I know there are some people who believe the University of Tennessee football program has gone up in proverbial smoke in recent years. There have been four different head coaches since 2008, which contributed mightily to an embarrassing 12-28 SEC record in what is hopefully no lingering drought. After two back-to-back seasons where the Vols have lost more than they’ve won (5-7), to just introduce a new uniform that looks like a dark cloud or dreary day may indeed be quite fitting.
But put me down as a purist who will never accept anything other than the still-fabled Orange and White. Those are UT’s colors and for as long as I have lived, every high school player I have ever known in this portion of the state has dreamed of one day wearing that very distinctive badge of lore, a vibrant Big Orange jersey.
The sports equipment company adidas (always with a small “a”) just breached some unwritten rule a tick shy of heresy when the German-based company rolled out a new uniform that makes UT look like a gravel road with an orange pylon here and there. My goodness, grey or smoke or the color of some Navy ship has no place on a flashy Big Orange player. I don’t care how many jerseys adidas wants to sell, grey is exactly the color of a dirty mop.
One of the sad by-products of zealous marketers is that the stupid ones veer from tradition, history and pomp. These poor souls have no idea what orange has meant since Robert Neyland turned Tennessee into a national powerhouse after arriving in 1926. By his last season in 1952, he had become a General in our greatest war and established a precedent for perpetual excellence, best reflected by the perfect 10-0 record in 1951 to win the national championship. (The 28-13 loss to Maryland in the Sugar Bowl didn’t affect the final polls back then and UT was a consensus choice.)
When adidas thrust the “smoke” on us Thursday, new coach Butch Jones proclaimed in the promotional video, “Before anything can become a tradition, it has to have a beginning to it.” Are you kidding me? Has this man fallen and hit his head?
I can show him 13 SEC championships and 25 bowl victories that prove the beginning happened long ago. Or how about this? When Butch wins his very first game at “Rocky Top,” it will be No. 800 in the colorful history of the Big Orange. I mean, please! That’s the black-and-white truth, no grey area there.
Don’t get me wrong. I am tremendously excited over Butch Jones and agree with Johnny Majors – who knows a bit about Tennessee tradition – that Butch is the best coach in the last 10 years. The worst thing Butch could possibly do is try to fix something that isn’t broken. Believe this, grey has no place in Knoxville other than on the interior wall of the county jail. Tennessee’s gorgeous Smoky Mountains? C’mon, they are towering, to be sure, but are, in fact, vivid and lush shades of green.
I am told that the University of Kentucky, its blue and white historic, has a grey jersey this fall and so does Arkansas, where red is as big a part of tradition as the Soooey Pig. Conversely, most schools know better than to tinker with uniforms or introduce ill-fitting colors. Alabama, with three national titles in the past four years, is the most reluctant while other tradition-filled programs like Notre Dame, Penn State and Texas would never dare affront their followers with some fluffy designer’s new clothes.
The Tennessee uniform has been tweaked down through the years (should the “Power T” be on the shoulder, the center of the chest, or on the right hip of the pants?). But big change has been avoided up until now because nobody could ever forget the 1963 debacle when Jim McDonald, in the only year he was head coach, decreed the Vols would wear dreadful black jerseys with orange numbers.
It was awful. Besides making the football team resemble Trick-or-Treaters all fall, the black dye bled into the orange when the jerseys were laundered. The Vols, 3-5 in the SEC and finishing eighth among the 10 conference schools, vowed never to let that happen again and promptly assigned the otherwise delightful McDonald as an administrator for minor sports.
Lane Kiffin, in his brief tenure on The Hill, experimented with black jerseys for one game, too, but they were best remembered when several players robbed a student of his sandwich, failing to realize their names were on the back of each jersey. Knoxville police said identifying the culprits had never been as easy.
Yet it has now been 50 seasons since Coach McDonald’s uniform blunder and I guess most of those who remember have either died or forgotten. My prayer is that UT will wear the uniforms once and donate them to some jail-gang detail. The last guy I saw wearing all grey changed my tire. I feel the same way about teams that mix black into practice togs.
Yes, black is a universal color and it hides dirt but Florida is blue-and-orange. Auburn is navy-orange-white. Ole Miss is navy-and-red. I would believe no school in the SEC should veer from its colors other than Vanderbilt and Georgia where black is a team color. The Lady Vols had a baby-blue accent for awhile, but the only time a Vol jersey should be anything other than orange or white is when red is used to signal a no-hit player at practice.
Change is good. I love imagination and creativity. I even like to see what uniform the Nike-fueled Oregon will wear each week, but then there is this – the College Licensing Company just released the list of the top selling schools, or “brands,” in the country. The list is predictable but also a bit surprising.
Texas is No. 1, followed by Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan and Kentucky in the top five. The next five are LSU, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Arkansas. This is in the entire country! Texas A&M is 12th, Tennessee is 15th, South Carolina 16th, Auburn 18th and Missouri 20th. (Ole Miss is No. 44 and Vanderbilt is No. 58.)
I believe every college team should embrace the standard: “Remember who you are.”