- Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption co-host
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Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour, calls himself the "worst secret keeper in the world." So even before his company was ready to unveil what might now be the most talked-about football uniforms ever, Plank had photos of the jerseys and helmets on his iPhone. The people who loved them, he says, would simply blurt out "Those things are beautiful!" And those who hated them, and there are plenty, would say, "Well, that's interesting."
What Plank, a Maryland alumnus and former football player, noted most of all was that everybody reacted, most passionately.
"Our job," Plank said the night after his alma mater and his company debuted the uniforms, "is to start a conversation."
Then it's already a job well done, at least in the context of aesthetics. The debut of the Maryland uniforms blew up Twitter Monday night and into Tuesday, whether those weighing in were wildly enthusiastic or (like LeBron James) thought they'd tuned into an episode of "What Not to Wear."
OK, Under Armour isn't the first company to push the envelope in the area of college uniforms. Nike designed the pickle green University of Oregon uniforms that elicited shrieks a couple of seasons ago, and the new Santa Claus-red Georgia uniforms with red-and-silver helmets made me wince when they debuted over Labor Day weekend. But the Maryland uniforms -- and trust me, there are many, many combinations to come -- took whatever Nike does to an entirely different place. The phrase that comes to mind is: Brilliantly ugly.
Unlike the Georgia Bulldogs, who have a well-defined football tradition and uniforms that reflect it, Maryland is -- and has for at least 45 years been -- a basketball school, with apologies to Boomer Esiason and Bobby Ross. Nationally, Maryland has no football identity, no hook. Plank knows this all too well because he played football at Maryland. The Terrapins are rarely in prime-time games or games of national consequence. They haven't been a factor in the BCS picture. The program produces plenty of NFL players but the most famous one is still Esiason, who graduated from Maryland 27 years ago.
In fact, Plank tells the story of being in a bar at the beach on the Maryland/Delaware shore exactly a year ago, Labor Day weekend, when the Maryland-Cal game was about to kick off.
"It's 8 p.m., the place is packed, and everybody's watching the U.S. Open," Plank said. "I'm thinking people should be in their jerseys saying, 'Our team is playing! Let's watch!'"
But instead, he had to persuade folks in the bar to click to the Maryland game.
Plank knows winning and not wardrobe will address that in the long-term; and even though the Terrapins beat Miami, Randy Edsall, the new coach, has a long way to go. Still, the designer in Plank says, "The worst thing is when you have no voice."
That, to some degree, he can control, as we saw Monday night. Uniforms, like any article of clothing, often provide an identity, especially in an urban setting like Maryland's College Park campus, located eight miles from Washington, D.C. It can be something as basic as the simplicity of the Penn State uniforms, or as bold as the Marquette basketball teams of the '70s that let a player design the first untucked jerseys and freaked out old people at the time.
The wearing of the Maryland state flag, which has drawn very mixed results, was intended to come off as the team of the state university going into battle with its shield, if you will, playing to the traditional gladiator concept, with the clever twist of crusading for one's state. But tell me the sleeve worn with those jerseys by some players Monday night doesn't mimic the tattoo "sleeve" worn by, well, even more 18-to-22-year-olds today. One person, I'm presuming between the ages of 18 and 30, tweeted excitedly that Maryland's uniforms are "legit" and it's just old fogies who went straight to ridicule mode.
Right there, we know that Plank has done something that should excite Edsall and anybody else looking at how a uniform can affect performance, or more importantly, recruitment. Youngsters, early returns suggest, loved the first installment of the Maryland uniforms, loved the non-conformity, loved that nothing else in college football land looks like it. If nothing else, it should mean a ton of jersey sales for Maryland when they're finally put in retail stores (which they were not initially).
Edsall is the one who had the team wear one uniform during warm-ups, then change before the game. A man trying to build a program in a metropolitan area obsessed with professional -- but not college -- football, Edsall either lucked out or is acutely aware that a great many urban youngsters, many of whom play football, were having a conniption at home in front of the TV as Maryland paraded their bold new uniforms in the manly equivalent of a runway show. I'm going to presume that Edsall had some foresight here; maybe some of Plank's marketing genius has rubbed off on the football coach in their brief time together.
"The initial question," Plank said of the design intent, "was how to create something that was striking and powerful ... I wanted to be respectful ... I had people saying, 'Don't take Terps off the helmet, don't do this, don't do that.' But we're going full-speed, and we'll make mistakes full-speed. I'm not saying it's perfect. ... It's definitely screaming something. The ones [Maryland wore] Monday night are called the 'Pride Uniform.' And like sports, people seem to love them or hate them."
Plank, living and operating in the urban stretch of land between Baltimore and Washington, isn't big into declarations. He isn't claiming victory over his competitors. He calls Nike "a great company" and Phil Knight "a great guy," and says, "I'm not going to tell a 17-year-old kid Nike sucks, because the fact is Nike is really good at what they do." He says Under Armour is on a 10-year plan that doesn't yet have the street credibility, if you will, to outfit kids off the courts and fields. He watched one day in New York as teams from Lincoln High School and Boys and Girls High played in his brand, but said, "We haven't yet earned permission from those kids to wear our shoes and apparel off the court," though that is surely is one of the company's goals.
Something else: Seems Monday night's game, which by the way had the stage to itself with a nationally known, controversial and also reduced opponent (Miami), might be the only time the Terrapins wear that particular uniform this season. That's right: Could be something dramatically different and conversation-provoking on Sept. 17 against West Virginia, their next game. The Washington Post has reported 32 various uniform combinations. There's one with a tortoise on the helmet, the obligatory all-black.
Esiason, in a conversation Wednesday morning, playfully jumped me for wanting to talk about the new uniforms -- which he loves, he says, except for the helmet with the turtle on the side. Esiason rightfully talked about the new quarterback, Danny O'Brien, of whom he said, "That kid's got it ... he could be the best quarterback in school history." And he added, "Ironically, here in New York, it's Fashion Week. Everybody's going to tune into the next game to see what they're wearing."
But, I mentioned, it doesn't matter why people are watching Maryland football outside of Baltimore-Washington for the first time, just that they're tuning in.
"You're right," Esiason said. "It's the most conversation about sports at Maryland since Gary Williams' team won the NCAA basketball tournament in 2002. That's a long time."
The Maryland football team, in the social media era, has never gotten close to as much attention as it has over these uniforms. Plank and his staff indeed created something striking and powerful; and what the people who hate the uniforms had better understand, or at least appreciate, is that the uniforms only matter as a draw. And under normal circumstances, they already would have served a great purpose: to bring people into the usually mostly empty tent that is Maryland football. But with fashion surprises yet to come, in an age where everything seems to be a big deal, Maryland could be on stage for a while.
Imagine if the Terrapins are good enough to actually win a few more games along the way.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.
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