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Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Updated: November 17, 2:16 PM ET
Academy awards

By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

In 1968, Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes and trainer Ernie Biggs decided to change the team's uniforms. They added names on the backs of the jerseys, put stripes on the sleeves, and, in a football first, decided to reward players who made big plays by putting a little decal on their helmets, sort of like getting a gold star from the teacher.

Nearly 40 years later, Hayes is remembered primarily as a blowhard who punched out an opposing player on national TV (preserved for posterity on video), and Biggs is barely a footnote. But their innovation -- the helmet merit decal, or award decal, or pride decal, as it's variously called -- has spread throughout college football. In some cases, such as Ohio State's cluster of buckeye leaves and Florida State's tomahawk (which is awarded according to a complex formula), the merit decals are at least as important to the uniform's overall look as the main helmet design itself.

Why are OSU and FSU's decals so iconic? The schools' fans would no doubt cite heritage and mystique, but the real reason is much simpler: Their decals are larger than everyone else's, so you can actually see what they're depicting. By contrast, unless you're standing two feet away from a player, how is anyone supposed to figure out what's shown on BYU's decals? (It's a cougar's head.) Or Purdue's? (A locomotive.) Or Vanderbilt's? Or Akron's (a lightning bolt), or N.C. State's (a blood-tipped wolf's fang), or East Carolina's (a pirate skull)?

But at least those schools have come up with distinct decal designs, which is more than you can say for the schools whose merit decals are just miniature repetitions of their main helmet logo, a move that shows a major failure of imagination. Like, seriously, couldn't Clemson have come up with something better than a paw print? And the Colorado brain trust really couldn't think of anything better than a buffalo? This is higher education, people -- you're supposed to be more creative than that!

At the other end of the spectrum are the more eccentric decal programs. Northwestern, for example, has all sorts of symbols intermingling on its helmets. "They're for championship performances and key plays," a team spokesperson told an inquiring Uni Watch. Yeah, OK, but what's the system behind the different designs? "I don't want to get into that -- it's very intricate and you'd probably take up 10 paragraphs trying to explain it." Uh, right. In a more modest quirk that's easily comprehensible to mere mortals like Uni Watch, Michigan State bestows a green "S" inside a white circle to defensive players but offers no awards for the offense.

Then there are the schools that try to acknowledge both halves of the term "student athlete." It's a laughable gesture, natch, but let's humor them: Georgia awards white dog bones for on-field exploits and black bones for academic achievement, although the ratio of one to the other is fairly predictable; Florida State supposedly prints "Academics" on the handle of some of its tomahawks, but good luck discerning that; and Virginia Tech gives nifty little mortarboards to players slated to graduate by December.

Those are the merit decals that Uni Watch has been able to confirm for the current season, although there are probably more of them out there. If you know of others, send visual evidence here, but make sure it's from 2005 -- lots of schools have dropped their decals in the past couple of years (a partial list: Louisville, Temple, Connecticut, Wyoming, Arizona, Utah, North Carolina, Central Florida and a bunch more), especially this season, when decals showing support for hurricane victims have taken precedence over individual honors.

Meanwhile, it turns out that decals aren't the only mechanism for helmet accolades. Check out these chapters from college football history:

• From reader Jim Holt: "In the 1960s, when the Washington Huskies wore plain gold helmets, players who graded out to some absurdly high level on defense would be awarded a purple helmet for the next game. So you'd have most of the team wearing gold, but one or two guys a game on defense would be outfitted in purple."

• That innovation later spread to Iowa State, as Chris Andringa explains: "In the mid-1980s, ISU head coach Jim Criner instituted an 'award helmet,' instead of merit decals. ISU's helmet at the time was a yellow shell with a red stripe and logo; the award helmet was a red shell with yellow stripe and logo. In a 1983 newspaper article, Criner said, 'By providing a different-colored helmet, you won't see running backs and wide receivers with 10,000 decals on their helmets and some ol' offensive and defensive linemen, who do the majority of the work, with nothing on their helmets.' According to the 1985 ISU football media guide, 'Yes, using two different-colored helmets is legal. The players simply are required to wear matching jerseys.' Of course, this made scouting easy for the opponent -- just find the guys in red helmets and key on them."

• From Greg Evans: "During the 1985 and 1986 seasons, certain members of the Georgia Tech defense were given helmets with black 'GT' logos and a black stripe, as opposed to the normal helmet with a white logo and no stripe. These players were called the 'Black Watch Defense.' It was a merit thing -- only some of the defensive players wore the black, and none of the offensive players."

