There are a lot of reasons for me to not like Notre Dame football:
I’m a Protestant minister who still actually thinks the Reformation was a pretty good thing (blunders notwithstanding).
I’m a product of mostly public education: public high school, Kent State University, the University of South Carolina.
I’m a Midwesterner with a pretty incredible “home team” a mere two hours down I-71 from where I grew up in Akron, OH.
And, for whatever reason, the cumulative force of Irish-loving personalities in my youth did not give me altogether positive associations with the team from South Bend, Indiana.
No. 2 – The University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish
My high school buddy and teammate Joe Vardon, who now follows LeBron James everywhere he goes for the Northeast Ohio Media Group, tried valiantly to integrate some Irish Blue-and-Gold traditions into Tallmadge Blue Devil Blue-and-Gold rhythms. I think at one point we had a “play like a champion today” sign to smack on the way out of our locker room.
Interestingly, one Laurie Wenger painted the sign at the beginning of the Lou Holtz era. It’s been reproduced tens of thousands of times, and Wenger gets all the cash from its licensing–which helps to pay her medical bills associated with her MS. ”People think that sign has been up there since Christ was in diapers,” Wenger says. It’s been more like a quarter century.
And that, dear readers, is the power of tradition. There is a thing called the invention of tradition. In fact, there’s an annoying book written by a Marxist sociologist named Benedict Anderson that invented the invention of tradition, that every graduate student in the humanities has to read. But inventing tradition itself is not annoying; it’s beautiful and genius.
And you can invent tradition a lot easier if there’s a long history of actual tradition to append it to. Play like a champion today gets associated with Touchdown Jesus, which makes Notre Dame seem as ancient as the eternal Son of God himself, which makes everyone think that Notre Dame football players have been playing like champions since at least the Pax Romana.
I forgot. This is about uniforms.
But I suppose there’s a segue in here somewhere. Ah–yes. Notre Dame has been wearing navy and gold, with big white numerals, since at least Saint Peter’s ascension to the Papal throne. (#donttellpresbytery)
The invention of tradition makes it easy to believe–makes us want to believe–that there’s actually gold in the gold paint on Irish helmets–and that there has been forever.
The invention of tradition makes it easy to justify having no last names on the backs of Irish jerseys–even in the age of the Individual, and even if Penn State breaks with tradition and puts surnames on the backs of their uniforms.
The invention of tradition makes us believe that Rudy is a true story. Oh–wait. It is a true story? Well, the invention of tradition makes us believe that the impossible–suiting up and taking the field for the Irish even though you really have no business doing so–is, in fact, possible.
No one does the invention (and the maintenance) of tradition like Notre Dame.
Even when a Johnny Come Lately
underwear athletic wear company like Under Armor gets the contract to make Notre Dame uniforms, they give us about the most “traditional” approach to a snazzy base layer compression shirt that one could imagine:
Put the Irish on the natural turf of their Midwestern stadium in November, with its diagonal lines across the end zones, playing someone like Navy or Perdue or USC, and you can observe with your very eyes the Platonic forms of archetypal American sport.
If you’re looking to gussy up your Irish style, consider this from The Cordial Churchman:
Note: this will work well for Penn State fans, too.
Before we get into the Nittany Lions’ unis and the narrative behind them, I’d like to point out a peculiarity I stumbled upon today. Heading into the 2014 football campaign, a fella posted the 14 best collegiate uniforms, in his reckoning.
Have a look.
Alright. Do you see what I see? That’s right. The first 13 are all either bold innovations or alternate uniforms for special occasions. There are wild styles from Nike for Oregon’s 2014 campaign (RIP). There are Akron University’s very, very gold helmets (shout out to my wife, a Zip). Lots of flashy or quirky stuff from NC State, BYU, Stanford, and the like.
And then, who’s number one? Penn State. Other than Notre Dame (whose uniforms, they mention, may get some tweaks due to a new contract with Under Armor), the Nittany Lions are the only traditional uniform in the whole batch. And they’re NUMBER ONE.
Even a fella who is enamored with novelty retreats to tradition when it’s time to crown the best uniforms in college football.
Does this go a long way in validating my insistence that tradition may be the crucial factor in building a collegiate gridiron brand with staying power? I believe it does.
Okay, on to Penn State themselves.
All the stuff with the Sandusky scandal happened during my decade-long slumber from football, so let’s just focus on the uniforms.
They’re crisp. They’re white. They’re navy. They don’t change.
Even in those rare instances when they tweak something, it’s classy. Note the number on the helmets below. They honored a particular chap who wore “42″. Classy way to do it.
My high school team, the Tallmadge Blue Devils, dropped the gold from our navy-and-gold one year, and went with PSU uniforms. The exception was that our helmets were navy with a white stripe. So maybe it’s nostalgia that makes me love Penn State’s get-up.
