Not just a uniform: It's a message to Missouri fans, opponents

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 | 7:12 p.m. CDT; updated 10:59 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 2, 2011
Photo illustration: Uniforms for Missouri teams involve more than just picking gold and black colors. The use, ruggedness and design send a message to fans and opposing teams.

*CORRECTION: Paul Lukas is the founder of the Uni Watch blog. An earlier version of this article misidentified his professional credentials.

COLUMBIA — After a game, the Missouri football team gathers to watch film to see how they looked on the field. Last week, far from the Mizzou Athletic Training Facility, in the middle of campus, just a few long strides west of Memorial Union, another presentation occurs, also analyzing how the Tigers look on the field.

“I don’t like the gold pants.”

Those are the first words out of the mouth of Kerri McBee-Black, an adjunct professor in MU's Department of Textile and Apparel Management, when she is shown a picture of a Missouri player in game action from last season. He is wearing a black jersey and gold pants.

“The gold pants don’t do it for me in terms of visual and aesthetics,” she said.

She should know. The Department of Textile and Apparel Management — referred to as TAM — has earned awards and national recognition. The department offers tracks in either product development or marketing and merchandising.

McBee-Black also has a professional background, having developed children’s clothing and apparel for shooting enthusiasts. Her opinions on the Tigers’ uniforms, as well as those of their Big 12 counterparts, are based on experience in the field.

She explained that, like most consumer products, athletic clothing is developed with function in mind.

“You’re going to have to think about performance and end-use in that product,” McBee-Black said. “They’re going to be wearing that out on the field. They’re going to be wearing it in a variety of different climates. They’re going to be wearing it in hot weather and cold weather. And they’re going to be rough and tumble, so they’re going to be hit, pushed, dragged down, skid across the floor or grass — real grass, turf, whatever it may be.”

She did like Missouri’s black home jersey, specifically the white lines that she said highlight the chest and shoulders, making them look bigger. McBee-Black said there was a “strategic thought process” behind those lines.

Jordan Leinan, a textile student and president of the university's Textile and Apparel Management Association, also praised the white lines.

“That probably accentuates the shoulder pads,” Leinan said. “It makes them look larger, more fierce.”

Once a new picture popped up on the uniform slideshow McBee-Black was watching, teaming the black helmet and jersey with black pants, her opinion of Missouri’s uniforms improved. She said there was something to an all-black uniform.

“It’s like people who like black cars,” she said. “All black cars with black interior. It’s a sleek look. It’s a sophisticated look. It evokes a higher level of sophistication. Tacking that on to the brand of MU and the logo that is MU and what that feeling evokes, it definitely does that. …

“This is kind of creating that feeling of ‘We are Mizzou, and this is who we are, and we’re dominating, and you fear us. You really don’t want to face us on our home field.’”

McBee-Black said there are restrictions on uniform design, including user expectations and color scheme.

“You can’t put pink polka dots on the Mizzou jersey,” she said. “If the designer thinks that’s a great idea, it’s not going to go over because that’s not what fits into a football jersey.”

Still, McBee-Black said, there are schools who have recently stepped away from the norm on purpose and used it as a marketing tool.

Brianna Brandon is a textile student who interned this summer with Under Armour, a major athletic apparel company that has headquarters in Baltimore. Under Armour makes the uniforms for several college football teams, including Texas Tech of the Big 12 and defending national champion Auburn.

She said schools that push the envelope produce the best uniforms, citing the relationship between Nike and the University of Oregon as a prime example.

“I really commend Nike for doing the whole highlighter color (on Oregon’s jerseys from the 2011 National Championship Game),” Brandon said. “I think it was awesome, and it brought a lot of attention and really got minds turning for upcoming seasons for other schools and stuff like that. It’s always about pushing people’s thought processes of fashion a little bit beyond their scope but still making sure they’re comfortable with everything because otherwise you’re going to be irrelevant if they don’t like what direction you’re going in.”

Despite their preference for new styles, students and faculty from TAM said they enjoyed the tradition and spirit behind Missouri’s black and gold color combination.

McBee-Black also talked about the meanings of the Tigers’ primary colors.

“Black and gold have a lot of combinations that kind of tie back to history," she said. "That’s a good combination in terms of its placement on the color wheel. ... So black can be seen as this dominating color. It can be seen as a dark, overbearing, battle-ready type of color. There could have very well been that strategic thought process into, ‘we’re going to put those strong color combinations together for a sports team because that’s going to evoke that feeling while we’re wearing that.’

"You know Gold Rush, when they’re telling us to wear all gold in the stadium, it evokes a different feeling than if you’re team wears light purple — lavender — or pink whatever. So there’s a whole different connotation behind it.”