• From John Heffernan: "Since Notre Dame's helmets are meant to represent the Golden Dome atop the university's Administration Building, many people assume that putting a logo or decal on the helmet would be tantamount to defacing the Golden Dome itself, which would be sacrilegious (not to mention perilous, given the long climb to get to the top of the Dome). But the excellent Notre Dame football blog The Blue-Gray Sky recently did a complete rundown of Fightin' Irish attire through the years and noted that Ara Parseghian added blue stars to the helmets in the early 1970s for making outstanding plays. I guess adding symbols to the Golden Dome is acceptable so long as it's authorized by the Pope, or by a national championship coach. Anyway, the interesting thing is that the Notre Dame stars weren't decals -- they were stenciled onto the helmets."

Award decals (or stencils, or helmets) aren't allowed in the NFL. But there's been one similar example in Major League Baseball: the 1979 Pirates, whose caps featured gold merit stars. The stars were the brainchild of -- and were awarded by -- team captain Willie Stargell. He used plain store-bought star patches during that first season, then switched to specially designed "Stargell Stars," with an "S" in the center, for 1980.

The stars disappeared from the Pirates' caps when Stargell retired in 1982 (except for a brief revival on the '79 throwback unis that the team wore in 2003). But that didn't stop Stargell from handing out the stars at various functions, which he continued doing for years as an inspirational gesture. Baseball Hall of Fame researcher Bill Deane once told Uni Watch, "Moments before Stargell's 1988 induction into the Hall, he affixed gold stars to the staff ribbons of many Hall employees. I still have mine." The stars became so closely associated with Stargell that they were even reprised on the memorial patch that the Pirates wore after he died in 2001.

So there you have it: Woody and Willie -- an odd couple, joined at the head. Or at least the headwear ornament.

(XXXXL-sized thanks to all who contributed info, including Jim Pollaro, Michael Cooper, Wilson York, Gary Streeting, Tim Isgro, Bill Hightower, Tim Moore, Jeff Johnson, David Joseph Grindem, Joshua Davidson, Cory Lavalette, Paul Schatz, David Gordon, John Fred, Matt Huber, Rajan Merchant, Robert Birrell, Michael Swerbinsky, Pedro Naranjo, Jeff Knowlton, Ryan Mackman, David Gilmore, Glenn Victor, Will Buker, Matt Cole, Eric Wolfe, Steve Krupin, Andrew Ramunno, John Ogren, Cory LeFevre, Jeff Vest, Justin Strickland, Joy Rogers, Noah Abbott, Jason M. Olmstead, Matt Hassell and Trevor Carah.)

Socks and the City
As expected, Clinton Portis and Sean Taylor of the Redskins were fined for their recent sock shenanigans (as you may recall, Taylor wore candy-striped socks on Nov. 6, while Portis wore solid red on one leg and stripes on the other). And the fines apparently had the desired effect, as Portis and Taylor both wore standard-issue hosiery for their next game, on Nov. 13.

Uni Watch wasn't aware of any previous examples of football players wearing mismatched socks, but reader Kenny Block came up with one: Boise State running back K.C. Adams, who routinely paired one blue sock with one orange in 1994.

The big surprise, though, is that the candy-striped and mismatched sock styles come together in one sport: college fencing, where some teams wear hoop socks, others wear mismatched socks, and the truly intrepid wear -- get this -- mismatched hoops!

Interestingly, none of this is evident in Olympic fencing (although there's the occasional bit of calf striping and logo creep). Why do college fencers have such dynamic hosiery habits?

Patrick Elder, who fences at the University of Maryland and brought this phenomenon to Uni Watch's attention, explains: "Most schools wear diferent-colored socks simply to represent all of their school's colors. There's a lot of etiquette in fencing, but you still want to get fired up when facing another team. At Maryland, we want to be as loud and obnoxious as possible without saying a word. Wearing all four Maryland school colors in one hideous sock display does this job perfectly. As far as schools like Michigan that wear the same sock on each leg, the style decision is left up to the team, the coaches or the school's athletic department.

"On a side note, the leading foot is always the same color. So let's say a team is wearing a yellow sock and a purple sock, and the right-handed fencers are wearing the yellow sock on the right foot. If I am left-handed, the yellow sock will go on my left foot, because that will be my leading foot."

