Sometimes the BCS championship game provides an obvious uniform-driven storyline. That was the case two years ago, when Oregon faced Auburn: old-school versus new-school, Nike versus Under Armour -- the uni-related subtexts were obvious, even to the casual observer.
This time around, with Notre Dame and Alabama set to face off on Monday night, we have to dig a little deeper. Here are 10 past and present uni-related storylines involving the Fighting Irish and the Crimson Tide, many of which might be new to even the seasoned uni aesthete:
1. How Can a Bear Have a Hound's Tooth, Anyway? Let's start with a biggie: Bear Bryant's trademark houndstooth hat. That's how everyone always refers to it -- as a "houndstooth hat." In fact, if you Google "Bear Bryant houndstooth," you get more than 70,000 hits.
But here's the thing: Bear Bryant's hat usually wasn't houndstooth.
In order to understand that statement, we first need to understand what houndstooth is. A formal definition would get us seriously bogged down in textile theory, so let's just say it looks like this. See all those little sharp-looking diagonal points and prongs coming off of the black shapes (or, if you prefer, the identical white shapes)? Those are the "teeth" in houndstooth. That's how it got its name.
Now let's look at some photos of Bear Bryant. See these hats? Those are not houndstooth. In fact, if you comb through photos of Bryant, you quickly discover that he wore all sorts of checked patterns, but usually not houndstooth. So how did he become so associated with the term "houndstooth"? Probably because it sounds cool (especially compared to "checked" or "gingham").
The funny thing is, the myth of the houndstooth is so strong that there's now all sorts of ’Bama-branded houndstooth merchandise -- all of which uses legitimate houndstooth, even though it doesn't match the pattern on most of Bryant's hats. Same thing goes for the houndstooth-patterned uniform elements that Nike has occasionally created for the Tide -- those all use real houndstooth. Just like the kind Bryant almost never wore.
2. Name Game. During the regular season, Notre Dame's jerseys don't include NOBs (that's "names on back," for those of you who don't speak uni). But the Irish have added NOBs for the title game. This is the latest wrinkle in the team's on-again off-again protocol of using NOBs for bowl games, as explained by the fan site NDNation.com:
"[NOBs made] their first-ever appearance on Notre Dame jerseys in the 1970 Cotton Bowl, but were not on the 1971 Cotton Bowl jerseys. Names reappeared on the jerseys for the 1973 Orange Bowl. ... After that, ND wore names on jerseys in each of its next nine bowl games -- capped by the 1988 Cotton Bowl, the only game coached by Lou Holtz in which ND had names on jerseys. ... But ND had no names on jerseys in each of its next 15 bowl games, from the 1989 Fiesta through the 2007 Sugar. Names reappeared in the 2008 Hawai'i Bowl, and this will be the fourth postseason game in a row with names on the jerseys. So the all-time tally, as of January 7, 2013: 15 bowl games with names on the jerseys, 17 without."
3. Green Scene. One of the most famous moments in Notre Dame history came prior to the 1977 game against USC, when the Irish warmed up in their traditional blue jerseys but then returned to their locker room and changed into new green jerseys, which caused a sensation when the team stormed back onto the field. (This type of quick-switcheroo maneuver would probably be impossible today, because it takes considerable time and effort to get a player suited up in adidas' super-tight Techfit jerseys.) There's a good video about the Green Jersey Game, as it's now known, here:
4. The Not-So-Crimson Tide. Alabama occasionally wore white helmets in the 1960s and ’70s, and again for some games in 1983 and ’84 (you can see some examples here). Even stranger, there were a few games when the Tide wore a mix of white and crimson helmets.
Although the party line is that the team hasn't worn white helmets since 1984, Uni Watch reader Greg Allred says the white shells came out one more time:
"I was a walk-on during the 1984 season and I recall being on the sidelines at the 1985 spring game, which was staged as an old-timers game against the current players. The current players wore the crimson helmets, while the alumni wore the white helmets. That was the last time anyone ever wore a white helmet during any game at Alabama."
5. Star Treatment. Some teams cover their helmets in pride decals, but Notre Dame would never do that, right? Wrong! Back in the early 1970s, Ara Parseghian awarded blue stars for outstanding plays. They weren't decals, though -- they were stenciled onto the helmets.
6. Numbers Game. One thing that Notre Dame and Alabama have in common: Their jerseys don't include TV numbers, which are the smaller uniform numbers that normally appear on jersey sleeves or shoulders. TV numbers are mandatory in the NFL (exceptions are occasionally made for throwback jerseys) but are optional in the NCAA, and jerseys that don't include them can make life miserable for a TV broadcast crew. Fortunately for the crew that will be working next Monday's title game, Alabama's players wear TV numbers on their helmets, which is almost as useful.
7. Blockheads. Speaking of Alabama's helmet numbers, they're rendered in a block typeface, which looks suitably sturdy and masculine. But it might surprise you to learn that the Tide used rounded helmet numbers back in 1960. (And you know who else was using rounded helmet numbers in the early 1960s? Notre Dame! But only for one season.)
8. Spat-a-Tat-Tat. Lots of football players like to "spat" their shoes by wrapping them in tape. But when Lou Holtz coached Notre Dame, he usually maintained an anti-spatting rule. This led to an unusual discussion when Holtz was recruiting Jerome Bettis. Here's how Bettis decribed it in his 2008 book "The Bus: My Life in and out of a Helmet":
"'Coach,' I said, 'if I come to Notre Dame, can I spat my shoes?' I liked to tape the top of my cleats, so you'd just see the toes of the cleats. You know, like spats. I did it all the time in high school and I loved the way it looked. ... 'Well,' said Coach, 'put your highlight tape in and let's see.' We played a highlight tape of some of my games. Coach Holtz watched the video and said, 'Son, if you play that good, you can come to Notre Dame and tape your shoes.'"
And sure enough, that's exactly what Bettis did.
9. Who's Your Ad-Visor? When Bob Davie coached the Irish in the late 1990s, he specialized in giving his linebackers low uniform numbers -- often in the single digits -- and dark visors. This is another trope that wouldn't fly today, because dark visors are prohibited except in cases of medical need, but it created a very unified look at the time.
10. The Terrible Towel. Notre Dame wide receiver and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown almost always wore a towel tucked into the front of his belt -- sometimes blue, sometimes white, sometimes gold. He was wearing the blue one while returning a kickoff against Texas A&M in the 1988 Cotton Bowl. The Aggie who tackled him, Warren Barhorst, took Brown's towel from the pile-up and trotted off the field with it, prompting an enraged Brown to chase after and tackle Barhorst, earning an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his troubles. This led to one of college bowl history's more unusual postgame quotes: "He had no right to take my towel." (You can read more about this incident here and here.)
(Special thanks to Greg Allred, Alan Beam, and Michael O'Malley for their invaluable research assistance.)
Paul Lukas would love to see both teams wear their colored jerseys on Monday night. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch web site, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.