Ideally, the delivery truck pulls into campus a couple weeks before the truck’s contents will be used.
Sometimes though the truck arrives just in the nick of time, the day before the game.
The delivery guys begin unloading stacks of cardboard boxes, each containing alternate uniforms to be worn by that Southeastern Conference school’s football team. A hundred to 150 sets of helmets, jerseys, pants, socks, cleats and more. Specially made for one specific game.
Tradition is a big part of college football’s appeal. That’s certainly the case in the SEC, where many teams’ uniforms today look much like they did 30 years ago or even back further. Many SEC fans like it that way. Tradition can be comforting and compelling, but sometimes it can start feeling like a museum and any brief deviation can be fun. And young people – including current SEC players and teenagers being recruited for future seasons – often enjoy a flashier, more contemporary look.
To use a musical comparison, it’s like juggling “dad rock” and Drake.
“It is a delicate balance,” says University of Arkansas senior associate athletic director Chris Freet. “We look to our fans and it’s very clear they prefer our traditional look and feel. They want the traditional running Razorback on that helmet, and they want us to stay by and large within our color scheme, and so we certainly respect that at every turn we can. But I also think that because we’ve been clear that we’re going to be traditional in general as it relates to our uniform, they also understand the one-game situation, when we want to do something that we think will help us a little bit with recruiting.”
As Mississippi State assistant athletic director Lee VanHorn puts it, “Usually new swag is good swag for players. As long as it’s something new and fresh and not the same jersey they wore last week, usually it excites them.”
Many SEC football alternate uniforms start with an idea from that school’s athletic department.
In February after Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was announced as one of the 2017 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees, the Arkansas athletic department began brainstorming a way to honor Jones, who’d been an offensive lineman and co-captain on Arkansas’ 1964 national championship team. Jones is also a major Arkansas athletic program benefactor. The challenge from athletic director Jeff Long: Think of a unique tribute for a man who kind of already has everything, sports-wise. Graduate assistant Hayden Redd came up with the idea of “a jersey mashup.” Swapping out the Cowboys’ familiar star logo and blue for the Arkansas’ Razorback logo and cardinal, for uniforms for Arkansas’ Sept. 23 SEC opener against Texas A&M at Arlington, Texas’ AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys gleaming home affectionately known as Jerry’s World.
Initially, the concept was built on the Cowboy’s home white uniforms, but after Arkansas officials met with Jones and his family to pitch the concept, Jones’ son Stephen Jones suggested using the Cowboys’ rarely worn blue jerseys instead. “And we asked him, ‘Well, why?’” Freet recalls. “And he said, ‘You know what, the blue jersey sells 10 to one compared to the white jersey. That is the jersey our fans want to wear. And I think that would probably work a whole lot better.’”
Once Arkansas had Jones’ blessing, the Razorbacks, whose uniforms are made by Nike, had to get approval from the NFL, SEC and Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC). “Because there are rules as a college what you can do related to professional teams and there are trademark rules for all of those entities,” Freet says. “So, we went through all of those hoops and checked all those boxes.”
Jones was emotional in a Sept. 17 promotional video announcing the alternate uniforms. “When I think of actually putting a helmet on like this, I think of the days that I’d put that Razorback helmet on and it just made me Superman.” The Razorbacks ended up losing the A&M game, in a 50-43 overtime thriller.
The silvery Razorbacks/Cowboys mashup’s quick turnaround is an anomaly. Generally, SEC football alternate uniforms take two to four years to go from concept to use. Arkansas’ other alt-unis have included an all-gray “anthracite” look for their 2016 game versus the University of Florida. There’s a lot of back and forth between Arkansas and Nike when working on an alternate uniform. “Because a finished uniform has so many components,” says Freet, calling from his office inside Fayetteville’s Bud Walton Arena. “You have the helmet, the facemask, the chinstrap, the bumpers. You’ve got the jersey top, but the jersey top is going to have some different piping and elastics. You’ve got the pants, the socks, the shoes. So, all those elements come into play and in Nike’s world too, sometimes all those elements come from different divisions of their company.” Alternate uniforms in other sports can have a quicker turnaround time.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs have worn several alternate football uniforms over the years, including a “Wicked Dog” look sported for a 2016 game versus University of Massachusetts. The game was at Gillette Stadium, home of NFL’s New England Patriots, and the Wicked Dog’s silver helmets, a switch from the Bulldogs’ customary maroon, and other elements echoes the Pats’ look. Another tie-in: Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen is a New England area native. State planned the Wicked Dog uniforms with their apparel provider, Adidas, about two years in advance. VanHorn manages the Bulldogs’ Adidas contract. On a recent afternoon, he checks in from the MSU volleyball arena, where he’s testing the lighting system.