But do sports fans care about the colors and designs a school selects for its uniforms?

The truth is, there are a ton of people who care. On the Internet there are message boards and chat rooms where people have posted not only their opinions on every facet of any team’s uniform but also their own renderings of uniforms for every team in a given league.

Some might say they have too much time on their hands, but Paul Lukas, *the founder of the UniWatch blog,* says it’s a matter of perspective.

“Some people get it and some people don’t, and that’s fine," Lukas said. "That’s always been true of a lot of my work, not just Uni Watch. Some people are into the detail thing. Some people kind of scratch their heads. They don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

“Most Uni Watch readers, I’ve found, were the kind of people, that when they were in elementary school, were doodling uniforms or team logos in their notebooks when they should have been paying attention to the teacher, and that was me, too. You’re just doodling. You don’t think of it as meaning anything, but looking back, my passion for sports design was manifesting itself at a young age.”

In 1999, after focusing on design details in areas such as corporate branding, Lukas started a Uni Watch column — “The Obsessive Study of Athletics Aesthetics.” It was picked up as a column on in 2004. A blog was started in 2006 to serve those who couldn’t wait 10 days between Lukas’ ESPN posts. He said the site has turned into a "crowd-sourced project," with an "army of research volunteers" that every day email him things they’ve noticed.

“I wouldn’t have come up with the idea, proposed it, shopped it around in 1999, if I didn’t think there was some audience for it," Lukas said. "I will say the audience has proven to be bigger and more passionate and more devoted than I expected.”

So what does Lukas think about the Missouri uniforms?

“I’m never big on nicknames on uniforms,” Lukas said. “So I’ve never liked the whole ‘Mizzou’ thing. It seems a little undignified. You’re the University of Missouri. Can’t you put ‘Missouri’? It’s something about the nickname that strikes me as a little too casual."

Lukas did have positive things to say also, citing the helmet as a particularly likeable aspect. He summed up the design as “solid, but unspectacular.”

What does the future hold for the Tigers’ look? Missouri equipment director Don Barnes said the university and Nike are working on a redesign for next season across all of the school’s teams. He stressed that the new football uniforms will need to accomplish many goals.

“We want absolutely the most technologically advanced uniform out there,” Barnes said. “If there’s any way we can give our guys an edge with the uniform or equipment — that’s my job to figure that out and to do that and still maintain a classy look, a traditional look, something that respects the university and what we’ve done, the state of Missouri, we want to represent that well on the field. ...

"We’re not into shock value like maybe an Oregon or a Miami. We’re going to stay true to what we are, and design it around that.”

There are a few templates out there. Two teams Missouri will play this season, Arizona State and Oklahoma State, have redesigned their uniforms for this season. Barnes praised the look of the new uniforms and said he is watching Arizona State closely because of their new matte-black helmets. Missouri wore matte-black helmets in a game against Kansas two seasons ago, and Barnes is interested to see the durability.

“We did that for the ‘Beast Mode’ game," Barnes said. "We did an anthracite gray, but it was a one game deal."

Lukas said the two schools are following a trend of using multiple helmets. Oklahoma State has jumped from one white helmet to white, gray and black. He suggested it could pose a problem for quarterbacks, who could be throwing to receivers wearing one color helmet one week and avoiding defensive backs with the same color helmet the next.

It's not clear using many different color combinations will catch on. Brandon praised schools such as Oregon for “pushing the boundaries.” Barnes said he was OK with players wanting to use “every color of the rainbow” but said uniforms still had to look good. The Tigers dabbled in the trend three years ago against Kansas, when they wore gold jerseys — instead of traditional home black — in a 40-37 loss.

The look became another victim of superstition.

“In our tradition and our history, gold is a strong color, and it’s gone all the way back to Don Faurot’s Golden Tigers," Barnes said. "We made a uniform that I think looked pretty good. It was the same silhouette we used for the rest of our uniforms, just put our traditional gold into that uniform. And unfortunately, the results of the game don’t bode well for that look coming out again. I can’t tell you if you’ll ever see that again. You may, you may not."

Gold jerseys. Matte-black helmets. Some of the variations that the people from  TAM praised for their change of pace have appeared on Missouri players in the past few seasons.

Whatever type of uniform, whatever type of look the fans at Memorial Stadium see next season, there's sure to be a "strategic thought process involved" that could produce new levels of both technology and fashion.

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Stan Brown September 2, 2011 | 11:32 a.m.

Perhaps a photograph of the uniform(s) would add to the story about the uniforms...

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