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Uniforms: The fabric of a team


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Uniforms: The fabric of a team

By Jim Armstrong

The Denver Post

Posted: 04/26/2009 01:00:00 AM MDT

Updated: 04/26/2009 02:02:01 AM MDT

Funny thing about uniforms. It's as if they can talk. They're literally and figuratively the fabric of a franchise. They can define a team or, at the very least, impact its image. Case in point: CU's sky-blue jerseys of the early 1980s. They spoke volumes to CU athletic director Mike Bohn, then a student at Kansas and a graduate of Boulder High School.

"I know this sounds crazy," said Bohn, "but, at that time, I thought maybe one day I'd be fortunate enough to be AD at Colorado and go back to the original colors. But obviously some other people a lot smarter than I am did it before I got the job."

The sky blues had to go. Why? It wasn't so much how they looked, but what they represented. Or, in this case, who. A coach named Chuck Fairbanks, who oversaw the darkest era in the program's football history, a three-year nightmare from 1979-81 in which the Buffs lost 26 of 33 games, including back-to-back games to Drake.

Enter Bill McCartney, who eschewed the blue ? which, contrary to popular belief, was selected by the CU regents, not Fairbanks ? and brought back the black. McCartney broke out the black jerseys in the mid-'80s, whereupon CU emerged as a powerhouse, eventually winning the 1990 national championship.

Then there's former CSU coach Sonny Lubick. He arrived in Fort Collins in 1993 and promptly switched the Rams' look, incorporating forest green and a metallic-looking gold to replace the green and yellow from years past. So what happens? A former laughingstock program becomes the scourge of the WAC and later the Mountain West, winning six conference championships in nine years.

Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

"When we switched to black, things started happening," McCartney said. "You can't really solve this argument, but in my opinion black sends a completely different message than powder blue. It was an emotional thing. Over the years, we took pride in wearing black, and there wasn't that same resolve wearing the other."

This is a story about the uniforms of Colorado sports teams, from A (Avs) to Z (Zephyrs). The past, the present and the future. The good, the bad, the ugly and the ugliest. As in, the Broncos' original uniforms, card-carrying members of the sports uniform Hall of Shame.

Vertical socks simply . . . ugly

For those fortunate enough never to have seen them, that early Broncos look included vertically striped socks. The jerseys were mustard yellow and brown. Some called it seal brown, others dirt brown. But everyone can agree on one thing: The infamous Bears Stadium bonfire that claimed them wasn't good enough for those unis. Mere flames could only destroy them, not erase them from memory.

But even those disgusting threads served a purpose. Like CU's black jerseys, they sent a message, projected an image, defined what the early Broncos were all about. They were ragtag uniforms ? purchased for a song from a defunct college bowl game in Arizona ? befitting a ragtag organization.

"We thought it was a joke when we first saw them," said Broncos Ring of Famer Frank Tripucka, the team's first starting quarterback. "We were prisoners to those uniforms. We thought we were the clowns of the AFL. Eventually, they went to the Orange Crush look and started winning."

It's amazing how a change in look can alter a team's fortunes. What, you don't believe there are mystical qualities to uniforms? Then explain how CU and CSU turned things around after switching unis. Or how the Broncos switched to their current uniforms in 1997 and promptly won two Super Bowls. Or how, according to longtime equipment manager Sparky Gonzales, the Nuggets reeled off 10 consecutive victories a few years ago while wearing their retro mountain/skyline jerseys.

The Nuggets were 17-65 in 2002-03 but made the playoffs the next season. And what happened in between? Besides drafting Carmelo Anthony? You guessed it. Former general manager Kiki Vandeweghe dumped the maroon-and-navy blue uniforms of the previous era in favor of UCLA or Carolina blue, depending on your alma mater.

"I'm part of that generation that changed the uniforms," Anthony said. "It was a rebirth, a kind of rejuvenation for the team, the organization and the city."

So it's official then. Uniforms aren't just what players wear to ballgames.They make lifetime memories. They exorcise old demons and usher in new eras. They wash away bad tastes and create new images and, yes, help spruce up a franchise's bottom line.

Hence the return of the Broncos' original jerseys this season ? relax, it's for two games only, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the AFL ? and the Avs' pending switch to a new alternate sweater to replace the diagonal "Colorado" look.

The power of uniforms

The Rockies are so convinced of the power of the unis, they let their starting pitchers determine what look the team will wear. Makes sense if you consider how superstitious ballplayers are. Or if you were around for the Rockies' inaugural season of 1993, when they established the tradition of wearing black jerseys for Sunday home games.

Tradition? As things turned out, it was a short-lived trend. Why?