“Adidas has done a lot of research into what they think Mississippi State fans like and want to see and they’ll pitch some ideas to us,” Van Horn says. “We throw some ideas back at them. And we start putting some ideas down on paper. We’ll go back and forth – ‘we like that,’ ‘we don’t like this,’ ‘we want to try this’ – and it’s a long process from there.” On a recent football weekend in Starkville, Miss., Adidas reps were in town, already planning alternate uniforms with MSU for the Bulldogs’ 2020 season.
Headquartered in Portland, Ore., Adidas maintains “a lot of designers out there that put out some really unique designs,” VanHorn says. Once the apparel company has an alternate football uniform design they feel good about they’ll email Mississippi State a mockup, usually a PDF document. That document is circulated around the Bulldogs athletic department, with staff noting feedback and any requested changes. After receiving feedback, Adidas will make a single prototype uniform and ship it to MSU’s campus. “We can stretch it, we can rub grass, dirt all that stuff on it, throw it in the washing machine to see how it’s going to clean,” VanHorn says.
SEC football teams’ apparel contracts typically allows for at least one alternate uniform each year, so an alternate generally doesn’t cost a school any money, as most teams wear about one a year. The teams will often wear the alternate uniforms, or at least the helmet and cleats, in practice before wearing them in a game. “It allows the guys to get a feel for the uniform and also get the helmets adjusted ahead of time,” Freet says.
The NCAA governs uniforms, not the SEC. If a design meets the standards in the NCAA football rules book, there’s no need for a team to submit an alternate uniform for review. In cases where a specific aspect is in question, like a special patch, SEC schools may submit the uniform for review to the NCAA. Often, SEC schools will first reach out to their conference office for feedback. NCAA secretary-rules editor Steve Shaw and NCAA football rules committee liaison Ty Halpin work together to review uniforms when asked. If appropriate, a waiver is provided in special cases, for example, military appreciation day. Over the years, the NCAA has occasionally provided feedback suggesting changes to SEC teams’ alternate uniforms.
“However, the ultimate decision-making authority lies with the on-field officiating crew on the day of the game,” says Christopher Radford, NCAA associate director of public and media relations. Such was the case during Arkansas’ Aug. 31 game versus Florida A&M. Because FAMU wore white jerseys with white numbers (which were outlined), the Rattlers received an unsportsmanlike conduct foul and loss of one timeout at the beginning of each quarter they wore them. This was as specified in NCAA Rule 1-4-5: “The number must be of a color that itself is clearly in distinct contrast with the color of the jersey, irrespective of any border around the number.”
An SEC team typically announces it’s wearing alternative uniforms for a game just days in advance. This being 2017, social media is a central part of that strategy, says Mississippi State assistant athletic director Rhett Hobart, in charge of The Bulldogs’ marketing. Throughout the design process Hobart keeps an eye out to make sure the alternate uniforms follow State’s overall branding.
Recruiting is a major reason SEC schools wear alternate football uniforms. “Whether (recruits) just absolutely love the uniforms or not, it’s just generating buzz and usually buzz helps recruiting,” VanHorn says. Freet says for Arkansas, “There is some pop there for Coach (Bret) Bielema and his coaching staff as they’re out on the road. Young people like the newest, freshest stuff and that helps.”
Cool-looking uniforms aren’t all recruits consider though. In 2016, the website Pick Six Previews published a survey of 100 FBS (the top level of college football) high school recruits not yet committed to a school. Questions included: “Which team has the worst uniforms?”, with Penn State University and the SEC’s University of Alabama receiving the most votes. Alabama uniforms are iconic for their minimalist design. Player numbers and a stripe are pretty much the only elements in the crimson and white scheme.
Despite thoroughly analog uniforms, somehow Alabama and head coach Nick Saban still sign one of the nation’s top recruiting classes each year. Alabama has won four SEC championships the last five years, national titles in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015, and was a last-second Clemson score from another title last year. And put many players in the NFL during those years.
As far as many Crimson Tide fans are concerned, Alabama’s look, which dates back to 1958 (there’ve been some minor tweaks and even white helmets along the way) represents less-is-more at its most tasteful.
The athletic uniform equivalent of Neil Young’s single-note guitar solo in “Cinnamon Girl.”
Alabama’s lone foray into alternate uniforms was a subtle one, 2010 Nike Pro Combat unis worn against Mississippi State. These included some barely visible incorporations of houndstooth patterns, a reference to legendary Tide coach Paul Bryant’s signature fedora. A Nike press released described the Pro Combat construction as, “With padding integrated into the base layer, the outer uniform becomes a lightweight, breathable sheath with a fitted, superhero look.” Saban makes all final uniform decisions at Alabama. The University of Alabama declined to be interviewed for this story. But the subject of alternate uniforms has been publicly addressed occasionally during Saban’s career at Alabama, including a 2011 news conference. The coach’s replies to related questioning at that time included:
“I think what we wear is a lot bigger than me, and a lot bigger than anyone. It’s what everybody’s expectation is of what they want to see when Alabama plays football and what they’re used to seeing.”