One last note: Sean Taylor's stripe fixation apparently goes beyond his socks. While the rest of us were focusing on his legwear two Sundays ago, a few readers noted that he also used strips of tape to create a stripe pattern on his facemask (a look he first sported last season). He has also been known to tape stripes onto his fingers. Has his agent considered making a call to the Bengals?

Harlequin Romance
Speaking of asymmetrical uniforms, Uni Watch's recent diatribe against the mismatched-sleeve jerseys that Nike created for Florida and Virginia Tech prompted many readers to point out that soccer jerseys often have nonmatching sleeves and/or side panels. And several others noted that mismatched sleeves are sometimes worn by Asian baseball teams, including the Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan and the Chinatrust Whales in Taiwan.

The most interesting response, however, comes from reader Don Montgomery, who has this to say about the harlequin pattern that some VTech players have worn:

"In rugby, the 'Harlequins' name and harlequin uniforms have been legendary around the world for many years. There are approximately 125 clubs worldwide who use the name, including the Australian Harlequin team, the Cape Town Harlequins, the Dallas Harlequins, the Denver Harlequins, the Atlanta Harlequins women's team and the Milwaukee Harlequins, among others."

Hoop Schemes
It's bad enough that Nike is pushing the same design template on so many college football teams. But now they're doing it in college basketball, too. Check out the new uniforms for Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Kentucky -- gee, notice any similarities?

Other teams debuting new designs: Wisconsin, Central Michigan, Pitt, Nebraska, Kansas (with weird crepe paper-esque side piping), Duke (lots of new black trim on the home whites), Miami (a black alternate), and Evansville (which should really just bring back the sleeves already). Plus Auburn is wearing a centennial patch, which you can get a better look at here.

Uni Watch, admittedly, doesn't always keep close tabs on college hoops, so that list is almost certainly incomplete. Want to help bring things up to date? You know what to do.

Uni News Ticker
The Canadiens wore vintage throwbacks on Nov. 1. But instead of having the rear uni numbers outlined in blue, which in the past made the numerals hard to read, they're now outlining the numbers in white -- much better. … Good discussion here about the trend of NFL wide receivers wearing uni numbers in the teens instead of the 80s (a movement that's perfectly OK with Uni Watch, incidentally). … Sure, Drew Rosenhaus shouldn't have shot his mouth off so much at the Terrell Owens "apology" news conference, but his bigger faux pas was the purple tie. … Uni Watch has no problem with Allen Iverson's new spider-web arm sleeve. The same can't be said, however, for Kobe Bryant's tights (or as reader Adam Hasty adroitly puts it, "Is he worried he's going to miss his postgame yoga session?"). More on this in an upcoming column … The Spurs wore little championship trophy patches for their first game. … The New York Times reported that Udonis Haslem of the Heat was warned after the team's Nov. 7 game against the Nets that his shorts were too long and that he'd be fined if he didn't do something about it in the future. But if you look at photos from that game (Haslem, who wears No. 40, is visible here, here, and here), his shorts don't look worse than anyone else's. … According to this article, Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito insisted on wearing a baseball uniform -- including stirrups! -- while coaching Little League (with thanks to Carrie Glenn). … Really Disturbing Logo Creep Alert, Part I: OK, so Pepsi is an MLB sponsor -- but as reader Evan Berger asks, was it really necessary for Ozzie Guillen to wear a Pepsi lapel pin while posing with the championship trophy? … Part II (courtesy of James Wells): Check out this photo of the Concordia University basketball team, and look closely at the tattoo on the third guy from the left, directly behind the banner. … Part III (courtesy of Justin Kessel): Has the Dalai Lama signed an endorsement deal with Callaway? … As reported two weeks ago in Uni Watch's NBA preview column, the Cavaliers wore their road jerseys for their home opener, because of a sponsorship boondoggle. The interesting thing, as noted by reader Matt Soja, is that they paired the road unis with home accessories, including white headbands and armbands, instead of the red accessories they normally wear with the red uniforms. … Then again, sometimes it's better to skip the headbands altogether. … Want to score a unique holiday gift for that uni-obsessed person in your life (or for your favorite uniform columnist, hint, hint)? Reader Mike Sebben notes that the current auction of Busch Stadium artifacts includes the uniform-regulation signs from the Cardinals' clubhouse. … Speaking of auctions, Uni Watch usually doesn't get into the whole game-used memorabilia thing, but it's hard not to be intrigued by this. … Interesting observation from reader Chris Elmore: "I see Ron Artest has changed his number again. That makes five changes since he came into the league: 15 to 13 to 15 to 23 to 91 to 15." … Those orange alternate jerseys that the Bears wore last Sunday just did not work. … Falcons coach Jim Mora, who usually wears a red polo shirt on the sidelines, instead wore a black polo during the first half of Atlanta's Nov. 13 game against the Packers (you can see him in the background here, partially hidden behind Warrick Dunn), but then switched to a red polo for the second half (with thanks to eagle-eyed Andy Daugherty). … Speaking of Mora: While most NFL head coaches keep their instant-replay challenge flags in their pockets, Mora keeps his tucked into a sweatband around his ankle. Is it just Uni Watch, or are there about 17 different disturbing things about that photo? … Akron will be wearing 1976 throwbacks on Thanksgiving Day. … During Ball State's exhibition game against Saginaw Valley State, most of the BSU players wore their names on the back, but at least one walk-on player was nameless (with thanks to Will O'Hargan). … The Giants, who added a "WTM" patch a few weeks ago in remembrance of co-owner Wellington Mara, will presumably add another memorial graphic this weekend in honor of Bob Tisch, who died earlier this week. … The National Lacrosse League has signed a deal to be outfitted exclusively by Reebok.

