TWER’s newest column The Wishbone (with John Ringer and Van Allen Plexico) returns for some tag-team dialectic on the post-60s mores of Auburn’s gridiron aesthetic. (Tuesday’s personal reflections on the hold-a-grudge shenanigans on the set of ESPN Gameday at the ’95 Iron Bowl can be found here.)
Sudden and dramatic changes to a football team’s uniform: A bold and ingenious motivational move by forward-thinking and clever coaches, or a cynical and outright obnoxious ploy that verges on desperation, and actually does more harm than good to a program?
There’s no doubt which side of that question most Auburn fans come down on. Few college football programs have stuck with their basic uniform/helmet look more persistently over the decades than has Auburn. Yet despite that overwhelming preference among the Auburn Family, there have been changes—some temporary, some permanent—here and there.
As rumors once again swirl that this weekend could see a surprise change (Blue pants? Blue helmets? What—are we the UN Peacekeeping Force suddenly?), it’s worth a quick look back at the changes that worked—and the ones that didn’t.
Somewhere in the 1960s, or so the story goes, Shug Jordan got together with Athletics Director Jeff Beard to come up with a logo for the helmets. Jordan actually wanted to put an eagle on there; Beard rejected the notion.
Van says: You think other schools’ fans get confused by our “Tiger/Eagle” business now? Imagine if we were continuing to insist that we are the Tigers– but we had a freakin’ eagle on our helmets! Yeah, that would have cleared things right up.
Beard, bless his heart, instead experimented with stencils and came up with the interlocking AU logo that we all know and love today. Yes, the ubiquitous AU logo actually began on the helmets before spreading everywhere else.
Van says: Except for the band’s uniforms, as my wife pointed out last week, and for which I had no real answer. Where did their eagle-head “A” come from, and why is it so different? Perhaps it pre-dates the interlocking AU?
John says: Here is all you need to know about the importance of the AU logo. When they made the sticker on the helmets slightly larger for this year’s A-Day game, we had a big debate in my house about whether that was a good idea.
Van says: One more thing. When I briefly worked at AU Printing Services in the early Nineties, the administration considered changing the AU logo to a different design—one that would say “Auburn” to a national audience more loudly and clearly than the one we’d already been using for decades. Yeah, genius move. They actually sent out a big color sheet of alternate choices (all hideous) for employees to vote on. I returned my ballot with no choice marked, but with a write-in note: “Change the AU logo and I will consider setting fire to Samford Hall.” I still wonder what would have happened to me if Samford Hall had actually caught fire that week.
The next change of note came in the late 1970s when Doug Barfield rolled out the infamous orange jerseys on four separate occasions. The first use of the “Barfields,” against a powerhouse Georgia team in 1978, saw Auburn pull off a shocking draw. Clearly this inspired Coach B to bust them out three more times before his tenure ended at the close of the 1980 season, but never again to such a positive result. No wonder orange jerseys carry such baggage in the minds of many Auburn fans: as with the gas lines of the Jimmy Carter years, they have become emblematic of dark days best left forgotten.
John says: In terms of pure football strategy, we have to ask: Does the “different-colored jersey” tactic result in an unexpected win more than thirty percent of the time? I have searched for statistical trends nationwide and have not found them but Auburn certainly didn’t benefit, and Notre Dame doesn’t do well most of the time when they go to their celebrated green jerseys. And we all remember what Bama did to Georgia when the Dawgs pulled one of their “blackouts” against the Tide last year. It mostly resulted in the Dawgs blacking out.
Van says: I can see doing things before and during a game that are not directly related to wins and losses, such as changing the pre-game music or doing flyovers or whatnot. But the team’s uniform is so intrinsically related to the team itself, and thus to winning and losing… it’s hard to argue that changing it has any other purpose than to try to affect the outcome.
Upon taking the helm prior to the 1981 season, Pat Dye vowed to stick with the traditional look. He actually did, however, make two somewhat minor changes. First, following the Sugar Bowl win in January of 1984, he changed the facemasks from orange to dark blue. No one much complained.
John says: Many people love the orange facemasks and want to see them come back for a game. I vote no.
Van says: How the players managed to see where they were going with those bright orange grids glowing before their eyes like Three Mile Island melting down was always a mystery to me.
