From the day he arrived on Jan. 11, 2014, Penn State coach James Franklin had conversations with longtime equipment manager Brad “Spider” Caldwell about trying something different and honoring the program’s history while having a little fun.
More than 1,250 days later, the Nittany Lions rolled out the final product — Penn State is going retro.
The Nittany Lions will wear throwback uniforms against Indiana on Sept. 30 for their “Generations of Greatness” game, an homage to different eras of Penn State football. The uniforms are equipped with the 1950s-70s blue numbers on the helmet, 1979 Sugar Bowl-style white cleats, traditional white jersey trimming on the shoulders and more.
What started as a single-era concept morphed into a representation of the program’s past.
“It really shows and reinforces all the tremendous history and tradition that we have here,” Franklin said Thursday afternoon, with a No. 17 white helmet in front of him in the Beaver Stadium media room. “Our uniform is as iconic as it is, and it hasn’t changed much over time. There have been some subtle things, and we can honor those things and tell this unbelievable story that we have here at Penn State. What better way to do it than with this uniform?”
Brad Keen, assistant athletic director for marketing, said the uniforms will be a part of a retro gameday experience at Beaver Stadium, which will feature everything from old ads on the videoboard to pennants instead of pom-poms.
Meanwhile, Franklin said having an annual throwback game has not been discussed, but noted that given the monetary investment it might make sense to use the uniforms more than once.
“We’ll see,” the coach said. “I’m not completely sure what the future holds.”
As Franklin said, Penn State’s uniform hasn’t changed much in recent years. Trimming around the collar and sleeves was removed in 2011, names on the back of the jersey were added in 2012 and removed in 2015, and the No. 42 graced Penn State’s helmets to honor injured linebacker Michael Mauti for 2012’s Senior Day.
Those were small changes. But, taken all together, it’s become a sleek transformation.
Current equipment manager Jay Takach said a small group including him, Franklin and others started with Penn State’s 1959 Liberty Bowl uniforms — which had numbers on the helmets, a gray facemask, block uniform numbers, a blue stripe on the pants and white sleeve trimming — and presented the concept to Nike.
“That generation and era is where we started,” Takach said. “From there, we just kind of expanded it to try and take into account all the different generations.”
In addition to the Liberty Bowl look, Nike added white cleats, a neckline image of the Lion Shrine and striped socks from the early 1970s.
Penn State had a finished product after 16 months of constant communication with Nike about concepts and design, and in October, Takach had to secretly go about sizing players for the uniforms, which had different jersey and pant material.
All the while, he thought the retro uniforms would somehow leak.
“I couldn’t let anybody see it,” Takach said with a smile. “I couldn’t let my managers see it. I’m having secret conversations with Nike. ... It was pretty tough. I was surprised that it didn’t get out.”
And now that “the cat is out of the bag,” as Franklin noted Thursday, reaction poured in.
Thoughts from fans on social media have been mostly positive — the white cleats are certainly a hit — and Penn State players were all about it. The Nittany Lions held a Thursday morning meeting to unveil the uniforms, and Franklin said his guys “went absolutely berserk.”
But of course, there were old-fashioned uniform purists who reacted negatively to the retro look.
“At the end of the day, you’re going to have people who really like it and those who don’t,” Keen said. “That’s just unfortunate because this promotion is really neat. People are going to miss out if they’re just focused on a negative opinion they may or may not have about the jersey.”
Regardless of opinion, the Nittany Lions will sport a new look against the Hoosiers. It’s not pink and black like some, including former running Akeel Lynch, suggested over the years. Takach said that never came up in his discussions with Nike.
Instead, the final product is a retro look reminiscent of several decades.
John Cappelletti wore No. 22 on his helmet for his Heisman Trophy-winning 1973 campaign. The then-undefeated Nittany Lions rocked white cleats when they faced Alabama in the 1979 Sugar Bowl. Penn State had a white shoulder trim when it won national titles in 1982 and 1986.
Every generation of Penn State fan will recognize something from the Nittany Lions’ Sept. 30 look — and Franklin couldn’t be happier with how it all panned out.
“Anyone who turns the TV on to watch us play, there’s not going to be one person who doesn’t know who it is,” Franklin said. “It’s our uniform, and it’s iconic. But we’ve just taken some elements that we’ve had in our history and brought them back.”
Other highlights from Franklin’s news conference
Along with discussing the retro uniform, James Franklin touched on a few other topics at his Thursday afternoon press conference:
▪ Prepared: Franklin said his staff has compiled game plans for the first four contests of 2017. Penn State hosts Akron on Sept. 2, followed by home games against Pittsburgh and Georgia State and a road matchup with Iowa.
▪ Two-a-days no more: In April, the NCAA eliminated two-a-days, mandating that teams can practice full-contact only once per day in the preseason. As a result, Franklin said Penn State’s preseason camp will start a few days earlier than normal. Otherwise, the change doesn’t really affect the Nittany Lions. “Almost everywhere I’ve worked, the old two-a-day model has been gone for a long time,” Franklin said.
▪ War room: Franklin has said before that with the introduction of a December signing day prior to the traditional National Signing Day in February, 80 or 90 percent of the prospects will sign in December. So, when will Penn State have its annual signing day party? “I could even see a situation where we don’t have a signing day celebration,” Franklin said. “We will not have two, for sure.”