“It’s not the X’s and the O’s but the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s” – Darrell Royal, legendary football coach at the University of Texas.
In 2009, running back LaMichael James decided to attend the University of Oregon. James was a top recruit from the state of Texas and many people figured that he would stay in the Lone Star State for his college football career; however he had his mind set on Oregon for his entire High School career. Why? Was it Oregon’s top-of-the-line football facilities? Was it Head Coach Chip Kelly’s innovative spread-option offense that was perfect for small, speedy backs, such as James himself? Surprisingly, none of those features factored in the James’s decision. What did? The uniforms.
Yup, these uniform, which have been described as “awful, an eyesore and an embarrassment to college football.” Why would any college football program decide to dress themselves in such a ridiculous fashion? Recruiting. One competitive advantage that Oregon enjoys is their relationship with Nike, as founder/chairman Phil Knight is University of Oregon alumni. Also, Nike’s headquarters is located in Beaverton, Oregon which is 100 miles away from the University of Oregon’s campus. Starting in 2005, Nike started involved the players in the uniform design process by having focus groups and allowing players to submit design sketches. Not only does Nike add unique aesthetics to Oregon’s uniforms, they provide performance-driven designs, too. For instance, Nike always provides prototype uniforms to Oregon which usually lighter and more “breathable” a year before it hits the general market. Thanks to this unique relationship, Oregon has established a cutting-edge brand that caters to athletes. This was evident back in 2003, when Sports Illustrated ran an article on Oregon which said “as long as players are nuts for those uniforms, Oregon doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.”
One coach admitted that the Nike-Oregon relationship “opened doors for us” with recruits, however do uniforms help “close the deal” with recruits? This was a theme in an ESPN.com article back in 2013, where ESPN asked recruits how much a program’s uniform influences their ultimate decision on where to play college football. The result was that only three percent of recruits put uniforms as their top deciding factor and overall, uniforms ranked 8th behind academics, coaching, playing time, tradition, location, NFL draft success and TV exposure. As for Oregon themselves, it can be debated if their uniforms have increased their recruiting rankings. Since 2002, Rivals.com has ranked all Division 1-A’s recruiting classes. From 2002 to 2006, Oregon had an average rank of 33.8. Since 2007, Oregon’s average recruiting rank has been 18.6, peaking at #9 in 2011. But were there other factors involved in the recruiting increase? Well, Oregon also has top-of-the-line facilities and Chip Kelly’s revolutionary offense drew the curiosity of recruits.
Whether or not the uniforms were directly tied to Oregon’s improved recruiting numbers, other schools have stepped up and mimicked Oregon’s methodology, the most obvious example is the University of Maryland. One of Nike’s chief competitors is Under Armour, whose founder, Kevin Plank, played football at the University of Maryland. Since the mid-2000s, Maryland and Under Armour have tried to establish themselves as “Oregon East,” never was this more apparent than 2011 during the debut of Under Armour’s “Maryland Pride” uniforms.
Even traditional schools like Nebraska and Notre Dame have experiment with radical “one-off” uniforms every season and, the University of Kansas have worn four different helmet colors each year for last four seasons. However, many college football fans and recruits have recognized this as a cheap knock-off attempt of Oregon’s brand. Schools such as Kansas and Maryland believe that they can establish a hip brand by “modernizing” their uniforms; however they do not understand that the uniforms are only a part of the Oregon brand. The Oregon brand is about player-driven at every aspect of the program, evident by their outstanding practice facilities, the state-of-the-art weight room and the luxurious locker rooms that players can enjoy. Oregon lives their brand and the other schools fail to implement that.
However, not all schools are attempting to follow the Oregon way with their uniforms. Alabama has stuck with its classic “Crimson and Cream” look for the last 50 years and have no plans and changing any time soon, same thing with Penn State, Texas, Oklahoma, Southern California and Louisiana State. Then again, those schools already have a recognized brand with recruits; they do not need to change their uniforms to get their message across.
So do the uniforms actually help Oregon win football games? Well, it does slightly help them recruit players (one player said it that uniforms can be an important tiebreaker for undecided recruits) and in recruiting every little edge counts to landing that one player who will lead your program to future excellence, just LaMichael James for the University of Oregon.