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Uniforms, Legacy And The Importance of Tradition

We thought nobody else cared about uniforms until we began writing about them several decades ago. We learned that almost nobody cares about uniforms except a few people, but those few people have almost a religious fervor about the subject.

The topic comes up more in football season because of loyalties to college teams, and to a lesser extent the pros, seem more pronounced than in other sports. And therefore the violations of tradition are taken more seriously. Our favorite military uniform is the Marine Corps—not the flashy dress uniform that looks like the standard army uniform these days—but the olive green with the black insignia.

Technically, it is called the Service Alpha uniform, a no-frills, serious suit, appropriate for a Marine, and virtually unchanged since World War I. We always wanted to be a Marine but couldn’t pass the test. We were too intelligent. That’s an old army joke, so old that most people have never heard it, and it’s completely irrelevant to this essay.

What is relevant is the disgusting abuse of historic precedent so visible on the football scene today. It is embarrassing that some of the most egregious examples  have taken place right here in South Florida. Probably the least offensive is the subtle change of the Miami Dolphins color from aqua, which the Fins wore to glory in the 1970s, to a teal shade that has led them to their present decline. Teal may be appropriate for women’s garments, but as the Dolphins are proving, it’s a total loser for a manly sport.

But before we get to the worst example, let us hold our noses as we nod to Florida Atlantic, which is having a pretty good season despite being unrecognizable to their older fans, if there are any. FAU is a young school, however, even younger to football, so it is understandable that legacy is not taught there. FAU’s original uniforms were designed by no less a sartorial authority than Howard Schnellenberger, and he got the team off to a brilliant start with white helmets and blue or white jerseys. Since Schnellenberger stepped down, a series of coaches have seen a series of uniform changes. Today, you can’t recognize FAU in sports page photos. They have been seen in dark blue helmets, red helmets, in both chrome and flat hues. We may have seen them recently in all red. Who can recall all these looks? One website says they have 10 different combinations, as if that is a virtue. The players probably don’t even recognize their teammates on any given Saturday.

That is never a problem at schools that revere tradition. Alumni of Penn State, Alabama, Texas, Michigan, Southern Cal and, of course, Notre Dame would never contribute another dime if their historic images were desecrated in such fashion.

And speaking of Notre Dame, this is being written on the eve of the big game against Miami, so we can’t give you a final score. But if tradition means anything, Notre Dame should prevail on the obvious grounds that a school that reveres its history should triumph over one that seems to hold its own heritage in contempt. Notre Dame hardly changes an accent on their unadorned gold helmets and pants, and stripeless navy blue or white jerseys. That’s a look that dates to the era of Johnny Lujack in the 1940s when Notre Dame’s gold hats played Army’s gold hats to a 0-0 tie in a 1946 game that woke up the echoes.

On the rare occasions that they broke tradition, such as back when that former high school coach changed the navy blue shade to a Blessed Mother mid-blue, God immediately punished them. Recall that 58-7 destruction by Miami in 1985?

More recently, the Irish succumbed to the trend for novelty uniforms. They came out dressed against Boston College in uniforms that appeared inspired by the hideous lizard in GEICO commercials. The Blessed Mother almost fell off the golden dome when she saw that one.

Which brings us to UM, which is about as bad an offender as we have seen. The team rode to glory in the 1980s wearing its “U” logo on white helmets, with orange home jerseys. Why change a winner? It is especially befuddling because Miami coach Mark Richt was previously with Florida State and Georgia, both schools that have not messed much with their attractive uniforms  over the years. Yet, under Richt the Hurricanes have worn some bizarre suits, most recently last month when they came out in all black against Virginia Tech.

The black helmets, aside from having nothing to do with Miami’s colors, compromised one of the most recognizable logos in football. Miami’s “U,” which simply stands for university, was a marketing stroke of genius when introduced in 1973, but it should always be worn against white. Against a dark color it fails, degrading a symbol that resembles a good luck horseshoe. It is as iconic as Notre Dame’s gleaming gold helmets or Michigan’s leather helmet patterned stripes.

The motive for this uniform nonsense appears to be, as usual, money. Some exceptionally stupid fans buy every stupid uniform item their teams wear, no matter how ugly. That’s the reason you see the Phillies baseball team adding blue to the peak of its caps. At least that’s a throwback to the Whiz Kids of the 1950s, when the Phils made it to the World Series, only to be destroyed by the Yankees, wearing their revered pinstripes, the most traditional of all uniforms. So we can expect to see those black UM jerseys showing up on slobs strolling the mall. Pray God the real team did not wear them against Notre Dame, and pray God even more that the Irish showed up in their usual fashion and could not be mistaken for large lizards. At least then it would be a fair fight, and may the best-dressed team have won.