Deja Uni
• The topic of flag-based uniforms refuses to die, thanks in part to reader Matt Barnes, who asks, "Ever wonder why all the Pittsburgh teams wear black and gold? It's because those are the colors of the Pittsburgh city flag." And Charles Werme adds that the crest on the Pittsburgh flag appeared on the throwback jerseys that the Steelers wore in 1994 (and presumably on the original design that the throwbacks were patterned after, although Uni Watch can't find any photos of those).

• Another hot topic (at least at Uni Watch HQ): football officials' socks. Remember two weeks ago when high school football ref Mark Dexter explained that NFL officials wear socks with two equal white stripes, while NCAA and high school refs wear socks with two small white stripes surrounding one big stripe? Sounds simple enough, but check out this photo from the Nov. 13 Packers/Falcons game -- the side judge is sporting the requisite NFL stripes, but the guy hodling the Dial-A-Down indicator appears to be wearing scholastic hose. Scandalous!

• Uni Watch recently mentioned that Payne Stewart used to wear NFL team logos while golfing. As a number of readers pointed out, that legacy is now being maintained by Ben Curtis, who inked a deal to wear NFL apparel in 2004. He often showcases regionally appropriate teams, depending on which tournament he's playing in: Panthers gear at Hilton Head, Broncos gear at the International, and so on (Uni Watch doesn't have the patience to figure out where he was playing when he wore Bears, Colts, Bengals, Rams and Dolphins attire, or when he wore the NFL and Super Bowl XXXVIII logos, but you get the idea).

• Kudos to the several readers who spotted a historical inaccuracy in Uni Watch's recent NBA preview column. To wit: The Miami Floridians throwbacks that the Heat will be wearing next month aren't true to the originals, because the real Floridians design didn't have the "Miami" insignia. In happier news, Uni Watch has confirmed that the throwbacks will include player names below the uni numbers, instead of above, just like the original Floridians wore -- a nice touch. (Big thanks to Doug Brei for that last photo.)

• Readers were also quick to pounce on a few omissions from Uni Watch's recent survey of NFL towels. First, Jay Payne points out that Walter Payton used to wear his own personalized towel (which seems a bit much, no?). More importantly, as several justifiably outraged readers pointed out, Uni Watch neglected to mention the "hit list" or "bounty" towel worn by Packers defensive lineman Charles Martin in a 1986 game against the Bears -- a towel so infamous that it literally haunted Martin all the way to the grave. As noted in his obituary, Martin "was wearing a towel with the numbers of Bears' players on it during the game. [Bears QB Jim] McMahon's No. 9 was at the top of the list." Martin put his money where his towel was by pile-driving McMahon into the ground during the game, separating McMahon's shoulder and ending his season (and earning an ejection along the way).

A few readers also suggested that no discussion of towels would be complete without this, a point Uni Watch happily concedes.

Paul Lukas has had quite enough of squinting at tiny, indecipherable helmet decals, thank you very much. Archives of his "Uni Watch" columns are available here, here, and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.