No, it’s not. It’s pure objective uniform awesomeness.
If it were up to me, I’d get rid of the players’ names on the back, just for tradition’s sake. But even though those have showed up in the last year or so, these threads are still perfect.
(This is also the point at which I mention that, in High School, I lined up against Wadsworth’s Bobby Jones, who played nose tackle at Penn State the following year, and whom I got to see in action against the Buckeyes in 1998. He went on to play in the NFL, and then did mixed martial arts. I would never want to line up against this guy again. Would you?)
While I’m in the charitable frame that finds me praising things about college football teams that I otherwise love to see lose, let’s just go ahead and do this.
Rivalries would be nothing without legitimate rivals. Ours is no exception. And they wouldn’t be worthy rivals without the tradition worthy rivals carry with them. And they wouldn’t be tradition-rich without tradition-bearing uniforms.
Yes, the Team Up North, whose name Ohio State Head Coach Urban Meyer would not go so far as to mention in his recent appearance on Letterman, has great uniforms.
No. 5 – The Michigan Wolverines
I don’t fault Desmond Howard for striking the Heisman pose one bit. What a runner. When you’re running as well as he was, and when you’re dressed in such sharp, historic uniform as he was, you strike the pose.
The iconic “winged helmet” was introduced by Fritz Crisler when he coached Princeton in 1935. When he later came to Ann Arbor, he brought the design with him. It’s been a TUN thing since.
Apparently there was a time when the Team Up North had numbers on their helmets like Alabama. I think they ought to have kept them.
Have I showed my cards yet? To me, the secret of a great college football uniform lies in simplicity, continuity, and tradition. The solid, unembellished pants and jerseys of the Wolverines, in striking colors (maize and navy), coupled with the iconic winged helmet, really do it for me. If you’re going to get beat by the Buckeyes, you may as well do it in style. And they do. Every year, pretty much. The style, that is. And usually the score.
Part of the reason I’m being so kind to the Team Up North is because, at the close of the 2014 campaign, when OSU’s Heisman-candidate JT Barrett went down with an ankle fracture, Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner was an incredible sportsman. He came up to Barrett as the trainers worked on him. Just before they carted him off the field with a season-ending injury, Gardner came up and knelt down to encourage Barrett. In one shot, he is seen holding his hand. In this textbook image of sportsmanship, he is seen with his hand on Barrett’s face.
The Buckeye’s responded with a letter from one of their school officials to Gardner, commending him on his honorable act of sportsmanship toward a rival quarterback.
Maize and Blue. You want to beat them more than you want to beat anyone else when you’re a Buckeye. But from now on, you want to do it with class. And you’ll want to be honest and admit that they look sharp as a knife in their unis.
I didn’t say all that nice stuff so that TUN fans would buy bow ties from these Buckeyes. But if you’re so inclined, or if your own team wears blue and gold, you may want this:
Next up, Number 3.
As I’ve done a few times since January 1, I turned to YouTube for a re-play of the Sugar Bowl, featuring my Buckeyes and the Alabama Crimson Tide. (The one I watched last night had all the action edited down to a one-hour presentation: perfect for unwinding before bed.)
I won’t spoil it for you. Go ahead and watch it yourself, and be delighted by the outcome.
No. 5 – The Alabama Crimson Tide
With one eye, watch the football. With the other eye, enjoy the uniforms.
When you’re so good at football, so consistently, for so long, you don’t need to draw attention to your program through flashy and innovative uniforms. Better still, the more that other programs seek to reinvent themselves through their uniforms, the classier you look with each passing decade, because you keep on winning in the same old garb.
Oh–it does appear the Tide has changed one thing: the size of the number on the helmet. In the Bear Bryant days of old, you could read a player’s number off their helmet from outer space–except space travel hadn’t been invented yet, I think.
Sartorially speaking, the way tradition works is usually like this: there’s a utilitarian need for a “thingy” on your clothes. Eventually the need is no longer a need. But the thingy has been there all along, so you just keep it, even after it serves no utilitarian function. Some will scoff at the uselessness of these thingies. But traditionalists will smile at these useless thingies on our clothes and, with pride, feel connected to the past.
Buttons on blazer sleeves from once-working cuffs. Broguing on your wingtips as a remnant of English men shaking their shoes dry after slogging through the bog. Helmet numbers as a hat tip to when it really helped to identify which player made the tackle. Am I getting this narrative right? If not, does it sound cool anyway?
Alabama is proof that you can do a lot with one color. Crimson and white, hardly an embellishment anywhere from head to toe, and you immediately recognize that you’re watching Saban’s gang, King of the Southeastern Conference.
This is not an act of good sportsmanship. These are beautiful uniforms.
Oh, and for those of you looking for a bow tie to wear on game day, or to church the day after a big win, might I recommend the following?
