Bill Little commentary: The retro look
Nov. 25, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -– First of all, Longhorn fans – relax. Not because Thursday night’s game with Texas A&M will be easy (because history tells us it won’t), but because when Texas breaks out its “Rivalry Game” uniforms from Nike, there won’t be any straw-colored pants or faded orange numbers on the jerseys.
Since the idea surfaced from Nike to get its partner schools to trot out vintage-look uniforms, we have seen Oklahoma State in black, Oklahoma in a bland red-and-white, and Oregon in every shape and shade known to humankind.
So when you hear that Texas will be wearing a special uniform for its meeting with Texas A&M on Thanksgiving Night, all kinds of thoughts surface.
But rest easy, all you lovers of the Longhorns’ solid white road uniforms – the retro look is a tribute and not a travesty.
Chip Robertson, the Longhorns’ football equipment manager, looked at more than a half-dozen proposals for the Texas version of the “throwback” look. As a bit of a history lesson, Nike actually had lots of options.
In the early part of the 20th century, Texas wore an orange which, when washed, faded badly. Because of this, the Longhorns were often spoken of derisively as “yellow bellies.” All of that changed, however, in 1928.
Clyde Littlefield, one of the greatest figures in Longhorns sports history, was in his first year in the dual role of head football coach, and track and field coach. Littlefield had actually been the first all-star athlete in the school’s history as a four-sport letterman in the 1915 era. Frustrated with the faded colors, Littlefield decided to do something about it.
He looked up a friend of his, a Mr. O’Shea of the O’Shea Knitting Mills in Chicago, who worked up some different colored yarn. He told Littlefield “When we get you the color of orange you like, we’re gonna establish it as your orange.” Thus, the orange Texas went to in 1928 is known in sporting goods circles as “Texas orange” – the shade of burnt orange now worn by the Longhorns.
Texas stayed with that orange until World War II, when it was forced to revert to a lighter color. It seems the yarn O’Shea had found came from Germany, and swapping football jersey colors wasn’t a top priority to a world at war in the 1940s.
Texas actually stayed with the lighter orange until 1962, when Darrell Royal and the late Rooster Andrews, who was in the sporting goods business, were visiting about the tradition of the old color. Royal told Rooster to find the closest color to the original that he could, and he did. When Texas went back to “Texas Orange,” detractors said it was because it was close to the color of the football, and that was their theory for the purpose of Royal’s change. Texas from 1962 through 1964 posted a record of 30-2-1.
Problem with the conspiracy theory of the color hiding the ball was, the only two losses came when Texas was wearing orange jerseys (to LSU in the 1963 Cotton Bowl and to Arkansas in Austin in 1964). The rest of the time, half of the games were played wearing white road uniforms.
When Nike came up with the idea of the Rivalry uniforms for the teams that use their equipment, Texas’ equipment man Robertson checked with Mack Brown for the parameters to which the Longhorns would agree.
Anything, Mack had said, had to be based on tradition. And he found the perfect time-peg in the 85th birthday of its patron saint, Royal.
When Brown and his staff came to Texas, one of his commitments was to the Longhorns legacy, which had been built especially by Royal and those who played for him. So the basis of the Rivalry Game uniform became a tribute to Royal and his birthday.
On the pant there is a logo of the state of Texas, with the initials “DKR” on it. The shoes also have Royal’s initials on them. From there, something is incorporated from the uniforms, helmets and shoes from each of the four National Championship years of 1963, 1969, 1970 and 2005. The uniform is a blend of history and tradition, along with the modern touches such as the names on the back of the jerseys, which were a part of the 2005 team.
The numbers on the front and the back are a bit smaller than the normal numbers, to allow for the “Texas” across the front and the name on the back – which weren’t a part of the uniforms in the early 1960s. The helmet incorporates the Longhorn logo on the sides, but it also has the player’s number above the Longhorn. The jersey sleeves have stripes, rather than the modern-day numbers, on them.
The idea of matching the orange, or tan pants, worn in the 1940s and early 1950s, or a helmet with an orange stripe worn in the mid-50s, was rejected, going back to Brown’s commitment that he would never change the basic uniform which Royal’s teams wore from 1957 through 1976.
What we know is, this is a series that won’t need a “rivalry” uniform to define it as a rivalry. This has always been a game where the old cliché of “throw out the records” applies, and the Longhorns of 2009, whatever uniform they are wearing, are well aware they have a heritage to protect.
Six times since 1963 Texas has come to College Station with hopes for a National Championship and an unbeaten season on the line, and while the Longhorns have won all of the other five games, the series has at times been a struggle.
In 1963, the eventual National Champs had to come from behind to win, 15-13, over an Aggie team that had won only two games. The 1969 National Champion Longhorns used their Wishbone offense to dominate Texas A&M, 49-12, in a game which prompted one Aggie stat crew member to ask, “What’s the record for a team going through an entire game without ever having to face a first down?”
Earl Campbell took his Heisman campaign to the highest level in the 1977 game, when the Longhorns finished off an unbeaten regular season as the nation’s No. 1 team with a 57-28 victory.
In 1983, unbeaten and No. 2 ranked Texas fell behind the Aggies, 13-0, before rallying for a 45-13 victory. And finally, the 2005 National Champions got off to a slow start before winning going away, 40-29.
It is the first time for the game to be back on Thanksgiving in College Station since 1993, and it doesn’t take a uniform to tell you this is one of the big match-ups in what the national television networks have dubbed “rivalry week.”
For Texas and Texas A&M, it has always been that, and it always will be.