Want To Change Helmet Design? Doubtful

Some say clothes don't make the man. But a number of Fighting Illini football fans beg to differ. They offer suggestions on new helmet and uniform designs all the time, hoping for changes in external appearance. Illini football equipment manager Trent Chesnut explains the policies regarding uniforms.

Some colleges pride themselves in maintaining the same helmet and uniform designs through time as it becomes a recognizable brand. Others, unable to gain such an advantage, have tried various designs to attract more attention to their programs or erase bad memories from past failures.

Illinois has made a few changes in its orange helmets over the years, but one man makes the decisions on helmet design according to Trent Chesnut.

"It is up to the head coach. I think when John Mackovic came in, he brought in the Illinois script with the line under it. That was kind of his baby. We've had that ever since he left. Coach (Ron) Turner had the same helmet.

"When Coach (Ron) Zook came, I brought the idea of outlining the "Illinois" with blue, just to bring it out a little bit. I think it helps. You can see the Illinois logo a little bit better. He was fine with that. That's the only thing we've done appearance-wise."

The Illinois football program is filled with tradition, but some fans prefer change and let Zook know about it.

"He gets emails all the time from people that want to switch. People will send him ideas, drawings and stuff."

Chesnut appreciates the value of tradition.

"I think we are the only college in the country that has their state name on the sides of their helmet as a helmet decal. I think that's kind of cool. You've got so much tradition here."

The rest of the uniform is another matter. Illinois has made more frequent changes with their jerseys and pants.

"That's Nike. Nike comes in and does that. They come in with these ideas for a new jersey and ask us what we think about it. Before this look we have now, it was in the Sugar Bowl look with (Kurt) Kittner and that group. We had that for a long time.

"Nike came in and wanted to switch our look, so we did for that couple year phase towards the end of Coach Turner's tenure here. It was a little different look. It was two-color stuff. It didn't have the three-color stuff we used to have when Kurt Kittner was here.

"But after that, they came with the look we've got now, which is a more updated look. A lot of it was based on recruiting. Kids like the stuff with more pizzazz now."

Changing the uniform is far more complicated than some assume. Chesnut sees the practical side.

"I hope we keep this look. One, it costs a lot of money to change over. We kind of had to do it over a two to three year period. There's no way you can change three jerseys and three pants in one year. So we tried to phase it in. We now have all three colors of pants and all three jerseys. Hopefully we stay with this look."

With multiple game-day choices, who decides what uniform combinations to wear?

"It's usually up to Coach Zook. He'll have input from seniors. We don't want to wear the blue on blue every game. That's kind of a special look for a big game. We did it for Michigan State last year."

Blue jerseys with blue pants were first worn during the Mike White era to make a statement against certain opponents. If a certain color combination is associated with winning, it will be used more often, and vice versa.

"Coaches are set in their ways. If they wore blue on blue this game and they got beat, okay we're not gonna wear blue on blue again. There's superstition on stuff like that."

Long-time Illini fans have memories new head coaches lack. A new coach may prefer a look that brings back bad memories from previous seasons without realizing it.

"When a lot of them come in here, they don't know about the history. They learn about it after they've been here for awhile."

White pants were worn during Jim Valek and Gary Moeller tenures, two coaches with losing records. The 1964 Fighting Illini Rose Bowl team had pants that appeared almost golden. Old-timers who remember these periods were hoping for orange pants when Zook arrived and preferred white. Fortunately, the modern style white pant is less stark than those worn during two dark periods in Illini history.

"I really like our uniform look," Chesnut states. "The white pants, Coach Zook wanted to bring those in. He had them at Florida. It's an image thing for recruiting. It's like the white shoes. You look faster in white shoes than you do black."

Chesnut is involved with every type of equipment one can imagine for a football team. He is even responsible for the head phones worn by coaches on game days. In part five of this eight-part report, we begin to see how Chesnut's work responsibilities multiply for practices and games.

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