Technically “cranberry“, but sheesh—there’s so many shades of red. Close enough, right?
Next up is No. 4.
Okay, let’s just state the obvious right here at the beginning and then we can move on to pure aesthetics. Nobody, with the possible exception of the Seminoles themselves and a few die hard fans, wanted this team to go all the way again in 2014. And those same nobodies got their negative-wish. Kudos to the runner-up Oregon Ducks for depantsing the ‘Noles in the semi-final round of the first ever college football playoff.
It is probably the best thing that could happen to the FSU program that their Heisman quarterback is leaving after just two years of
school football in Tallahassee. In a few years, I might not even root against Florida State in every one of their games. Might not.
No. 6 – Florida State Seminoles
As difficult as it may be, with a vigorous effort, we can abstract the actual people and ethos of this school’s program from the equation and focus solely on their threads.
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt” – Abe Lincoln
Honest Abe spoke the truth.
Same goes for uniforms.
As will become evident within a few posts, I tend to group college uniforms into two groups:
- Has Stuff on Them
- Doesn’t Have Stuff on Them
The former is my less-favorite category, especially because adding stuff so often makes football players look foolish.
But if you’re going to have stuff on your uniform, take the Seminoles as your guide.
See that stuff? That’s good stuff.
A quick report card—and probably the best report card that has ever been associated with Florida State’s football program:
Large helmet logo: A
Helmet sticker: A+
Overall presentation of helmet: A
You hand out tomahawks when people do good stuff. Awesome. Nice arrangement on there, too. Not random. Not cluttered. Well done, tomahawk placement specialist.
Okay, the other stuff:
Shoulder stuff: A++
Neckline stuff: A+++
Logo on neckline: B+
What they’ve done here, especially on the shoulder, is brilliant. The classic uniform tradition says “stick a stripe there, or two, or three.” What the ‘Noles say is “how about stripes made from our stuff?” It works really well. And then they go and do the same thing on the neckline. Apart from this stuff, their uniforms aren’t trying to do too much. They keep it in the ballpark. But these two collections of stuff are great.
Well done ‘Noles.
And, look–their colors are just so attractive. I love the shade of red. Garnet. Pairs so nicely with gold.
Okay, that is enough Florida State for a while.
Now, look, I know this isn’t technically “garnet”—but it’s close enough. In fact, the fact that it’s not garnet will help you avoid people thinking you’re a Florida State fan. You know, if that’s what you’re going for. Or if you are, then, you know, yeah, you could buy this and wear it in Tallahassee.
Next up is No. 5.
No. 7 – the University of Southern California Trojans
Before I cared about college football, I had, even in my elementary school days, a sense that there were a handful of programs that were always dominant. I couldn’t have told you what conference they played in, or who else they usually played, or even what city they were located in. But I could tell you as a 5-year-old that the University of Southern California, or USC, was a perennial threat in college football.
I had a sense of their pageantry, their history, their tradition, their dynastic power, even though they were 3 time zones away from the backyard where I played pick up games and the living room where I only seemed to watch college football on New Year’s Day.
And I think that this impressed itself upon me in large measure due to their uniforms.
The Trojans have played college football out west almost as long as there’s been an “out west”. They’ve captured 11 national championships over their 127 seasons, which date back to 1888. They’ve sent more players to the NFL than any other university.
And for as long as anyone remembers, they’ve donned the cardinal and gold uniforms they still essentially wear today. Sure, the fit has gotten more trim, the shoulder pads have gotten narrower, and the look of a star tailback has gotten sexier over the years. But Marcus Allen and O.J. Simpson and Frank Gifford wore the same threads, for all intents and purposes, as current players don today.
Here’s a theory. Perhaps one thing that helps give a football program a sense of tradition and a propensity not to get too cute with its threads is when its mascot itself comes from the ancient world. It wouldn’t look right if a “Trojan” or a “Spartan” suited up for battle and looked like it just came out of a fashion show. (The same could be said for “Seminoles” or “Utes”.)
Regardless, what we have in USC is compelling football worn in compelling uniforms. When I flick through the channels and see the Trojans in action, I’m sucked in by something that I know is great–even if I’m not intimately familiar with the program or its current players and ranking. And I think the simplicity and the continuity of their uniforms has carried that sense of football weightiness forward year after year.
Also, what a mascot!
Photo by Jeff Lewis
If you are a Trojan, and you aren’t inclined to wear the cardinal plume atop your helmet and the breastplate across your chest, you might don this bow tie–currently on sale.
Quite a contrast from my pick for No. 8, huh? In some ways, yes. Solid colors for the Trojans. Two distinct and loud patterns intermeshed with solid base colors for the Terps.
But the reason both are appealing to me should be apparent by now. If not, it will be by the time I near No. 1.
No. 6 will be tomorrow. See you then.