Tuesday, August 7, 2012

More than a uniform: Another era ends at Penn State

As much as any other college football program, Penn State has been associated with its uniforms. Simple, pure, gorgeous - and with no names on the back, bucking convention for decades. Well, not anymore.

Where some saw plain, others saw classic.

Where some saw boring, others saw timeless.

Where some became aggravated - "how am I supposed to know the players without names!" - others were impressed by the selflessness.

Yes, Penn State football has long been known for many things, and very high on the list was being known as the team with no names on the back of its uniforms.

It connected generations of Penn State football players and supporters. From Richie Lucas to Mike Reid to Greg Buttle to Steve Smith to Derek Bochna to Tony Johnson to Alan Zemaitis to Gerald Hodges.

In that regard, it was a lot like Joe Paterno.

Many disliked it, many loved it, and almost all respected what it represented - team. Total commitment to the team, over the individual.

So, what do the Penn State uniforms represent now?

Another tectonic change.

The school announced Tuesday a blue ribbon will be affixed to each football uniform to show support for victims of child abuse, and that names - names! - will adorn the back of the jerseys.

The Lions literally won't look the same. The classic blue-and-white will have a little extra to it.

The ribbon isn't an issue - it's an appropriate symbolic gesture considering all that has transpired. (Apparently it hasn't been decided yet where the ribbon will be located, and no word on whether other PSU sports teams will follow suit.) 

But the names, or lack thereof, represented something special. It was something familiar. Something unique. Something appropriately representative of Penn State football.

It was etched in the culture in Happy Valley. Since, forever.

And while names/no names on the jerseys might seem like a trivial matter all things considered, it is a very symbolic one. To many, it was a visible representation of what they liked about Penn State football.

During a time of such turmoil and transition, why not hold on to those bedrock elements?

Yet, this decision can be viewed through another lens.

It is a new era for Penn State football, there's no denying it and no stopping it. And if new head coach Bill O'Brien - who has been as spectacular as anyone who has never coached a game can be - and the players want to make this change, and the administration approves it, then, well, why not?

Remember when Penn State became the first program to put the Nike logo on its uniforms, 20 years ago? What a big kerfuffle that caused?

Seems a little foolish now.

This is different, though. That was a money deal. This is about ... what? Is it change for change's sake, i.e. pointless and ultimately counterproductive, or does it represent something special to this special team, something to be respected?

"We want our fans to know and recognize these young men," O'Brien said. "They have stuck together during tough times, and I commend them for the leadership they have shown."

And it's not like they've gone all Nike-experimental lab on us, a Penn State version of the wretched Oregon Ducks uniforms and an increasing number of others (apparently Nebraska has succumbed to uniform zaniness this season).

Will anything else about the PSU uniforms change? Are bizarro-modern, funky color schemes that recruits supposedly just find irresistible - let us know when Alabama recruiting starts suffering due to its plain uniforms - but really are just fashion experiments on a big stage, coming next for the Lions?

If Penn State becomes a Nike designer's lab rat, that would really cross the line.

The classic, simple, pure, sharp, clean design of the PSU uniform is more special and sacred, in this blog's humble opinion, than the erstwhile no names on the uniform.

Still, the no names were cool. And meant something. And represented a universal football truth: team over individual.

In fairness, PSU's uniform design has been tweaked slightly a few times through the years. But it has always represented a universal fashion truth: If something truly looks good, it will always look good. That should always be. 

But times change.

On Sept. 1, when the Lions take the field in the opener against Ohio, the names on the back will be a big deal. But it will be overshadowed somewhat by the entirety of the event, in the wake of the incredible happenings since November. 

Will the uniforms still be a big deal in Week 4 or 5, or will we be used to it already by then? What about Week 12?

If it still doesn't feel right then, can we ask the players to vote again on the matter next offseason?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. The rocks were at Oregon, not Oregon State. Oregon changes uniforms so frequently and frivolously, and has such outlandish designs, it all just seems like a non-stop gimmick. ... the image of PSU football was anything but hollow, as evidenced by the outstanding graduation rates and success/accomplishments of its former players, as well as the success of the football team on the field.