In opposition to ugliness

UniWatch’s Paul Lukas has a bold question:

You hear it all the time when people are talking about college football: Schools need to keep introducing flashy uniforms to appeal to top recruits. Some schools, such as Oregon and Maryland, have used their uniform programs as a key recruiting tool, and it’s increasingly taken as a given that you can’t compete without having an equipment room stacked from floor to ceiling with alternate jerseys and helmets.

All of which would no doubt be news to Alabama and Georgia, who’ll be facing off on Jan. 8 for the College Football Playoff National Championship. The Crimson Tide has one of the most conservative visual programs in the nation, and the Bulldogs aren’t far behind. The two schools that lost in the semifinal round, Oklahoma and Clemson, also have fairly traditional uniforms. And judging from the results on the field, these schools haven’t had too much trouble attracting top-level recruits.

But is that just a one-year aberration? The CFP era is now four seasons old, so let’s take a look at the 16 teams that have qualified and rate them on a traditional-to-flashy scale of 1 to 10, with 1 representing Penn State and 10 representing Oregon. Several schools have qualified multiple times for the CFP, so we’ll weight the results accordingly and come up with a basic flashiness threshold for CFP success.

Here are the schools, listed in alphabetical order. Keep in mind that the ratings are not assessments of how good the uniforms are. We’re just trying to locate these uniform programs on the spectrum of conventional to outrageous.

Alabama (four CFP appearances): Whether you consider the Crimson Tide’s uniforms to be classic or just boring, there’s no question that they’re the most traditional-looking program this side of Penn State. On a scale of 1 to 10, let’s rate them a 2.

Clemson (three appearances): The Tigers have a very straightforward look — block numbers, traditional striping, one helmet design — but they occasionally spice things up by going mono-orange and even mono-purpleRating: 3

Florida State: The Seminoles have a bit of natural flash thanks to the trim on their collars and sleeves and their custom number font. But their uniform program still features only one helmet design and two basic jersey-pants combinations — garnet over gold and white over gold (although they did go mono-garnet for the Independence Bowl last month). Rating: 4

Georgia: How traditional are the Bulldogs? They still refer to their pants as “britches” (and by any name, they’re gray, even when paired with the team’s white road jersey). True, they’ve occasionally worn black alternate jerseys, but not this season. Rating: 3

Michigan State: Less than a decade ago, the Spartans seemed firmly entrenched as a traditionalist team. But in recent years they’ve added several newfangled looks and alternate helmet options, along with modern pant striping, a custom number font and the occasional monochromatic look. Nobody would mistake them for Oregon, but they’re not your father’s Spartans either. Rating: 6

Oklahoma (two appearances): It seems safe to say the Sooners will not be wearing a blackout uniform anytime soon, although they’ve dabbled with the occasional modern alternate uni. Still a traditionalist team but not as steadfast about it as, say, Alabama. Rating: 3.5

Ohio State (two appearances): Much like Oklahoma, the Buckeyes are a traditionalist team that has shown a willingness to change things up, if only once per season. Their latest alternate design was apparently a big hit with recruits, for what that’s worth. Rating: 3

Oregon: Oregon is, well, Oregon. The quintessential flashy-uniform program. Rating: 10

Washington: Much like Michigan State, this is a school that was once firmly in the traditionalist camp but has tried to update its image in recent years. In the Huskies’ case, that has meant going with blackout and purple-out looks, and even their standard home jersey now features lots of black trim and that weird number fontRating: 6

Crunch all of these numbers and weight them for the schools that have had multiple appearances and you get an average of 3.7. In other words, the average CFP team over the past four seasons has not needed flashy uniforms — at least not more than about once per year — to attract top-level recruits. Meanwhile, Oregon has gone 11-14 in the past two seasons, and Maryland has gone 33-46 since introducing its flag-based uniform program in 2011. Just sayin’.

How does this jibe with the notion that top recruits respond to outrageous uniforms? The answer might be that it’s one thing to respond to a shiny object, but it’s another thing to base your decision-making on it. Or to put it another way, it’s not surprising that 17-year-olds would get excited by a futuristic-looking uniform, but are they really going to choose a school on that basis alone?

Back in 2013, ESPN.com’s Jeremy Crabtree wrote a piece that appeared to provide answer to that question. The headline — “Trendy uniforms a differentiator” — seemed to affirm the party line that recruits demand innovative uni designs, and the piece included quotes from several coaches and athletic directors who agreed with that position. Deeper down in the story, however, was this:

“But as any good advertiser will tell you, it doesn’t matter how shiny the package is if you can’t get somebody to buy the product. ESPN.com surveyed more than 700 high school recruits from the classes of 2014 and 2015 — including 90 who self-identified as a member of the ESPN 300 for the Classes of 2014 or 2015 — and asked them where uniforms ranked in their college decision. Uniforms were the top factor for only 3 percent of players, and uniforms ranked eighth on the list of criteria behind academics, coaching, playing time, school tradition, location, experience sending players to the NFL and television exposure.”

In other words, your average recruit might get more excited about Oregon’s uniforms than he does about Alabama’s, but on balance, he’d probably still rather play for Alabama.

Despite this, people continue to parrot the line about space-age uniforms being a recruiting necessity. How many more years’ worth of traditional-looking CFP teams will it take for everyone to come to their senses and realize that this conventional wisdom simply isn’t accurate?

Wisconsin hasn’t played in the CFP (yet), but they have played in the Big Ten championship game more than any other Big Ten team. Their new Under Armour uniform design took the radical steps of moving the sleeve numbers to the shoulders (also known as “TV numbers”), modifying the stripes to point forward for the state’s motto, and changing the number and name fonts to UW’s athletic font (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), along with the half-step of white facemasks for road games. That’s it. They don’t even wear the red pants that have made occasional appearances since the early 1990s (and they need to wear them to avoid the road Michelin Man look), and they dumped the red helmets brought in by former coach Gary Andersen.

Of course, UW arguably doesn’t count in this discussion because the Badgers don’t usually bring in the nation’s top players; they just develop the nation’s top players.

Unfortunately the related trend of illegible uniforms has trickled down to the high school ranks. One area girls basketball team has dark gray numbers (in a condensed font) on dark red uniforms with a thin white outline, the opposite of another girls team nearby (which has a thin gold outline). A local high school boys basketball team has black numbers on a royal blue jersey with a thin gold outline. A football team whose game I announced earlier this year had dark gray numbers on a dark red jersey, which was almost impossible to read from a college press box. (Fortunately the team had 10 two-way starters.)

The reason for this uniform chicanery is to prevent video scouting, so that future opponents have a more difficult time figuring out who is whom. (As if that can’t be determined by such things as headbands or wristbands, shoe color, or just plain height or weight.) National and state athletic associations need to mandate legible uniforms immediately.

 

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