Trendy uniforms a differentiator
Uniforms. They're a topic around college football offices these days almost as often as the words "up-tempo offense."
This year, around 40 FBS programs have updated their look. Some are simple, like Texas' subtle updates to Nike's latest template around the collar on its jerseys. Then there is Indiana, which completely revamped its identity. And Oregon and Oregon State, who have engaged in a battle to find the coolest combos -- including two- and three-toned face masks.
Schools get a nice revenue bump from the sales of these duds.
But more and more, recruiting and uniforms have become intertwined. Here's the real question: Are uniforms important enough to make a difference in a prospect's decision? An ESPN.com survey indicates that Oregon's hundreds of uniform combinations, Rutgers' battle-scarred jerseys and Nebraska's alternate black jerseys might not matter as much as many think.
Still, there's no question they play a role in the recruiting process. They've become an integral part of the college football experience, woven into the fabric of recruiting.
Indiana, for example, assembled its team for a uniform unveiling that has more than 300,000 views on YouTube. One Big Ten assistant said it was produced "purely as a recruiting tool."
New uniforms make coaches downright giddy as they hit the recruiting trail.
"I think it's great for recruiting," said Kansas coach Charlie Weis, who altered Kansas' uniforms to include five different sets for the 2013 season. "Recruits think, 'look at that helmet, if they wore this jersey with those pants.' Recruits love that stuff. So if it gives you a chance to get more players because they like the stuff, and ultimately help you win, that's what you have to do."
Athletic department officials agree that uniforms and recruiting go hand-in-hand.
Helmets: The new frontier
Trendsetting programs like Oregon to traditionalists like Notre Dame have one thing in common when it comes to uniforms: They get their helmets painted by HGI, a graphics company that handles helmets for 70 high school, college and pro teams. Story
"The student-athletes love it -- they absolutely love it," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said earlier this spring at Big Ten athletic director meetings. "The coaches love it, because the student-athletes love it. The recruits may love it even more than the student-athletes. I get this question a lot from recruits."
While uniforms had been used for decades as recruiting tools, Oregon took it to a new level starting in the early 2000s.
With the support of Nike founder and Oregon alumnus Phil Knight, Oregon unveiled in 2005 a new high-performances uniform that kicked things into high gear. Players were allowed to provide feedback into the design of the uniform, which the Ducks used a recruiting tool.
"It opened doors for us," said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, who got his start as a graduate assistant at Oregon in 1997 and has been on the Ducks' staff since 2009 after stops at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado.
Eventually, the school in the middle of nowhere became the trendiest program in college football.
Top recruits began mentioning Oregon as a school of interest. The Ducks' success on the trail has resulted in success on the field. Oregon's last four recruiting classes average 20th in the nation and the Ducks have played in four straight BCS games.
"You look at the history of Oregon football, and we have a spirit of innovation," Helfrich said. "It's something we pride ourselves on that started in the early '90s. [Uniforms] are how we got in the door at all. And now we're able to compete a little bit differently nationally with recruits, and we can at least get in the door. But more and more, it just puts you in front of some different people."
Other schools have taken notice.
Looking to revitalize its program under Randy Edsall, Maryland drew a lot of national attention for its "Pride" uniforms from Under Armour that incorporated the Terps' red and black and Maryland state-flag colors. At Oklahoma State, the Cowboys wore six different Nike uniform combinations in 2010 and 13 combinations in 2011 and 2012. During that same period, OSU landed recruiting classes that finished in the top 30 twice.
"You drive down a highway and you look at a billboard and it says, 'you just looked at this billboard, you should use it as advertisement' -- it's the same philosophy as uniforms," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "It's a marketing tool. It grabs the attention of the young men we're recruiting."
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.
Those numbers aren't really a surprise to many prospects.
"It wasn't a factor at all, but if there is a sick uniform you can sort of visualize yourself in it," Georgia tight end commitment Jeb Blazevich, the nation's No. 94 player from Charlotte (N.C.) Christian School. "You know, 'That'd be awesome.' But then you have to think, are you going to sleep in your uniform? Are you going to practice in your uniform? Or are you going to go to go to class in your uniform?
"It doesn't matter what color or number that you have on. At the end of the day when you're running down the field, all you really care about is how well you do in the game. If you're a recruit and you're thinking about picking a school because it has cool uniforms -- grow up and check your swag at the door. You're making a lifelong decision. Why are you putting it into clothes?"
The nation's No. 1 prospect, running back Leonard Fournette of New Orleans (La.) St. Augustine, agreed that uniforms pale in comparison to factors like future major, playing time and relationships with coaches. "All of these things go way beyond uniforms," Fournette said.
So is the importance of uniforms in the recruiting process overblown? "Yes and no," River Ridge (La.) John Curtis Christian receiver Malachi Dupre, the nation's No. 26 overall player. "It is and it isn't a big deal and a part of recruiting. I don't think many recruits will say that uniforms are more important than being with a good coach or getting a great education. If that's the case, then I don't know what they're thinking about. They probably don't have the right mindset. But I know recruits definitely want to look sweet."
It wasn't a factor at all, but if there is a sick uniform you can sort of visualize yourself in it. You know, 'That'd be awesome.' But then you have to think, are you going to sleep in your uniform? Are you going to practice in your uniform? Or are you going to go to go to class in your uniform?" -- Georgia commitment Jeb Blazevich
Fifty-two percent of the players surveyed said they believed the way they look in a uniform helps them perform better on the field. As four-star Texas A&M commit Dylan Sumner-Gardner of Mesquite (Texas) West Mesquite put it, "When you look good you play good. And I like looking good. When you look good on the field and they take pictures, you get to change your Twitter [avatar]. You get likes on Instagram. That's what you do. But [uniforms] were at the bottom of the list, too, for me."
"Swagged out" uniforms not only help prospects take notice of a program, they can be a difference-maker if the recruit is struggling to choose between two relatively even programs. "If they're exactly the same, I think uniforms would push them ahead of the other school," five-star defensive end Lorenzo Carter of Norcross, Ga., said. "If I got the same feel for both schools, they're in the same type of place, then yeah, uniforms would make a difference."
Dupree concurred. "That's probably a better example of when uniforms can come into play. If they're both [equal], and this one school has better uniforms, then that's going to bump them up a little for me and for almost every recruit out there."
And that's something most college coaches have grasped.
Recruiters know that gold metallic helmets, pickax number fonts, school seals channeled in the jersey numbers, pitchforks dripping in copper, colors that change depending on what angle you're looking at them from and uniform combinations that calculus majors could only figure out can make a difference. And with the pressure on coaches to win games, coaches will embrace every edge. And that won't change anytime soon.
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