Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Updated: November 17, 2:16 PM ET
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
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
• 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
(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 --
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
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
"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
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?
Speaking of asymmetrical uniforms, Uni Watch's recent
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."
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,
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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.
(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.
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.
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
to 13 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).
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.
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).
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.
National Lacrosse League has signed a deal to be
outfitted exclusively by Reebok.
• 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,
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
and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.