Throughout the 1980s, Dye only put players’ names on the backs of their jerseys for bowl game trips. In all games prior to the bowls, the jerseys bore only their numbers. This changed in the early 1990s—1991, possibly—and most likely due to pressure during recruiting, when AU players suddenly got to sport their names on their backs for every game. That same effect—a deal-breaker demand voiced by many highly-ranked recruits—is the reason given by Coach Chizik for allowing multiple players to be assigned the same number on his two Auburn squads to date.
Van says: Interestingly enough, both of Dye’s changes have remained in place to this day. Such was Dye’s power and influence at the end of the Eighties, he probably could have rolled out fluffy pink slippers for the players and fans would have embraced them.
Terry Bowden claimed to understand the power of Auburn traditions and for the most part he didn’t tamper with them, aside from changing the font used to spell out “Auburn” and “Tigers” in the end zones; he went with a fancier, baseball-jersey-looking font that provoked the ire of many fans.
Van says: It speaks volumes with regard to his standing among much of the fan base that he could get on their bad side so dramatically just by changing an end zone font.
John says: How dare he change the end zone font?!
The one somewhat major uniform change he made was to add an orange drop-shadow beneath the numbers on the jerseys during the 1997 season. Despite that year culminating with an SEC Western Division title and an extremely close loss in the SEC Championship Game, fans largely rejected the look and it was gone the next year (as was Bowden, a few months later).
Van says: I actually loved the orange drop-shadow. Call me a heretic.
John says: You’re a heretic.
There haven’t been any major or even minor uniform changes in the years since. Rumors swirled at the start of the 2000 season that Tommy Tuberville had orange jerseys hanging in the locker room to bust out at the start of the Wyoming game, but when the team emerged from the tunnel, they were clad in the traditional blue as always. The story goes that someone “higher up in the chain of command” nixed the idea. These “Barfield’s Revenge” rumors surfaced again from time to time but Tuberville, for whatever reason, always resisted the impulse—or was told to.
And now we see the rumor mill chugging along once again, fueled in large part by the die-hard conservative, traditional nature of so many Auburn fans and alumni. This time we’re hearing about alleged blue pants, for one thing. Blue pants with blue jerseys? Honestly, same-color jerseys and pants smacks of “Conference USA” foolishness to many. That look carries with it the (thin) air of the WAC. It evokes images of Johnny-come-lately teams that only recently emerged into the upper echelons of football after laboring for decades in what we used to call 1-AA, and clearly missed the memo that big-boy football does not countenance the “pajamas” look.
Van says: For the most egregious example of just how catastrophically wrong it can be for an SEC team to wear this look, see the mid-Eighties Tennessee teams that dared to combine light-orange pants with their light-orange jerseys and white helmets. Good lord! It looked like they went swimming up to their necks in Velveeta.
Finally, we’re now seeing a mysterious image of a fancy blue Auburn helmet, which appeared days ago on the Net as if it had fallen pristine out of the sky, or had been dropped off by a flying saucer on the way to Neptune. Wither this blue helmet? Fans are beside themselves; they search for signs and portents; they scry sheep intestines and turtle shells and the I Ching for answers to this cosmic mystery.
John says: If the “blue helmet photo” (which will soon be enshrined alongside the Zapruder film) is not real then someone went to a lot of effort to create a good hoax. The helmet has the proper stickers in place and the photo was taken on carpet that looks like the Auburn equipment room. And Chizik is toying with the media and the fans about it – something I never thought he would do about anything.
Van says: I don’t know what to think. Is it a prototype? If so, that means someone somewhere in a position of authority has at least somewhat considered the idea of blue helmets. Do I like them? I’m not sure. Adding them to the existing home outfit doesn’t work for me. I think they’d look best on the road, over a white jersey and blue pants. And, having said that, now John probably won’t speak to me for a month. Ah, well.
Will we see a blue-hatted team facing orange-domed Clemson on Saturday? The Chiz swears not. But then, what’s with the blue helmet? What future development does it perhaps herald? And, perhaps most significantly, will it be seen as emblematic of Chizik’s power and popularity that he can foist it upon us and make us like it—or will it be held up in decades to come as an indicator of the beginning of the end; as Chizik’s orange “Barfields?” As “Chiziks?”
Only time—and results on the field, of course—will tell.
Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.
John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.