"We lost every game in them, like 23-3," said Dan "Chico" McGinn, the Rox's former equipment manager.

Not exactly, but you get the point. For the record, the Rox lost their first four blackouts 19-9, 11-1, 12-7 and 18-1. No wonder people wear black to funerals.

A team's uniform can not only affect how it plays, but who's on the roster. To wit: CU's football unis are so bold, they impact recruiting. It's true. Apparently, with some 17- and 18-year-olds, looking cool is a big factor in choosing a school.

"It definitely helps," CU coach Dan Hawkins said. "We recruited a kid this year who said, 'I watched you guys on TV and I saw you guys run out in those uniforms. I said to myself, I'm going toColorado.' " And he did. I do think we have a sweet look."

Not that every Colorado sports team has had classic uniforms. The Broncos' second unis, the ones that replaced the infamous originals, didn't exactly live a long life, either. The helmets included a caricature of a horse drawn by former Post sports columnist/cartoonist Bob Bowie. Those jerseys were gone by the mid-to-late '60s, with some shipped to Vietnam for soldiers to wear during leisure time.

Then you had the Nuggets' blue road jerseys of the early '70s. At least they started out blue. But after several trips through the spin cycle, they took on the look of Easter-egg purple.

If the Broncos' brown, the Nuggets' pseudo-purple and CU's sky-blue hue were some of the ugliest uniforms in Colorado sports history, the Nuggets' mountain/skyline unis and the original hockey Rockies' state-flag look were among the best. Dave Plati, CU's longtime sports information director, says it isn't close. To him, the hockey Rockies are a mile higher than any other uniform.

"That hockey Rockies logo was the coolest ever," said Plati, whose three decades in Boulder qualify him as a local sports historian. "That, to me, is easily the best jersey in state history."

Today's styles

The current looks have their share of hits and misses ? the Rockies' home pinstripes got major props from those interviewed for this story, the road grays not so much ? but generally, the local teams dress up well. So says Post fashion editor Suzanne Brown, who gives a thumbs up to the Rockies' alternate black road jerseys, CU's unis and logo, the Nuggets' powder blue and the Avs' home and road jerseys.

"I love the A in the Avs' logo," Brown said. "That's really strong. It has a fun feeling to it. It looks like the mountains to me. It feels like snow and cold, which is great for a hockey team."

Brown was at Dove Valley in 1997 when the Broncos unveiled their current uniforms. She liked them but wasn't sure they would withstand the test of time.

"Twelve years is an eternity in style years," Brown said. "They've held up really well. They look strong and athletic in those uniforms. The players told me it made them feel powerful. To have this big orange thing coming at you, it was like a teddy bear. But when you see this dark blue, it's like the Raiders. It looks intimidating, forceful, something to fear."

Carolina? Columbia? They're still colorful

That powder blue the Nuggets adopted after the 2002-03 season? It isn't really powder blue at all.

And no, it isn't UCLA blue, either, even though ex-Bruin Kiki Vandeweghe, then the Nuggets' general manager, picked it.

"I'm pretty sure it's Carolina blue," said Nuggets coach George Karl, who played his college ball at, you guessed it, North Carolina.

Actually, it's none of the above.

"It's Columbia blue," longtime Nuggets equipment manager Sparky Gonzales said.

Columbia Blue. Well, of course. You think paint stores have an array of names for colors? Sports teams have just as many, and Colorado sports teams are no exception.

Those sky-blue CU jerseys of the late 1970s and early 1980s? They were, quote, unquote, Colorado Sky Blue at 9,000 Feet.

Those gold ram horns on CSU's helmets? They're actually Vegas Gold.

Today's Nuggets uniforms might technically be Columbia blue, but back in the day they were Columbine blue. At least until they were washed a few dozen times. Then they became Easter- egg purple. That wasn't the official term, but, given how teams like to name their colors, it could have been.

You don't suppose this is all about marketing, do you? Nah, didn't think so.

Assigning colorful names to colorful uniforms began with Charlie Finley, the owner of the A's when the team moved to Oakland from Kansas City. Never one to miss out on a marketing scheme, Finley had his team wear white spikes. And the white and gold in their uniforms?

Try Wedding Gown White and Fort Knox Gold.

"Mr. President, call in the National Guard! Send as many men as you can spare! Because we are killing the Patriots! They need emergency help!" - Shannon Sharpe

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Color names may be pointless, but they make uniforms much more fun. Honolulu blue just sounds much cooler than Pantone XYZ.

Color names also help define a team in a way that manufacturer values can't. A quick look through UNC's uniforms and merchandise over the years, and you'll see that Carolina blue is more of an ideal or a range that can't really be defined by a single Pantone color.

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