Last night the Maryland Terrapins opened up their 2011 campaign with an uneven but encouraging victory over a shorthanded Miami squad. More importantly, Randy Edsall’s new-look Terrapins set Twitter ablaze during a nationally televised game over their state flag-inspired “pride uniforms.” The surprise duds, which were not part of the initial 2011 uniform unveiling, dominated the social media conversation on Monday evening and will be all over the next day’s news cycle. For a program needing a re-brand, this was about as front-and center as you can possibly get. Whether you like the Terps’ special occasion garb or not, it is certainly not business as usual in College Park.
To echo a familiar college football trope, “it’s the recruiting, stupid.” There’s an invisible “salary cap” for every school in college football. In the NFL if you need to get better, you dump salary, shop the free agent market and tank games for draft picks. In big-boy NCAA football, you improve your talent by boosting your recruiting cred, which is determined mystical combination of factors. Two of these factors are undoubtedly how high a school’s profile is and what it wears on the field. Whether a recruit has heard of a school before is an obvious consideration for a young man’s college choice. Being on national television is obviously a gigantic step forward in terms of gaining notoriety. Winning once you’re on the big screen helps, too. Check and check.
Old-school football fans will doubt the effect uniforms have on recruiting. There are many examples of recruits outright making decisions based on uniforms, be it a direct causation or a perception-based decision. One that stands out to me is Myron Rolle, a highly-touted defensive prospect from New Jersey. In fact, most recruiting services counted Rolle as the top high school football player in the class of 2006. Rolle kept a very detailed blog about his experience of being recruited. He periodically made top five lists based on a number of factors. He’d post a “top 5 schools based on attractive females” list, then a “top 5 schools based on cafeteria food list.” Then, as it got closer to signing day, Rolle posted his list of “top 5 schools based on uniforms.” Number one on the list? Bobby Bowden’s Florida State Seminoles. A few weeks later, Rolle was a ‘Nole. You may also remember Myron Rolle as the player who needed to charter a private plane to College Park in 2008 after his Rhodes Scholarship interview. Yes, perhaps the smartest recruit in recent college football history probably picked his school based on the combination of tomahawks, garnet, and gold.
Whether Myron Rolle ended up becoming a freshman All-American at Florida State because of their uniforms is debatable. What is not up for debate is that schools are beginning to realize the value heavy exposure and fashion-forward uniform choices. Take Friday night’s Baylor-TCU game, which may have been the college football game of the year. The slugfest in Waco generated eyeballs of both hardcore football fans and casual viewers. Baylor was sporting new uniforms, albeit not as garish as TCU’s. In fact, TCU has even more uniform options at its disposal than Maryland. When I hopped on Twitter to find out what people were saying about the game, I noticed the high school demographic liked two things. 1) Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, and 2) TCU’s futuristic uniforms. In fact, I found a few young folks who said that their new look was nice but they “should’ve worn the Pro Combat uniforms.” When it comes to appealing to high school students, you cannot make a college football uniform gaudy enough.
Which leads us to Saturday night. Boise State, Oregon, and Georgia all donned Nike’s Pro Combat looks on Saturday night’s national slate of games, taking their opportunity to grab as many young eyeballs attached to 4.3 speed and 450 pound bench press numbers as possible. These teams wear these uniforms on national television for a reason. Maryland, to their credit, is not being left behind. Under Randy Edsall, the Terrapins are getting in the game. When I explained this trend to my wife, and told her that these schools often wear special outlandish uniforms for their one national broadcast game of the year, she couldn’t fathom how that made sense. “That’s so stupid,” she decided. “What a waste, to only wear them on TV once.” I explained that it’s just like any other piece of fashion, that it had to be new, and fresh. After all, you cannot be caught dead wearing the same thing to two big dances in a row. Not only do you need a special outfit for your big ESPN appearance, you need 32 combinations of outfits so you can wear a different uniform for every game, televised or not. Our culture, especially that of young people, is based on this newness. A song is played out after it’s been on the radio for three weeks. It’s on to the next hit. Try playing a Top 40 hit from 2008 to someone who is 20 years old. To them, “Umbrella” is ancient history. If you don’t think this stuff matters to high school kids, just look at Trinity (TX)’s new uniforms. Yes, Nike Pro Combat has spread to high school.
When we talk about gaudy uniforms, we roll our eyes at the Oregons and the other Nike schools for the attention-grabbing colors and pattens. We make snarky comments like Tim Gunn with a copy of NCAA 12 spinning in our Xbox. But “we” don’t win football games. Sure, uniforms are designed to appeal to fans, but in college football, where you can’t sell a jersey with a player’s name, the jerseys that matter are the ones worn by the young men, not the old ones. If you think Oregon or Maryland or anyone else’s uniforms are a mockery of sensible gridiron fashion, you are likely to talk about it. You will tweet, blog, discuss and remember. And more importantly, recruits will remember there’s a school in Maryland that has funky uniforms and took down the Canes. If you are a local recruit, there might be more of an incentive to stay home, especially if the kids you met at the scouting combines and camps now know more than they ever could imagine about the Maryland state flag.
In the end, you and I don’t matter. Our opinions on uniforms are good for warm and fuzzies. School and state pride, rah-rah, etc. The opinions that matter belong to Cyrus Jones, Stefon Diggs, and the other prized local recruits yet to make decision on where they will play their college ball. Whether they personally liked the uniforms or not, their teammates will certainly be talking about them around the weight room today.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com