Ron Musselman | Tweaking tradition of Penn State’s football uniforms

June 9, 2013 

Penn State’s football uniforms are about to undergo their third minor massage in three years.

At most major colleges, it would just be a footnote.

In this instance, it merits more than a mention for a program whose traditional vanilla-looking uniforms left little suspense in previous decades.

The latest jersey update this fall will include the presence of the Nittany Lions logo adorning the base of the V-neck collar.

Also, the Nike Swoosh sits underneath the logo, off to the right, and is easily visible.

The only suspense left is whether the player’s names will remain on the back of the jerseys. Coach Bill O’Brien declined to tip his hand this spring.

“I think you’ll have to wait until the Syracuse game to see what the names are or what they’re not,” he said.

O’Brien opted to add the names a year ago. It was his way of honoring the players who stuck with the program after the NCAA sanctions were announced in July.

And, in what turned out to be Joe Paterno’s final season in 2011, the Nittany Lions altered their jerseys slightly, making the home jerseys blue, including the collar and sleeves, with white numbers. The road jerseys featured the same look with white jerseys and blue numbers.

“Historically, under Joe, he had his hand in everything when it came to the uniforms,” said Lou Prato, former director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum and a Penn State football historian. “The current situation with Bill O’Brien, it’s a new era.

“It’s the difference between a guy who’s almost 44 and a guy who was 84. It’s modern-day thinking.”

“If the new coaching staff wants to put numbers on the helmets, put stripes down the middle of the helmets or names on the back of the uniforms, that’s their prerogative. They are trying to attract a younger audience now, and if younger students want more flashy uniforms, that’s OK, too.”

Prato, author of the popular “Penn State Football Encyclopedia,” has a new book coming out in August from Triumph called, “We Are Penn State: The Remarkable Journey of the 2012 Nittany Lions,” with a forward from O’Brien.

A few years back, Prato chronicled the evolution of Penn State’s football uniforms since the program’s inception in 1887. Some of the tidbits he uncovered were rather fascinating, including these:

-- The first team colors were pink and black. The uniform consisted of tightly-laced pink canvas jackets with the initials PSC-FB (Penn State College Foot-Ball) across the chest, canton flannel pants, long black stockings and black caps with tassels.

“Back then, pink was a very popular color,” Prato said. “It wasn’t looked upon as being a feminine color like it is now.”

-- By 1890, blue and white were formally adopted as Penn State’s colors in a vote conducted by the student body.

-- From 1900-27, the uniform underwent numerous changes. But dark blue jerseys, dark pants, leather helmets and black shoes were fairly standard.

Blue jerseys were first worn for home games in 1932 and white jerseys for road games, according to Prato’s research.

• In 1951, the blue stripe appeared on the helmet for the first time.

• Numbers were put on helmets for the first time in 1957, eliminated from 1962-65 before returning again in 1966, Paterno’s first season, and going until 1974.

• White shoes were used for the first and only time in the 1979 Sugar Bowl.

• In 1999, the postseason bowl patch was added to the uniforms for the first time.

• Penn State switched from Champion jerseys in 1993, the same year it joined the Big Ten Conference, and a year later, Nike's trademark swoosh appeared on the chest of the jerseys for the first time, creating lots of banter and backlash.

For the final home game last year against Wisconsin, all Penn State players had the No. 42 on the side of their helmet for the first time since 1974 to honor injured linebacker Michael Mauti, the team’s emotional leader.

“I think they may do special things like that from time to time,” Prato said. “A little change-up here and there doesn’t hurt, nor does getting input from the student leaders to see what they want.

“I know some fans were up in arms last year when they put the names on the back of the uniforms. Frankly, I’ve come to like them. I sit up near the top of Beaver Stadium and I use my binoculars to pick out who makes the tackles and so on. It’s much easier now with the names.”

Just last week, Indiana introduced five football helmet designs. Among the new looks for the Hoosiers were the state insignia and a chrome design that is becoming increasingly popular in college football.

Don’t look for Penn State to do anything that radical in the coming years. More than likely, we’ll see no more than a few tweaks or alterations to help spur jersey sales.

Ron Musselman is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter@ronmusselman8.

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