of course, but Smith said the revenue generated by the add-ons was “not huge.” The real point was to tighten the bond between the Buckeyes and their fans.
“To be able to bring out, not only to our football team but also to our Ohio State community and our Columbus community a reminder of what those guys did — because they played football and went to war — to put them back on the pedestal, to promote and remind people of what those people sacrificed … it was emotional,” Smith said. “It was emotional for our fans. It was emotional for our players. It was emotional for those guys themselves.”
And it made Ohio State a player in this year’s fashion game.