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Cleveland Plain Dealer article on college unis


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Cleveland Plain Dealer

When putting together a winning look in college football, nothing (and everything) is uniform

by Doug Lesmerises Thursday October 23, 2008, 8:38 PM

COLUMBUS -- Before elite teenage football players choose a college program, a decision that will shape the rest of their personal and professional lives, they often ask themselves one important question.

Will I look good?

"The better you feel you look, the better you'll play," said Michigan State running back Javon Ringer. "That's true for a lot of players. The way a uniform looks can really change somebody's outlook on a team."

That's why the companies that design college football uniforms work on prototypes year-round, and why discussions about stripes and color palettes typically involve coaches, athletic directors and even university presidents.

"It's the No. 1 conversation we have," said Walker Jones, the director of college sports marketing for Under Armour, which outfits 11 Division I-A teams, including Auburn, Texas Tech and Utah. "Once we get past the initial dollar figures, they turn to us and say, 'Tell us about the uniforms. How are you going to differentiate from our competitors?'"

That's because a football uniform is often one of the most identifiable symbols for a university -- for fans, alumni and the next great player watching at home thinking, "That I like."

Or don't like.

"With a few schools, I would just look at their uniforms and be like, I don't think I could see myself playing there," said Ohio State senior cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.

The first school the New Jersey native ever thought that about was the school that engenders as much uniform debate as any school in the country -- the classic/boring Penn State Nittany Lions, who will take the field at Ohio Stadium on Saturday night dressed helmet-to-toe in white, with minimal blue trim.

"They were the first people to send me a letter," Jenkins said, "and I looked at it and said, 'I can't go there, I don't like their uniforms.'"

The Nittany Lions didn't offer Jenkins a scholarship in the end, but he's not the first player to think that way.

"I heard a guy say on my team," said Illinois quarterback Juice Williams, "that he didn't pick a school because they didn't have names on the back of their jerseys."

Think that might have been Penn State? But swing it the other way, and you'll find Nittany Lions bragging on their simplicity.

"They're definitely not the flashiest ones I've ever seen," said Penn State senior receiver Deon Butler, who grew up admiring the green and orange swagger of the Miami Hurricanes' jerseys. "But I like that fact. You don't have to put a lot onto for it to say something. You can say plain white helmet and blue stripe, and people know who you're talking about. Plain black shoes and white socks, and people know who you're talking about.

"It means something, and I take pride in that. It's one of the few uniforms that means so much to so many people."

That's why when Nike creative director Todd Van Horne and his people meet with coach Joe Paterno and the Penn State administration, they don't go in advocating change.

"The worst thing we can do for them is come in and say, 'here's Oregon's uniform in your colors," Van Horne said. "That's not who Penn State is. We listen to them -- what is the essence of your brand, what is the image you're trying to project, and we make sure that is consistent."

While Paterno is never going to allow a jersey change on his watch, that's a very conscious choice. If the Nittany Lions don't vary their look, that doesn't mean they don't care. Some coaches just care more.

While Van Horne tells a story about Paterno not wanting to switch to the latest version of Nike's sideline jacket because there's nothing wrong with the old one, Oregon coach Mike Bellotti sits with the designers and makes suggestions on number fonts that might be more slimming for his linemen.

When the Ducks unveiled new uniforms two years ago, they had 384 potential looks through their combinations of helmets, jerseys, pants, socks and shoes.

"When it comes to unique brand image, we have Penn State that never changes the look, and the University of Oregon on the other side," Van Horne said. "There's enough room where you can say I want to be part of that tradition of Penn State, I want to be part of that longtime look and play for Joe Paterno and be part of that culture. And there's enough room for people to say I want to be on the other side of the spectrum."

Most of the 72 BCS (Division I) teams, including Ohio State, that Nike outfits fall somewhere in between. For all of them, looks matter more than they ever have. Nike even has players submit design drawings sometimes.

"Over the years, it's become more and more important for the athletes, and I think they're more visual and design savvy than previous generations," said Van Horne, who has been with Nike for 18 years.

As long as the kids care, and the kids pick the schools and win the games and determine whether coaches succeed or fail, then everyone cares.

"Kids are kids," Under Armour's Jones said. "When you ask them what the key factor was in picking their school, they don't want to say uniforms. They want to lead with academics and coaching and playing time, but in the back of their mind, you better believe it's, 'What are they wearing?' That's what catches a kid's eye on TV."

When the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes take the field, Jenkins and his teammates will check the mirrors before kickoff and generally like how they look in their scarlet Nike jerseys, redesigned with different sleeve stripes, to much fan outrage, two years ago.

"It's good," Jenkins said. "But sometimes I wish we could change our cleats or something like that. I was trying to get [Jim Tressel] to get some black and red cleats. He said he'd work on it for me. Maybe for the bowl game."

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