Yikes Stripes: Will Vols Have Them?

In a college football world that is becoming ever more unpredictable there is one truth that remains constant: You can always measure how successful a program is by how often it redesigns its uniforms.

For instance: Teams like Penn State, Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas and Oklahoma have essentially maintained the same styles for a half century. Sure appearances change as material and equipment evolves, but a traditional look is still strongly incorporated into their fashion schemes. This doesn't suggest programs such as these are immune to bad seasons, but it does stand as evidence that the strength of a program's tradition prevails even in the worst of times.

On the other hand, there are programs like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, Tulane and Memphis that seem to be continually altering their football fashion. Vanderbilt alone has completely changed its helmet at least five times in the last 20 years, going from gold to black to white to black and back to gold again. Tennessee plays Duke this season and it's doubtful that 1 in 10 Vol fans could give even a sketchy description of what the Blue Devils football uniforms look like — although it's a safe bet that blue figures prominently into the composite.

Of course, there's no mystery to this dichotomy of philosophy concerning gridiron garments, helmets and related paraphernalia. Winning programs want to maintain their image while losing programs want to alter their image. Winning programs have few coaching changes — okay with the exception of Alabama — while the head man's office at a losing program is the proverbial revolving door.

Obviously, it's much easier to change uniforms than it is to overcome big talent gaps, and if players don't perform better, they can at least look better not performing better. There's also the remote possibility that a team may get an emotional boost from a uniform change, build some early confidence and hop on the road to recovery. And there's the fan base to consider since many fans of bad teams limit their attendance to three or four times a decade. On those infrequent appearances the results may not change, but they can leave saying it didn't look like the same old team we saw last time.

Conversely, a program with a winning history will tend to embrace that tradition when things are going awry as a reminder of its roots, and to celebrate its legacy of success when things are going well. In either case, it doesn't add up to much change.

Tennessee certainly falls into the category of winners and, consequently, has experienced mostly minor changes in its uniforms over the years. In the days of the leather helmet there weren't logos on the sides, but UT did have two white stripes that ran horizontally and vertically on an orange helmet, intersecting at the top. Tennessee added an orange stripe on white helmets after head gear could be made from hard shell synthetics.

Doug Dickey added the T to the side of the helmets during his first incarnation and the second orange stripe to the pants. Johnny Majors made the T and stripe on the helmet during his second incarnation on the Hill. Majors also added a second white stripe on the sleeve of the jersey replacing the single stripe at the end of the sleeve.

Tennessee would also wear white shoes for the first time under Majors as well as incorporate orange pants into the road uniform. Additionally, Tennessee would occasionally don the all-orange look under Majors with mixed results. For instance: The Vols sprung the total-orange uniform for Auburn in 1979 and ended a three--game losing streak with a 35-17 victory that began with Gary Moore's 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. In 1986, the all-orange apparel included orange shoes for a nationally televised game verses Alabama. The Vols lost 56-28 that day and the orange shoes were relegated to the Good Will bin of gridiron history.

Tennessee went back to predominately white road uniforms under Fulmer and only brought out the exclusive orange uni for a game against Memphis in 1999, one week after dropping a deflating 23-21 decision at Gainesville. The ploy didn't pay dividends as the Vols struggled to a 17-16 win over the Tigers. Orange overkill didn't enhance the Vols appearance or performance. The Vols dropped the two white stripes on it's uniforms in 1997 after players complained they couldn't run as fast in those pants as they could in the solid white. That was the Vols last change until last year, when Tennessee redesigned both the road and home look. UT wanted to get more orange in its road uniform so a stripe was added that ran from the arm pit to the knee. It was bordered in black as were the numbers and seemed to meet it's objectives with a distinctive design that better emphasized the orange. However many Vol fans complained that the black detracted from the traditional orange and white look. In truth, black makes sense for Tennessee because it's hard to use orange and white alone on a uniform and have easily identifiable numbers and names — a critical need in football. All teams have white in their uniforms either in two or three color combinations. If the second color is dark enough, i.e. Penn State, Alabama, Oklahoma, there's no need for a third color. Besides there's precedence at UT where the use of black is concerned. The Vols had a black stripe that ran down the back of their pants in the late 30's and the national championship team of 1951 had black stripes on the sides of its pants. UT's protest road uniforms of the early 70's also made liberal use of black in the jersey. By the way, those were created in response to NCAA legislation that demanded all road teams wear jerseys that contrasted with the opponent. While there were mixed reviews on the road uniforms, the contempt for the addition of a wide orange stripe on the home uniform pants seemed universally negative. The players didn't know how to react when they first saw the design created by adidas and by the time UT reached the Miami game, the wide stripe was replaced with the all white pant and isn't scheduled to resurface. The UT uniform for 2003 hasn't been unveiled yet, but speculation has it the new look will be the old look which translates to all white pants — at least at home. While there probably won't be any complaints about the quick ouster of the old new look, that Vol captain Eddie Moore said looked like "a split open pumpkin", the quick change does beg an elementary inquiry. Why go from two stripes to no stripes, to a stripe wider than a dissected cantaloupe, back to no stripe? What about a little moderation? Shouldn't the Vols simply reduce the size of last year's stripe, or try two smaller stripes again, instead of doing away with the stripes all together? Last season was a bad experience, but it was more about a lack of uniformity than it was a change in uniforms. At times Tennessee looked bad in every uniform it wore last season. Returning to a more traditional look isn't a bad idea, but when there are too many changes too often you begin to wonder what a program is searching for. The bottom line is that it's not the stripe on the uniform that matters most, it's the stripe of the man in the uniform.


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