“I think there’s a brand, there’s an expectation of what people expect to see when Alabama plays football. That’s all over the country. That’s a brand that has sort of been developed for, how many years? You know, definitely since Coach Bryant’s been here. And all the years past that. So just for some marketing whim? I’m not really into that.”
“When you line up and play, I’m not sure what your uniform really has anything to do with how you play.”
The PAC-12’s University of Oregon, Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s alma mater, is the NCAA team most closely associated with modern-looking alternate uniforms. (Nike is headquartered in Beaverton, Ore., just down the road from Oregon’s Eugene campus.) In a landslide, Oregon received the most votes to another question from that Pick Six Preview recruits survey: “Which team has the best uniforms?”
Vanderbilt University has been one of the SEC’s most visually adventurous football teams, under head coach Derek Mason. A 2015 “Deep Water” look was particularly daring. This alternate featured gray jerseys (a deviation from Vandy’s traditional white, black and gold colors), black-chrome-finish helmet with large anchor emblem, textured water patterns and gold facemask. The University of Kentucky and University of Tennessee have also indulged in alternates based on colors not in their teams’ respective basic color templates. The University of South Carolina Gamecocks have donned some bold looks, particularly helmet-wise.
For a few years, Mississippi State wore alternate uniforms when playing the University of Mississippi, sporting gold helmets and such, a reference to the gold-hued Egg Bowl trophy that rivalry game’s winner receives. Asked why Auburn University hasn’t done much in the way of alternate uniforms, associate athletics director for communications Kirk Sampson says, “Auburn’s logo and uniform scheme has remained the same over the years because of its iconic look and the tradition it has carried.” (Auburn’s apparel company, Under Armour, declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Adidas and Nike.)
Merchandising, of course, is another major incentive for SEC teams to do alternate uniforms. “Quite honestly, all university departments are trying to look for new ways to drive revenue,” Mississippi State’s Hobart says, “and new uniforms typically provide opportunities to sell retail merchandise to go with that.” Once an alternate uniform has been finalized, Mississippi State receives matching retail options from Adidas. T-shirts. Polo shirts. Hats. Etc.
After receiving approval for those retail products from the university’s campus licensing office, sales reps working with Adidas go out and sell those items to local retailers. “Most of the time these things are embargoed,” Hobart says, “where the retailer will know it’s coming, but they won’t be able to promote it until we’ve released the uniform. That way we don’t spoil the surprise.”
The University of Georgia has stuck mostly with a traditional look, besides a shiny alternate worn in the team’s 2011 opening game versus Boise State. “Tradition is important in Georgia football,” says senior associate athletic director Claude Felton. “And the uniform in one of the great traditions of the Bulldogs.” Georgia’s now-classic look goes back to legendary head coach Vince Dooley’s 1963 arrival there, when he brought back the silver pants from the 1940s and 1950s, and added a red helmet with “power G” logo, replacing silver helmets. Felton says Georgia players liked wearing alternate uniforms “for a one-time event.” But fan feedback was “not positive, which many times results when you lose the game” as the Bulldogs did versus Boise State.
An official at another SEC school told AL.com “there was no way in hell” he’d comment on the record regarding alternate uniforms, because of their fans’ overwhelming disdain for them.
Mississippi State’s Hobart says, “Fans are going to like something more if we succeed in it than if we lose in it. I don’t know if that’s everything behind it, but I think there’s some truth to that.” VanHorn adds, “I think it helps also when the alternate actually has a direct tie to the program. There’ve been some programs at some schools when they do an alternate, what’s the connection to the school?”
If an SEC team wins the game in which they wore their alternate uniforms, generally retail sales “will be through the roof,” Arkansas’ Freet says.
What happens to alternate uniforms after their worn by an SEC football team in a game? Some are given to athletic program donors. Some are auctioned off for various groups or causes. Some are given to that team’s graduating seniors. Some might get displayed in a school’s hall of fame. If a team wins the game they wore their alternates, their coach might want to hold on to them and have the team wear them another game.
Alternate uniforms can also see a secret, second life. Or at least part of them. Helmets are often refurbished for use later in the season, if a player encounters a problem with their standard helmet, or rolled out for spring practice, when players are assigned newer headgear. “So, the helmet that you see on Saturday that’s silver,” Freet says, “could be painted in our traditional cardinal later on.”