The Bizarre Looks and Stories Behind College Football Uniforms of the 2000s

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Certain athletic programs and organizations have classic iconography: the Yankees interlocked NY; the Chicago Bull; the Red Wings wheel. Indiana’s IU logo in red-and-white exudes a similar, immediately identifiable qualify. So how about abandoning it for Times New Roman font in a red oval?

The Open Man previously addressed the shrill gaudiness of the turn-of-the-millennium through film, as well as through the sugary alcoholic drinks we enjoyed at the time. Uniforms reflected the attitudes of an era in which people willingly listened to Trapt.

Such dismal trends did not spare college football, and Indiana’s odd choice to don black helmets with a generic text “IU” in an oval was far from the worst fashion choice. In complete fairness to the Hoosiers, it’s not their worst look of the 21st Century: That belongs to the vertical-stripe chrome lids they donned in the mid-2010s (not even the 2000s, perhaps rendering my entire premise moot!).

For what it’s worth, though, that strange look for IU came straight from a 2005 music video.

The year 2005 is, in general, an ideal starting point for this exercise. By the mid-point of the decade, absolutely brutal uniforms became as popular as J-Kwon’s Tipsy. Nike moved the process along, rolling out assorted atrocious threads that were equally terrible for how mundane they were.

The Swoosh Brand — which started to get aggressive with producing football gear in the latter-half of the ’90s — debuted new uniforms for a variety of programs in 2005 that all featured a similar look: three primary colors, with the main home/away hue; the numbers and lettering where applicable; and piping, which included a neckline and lines that wrapped around the shoulder and connected midway down the back.

These third-color lines made players appear as though they were wearing their backpacks on game day. It was also a generic template look, as seen here in Arizona’s stunning blowout of then-No. 5 UCLA…

…and the opening-week encounter between Miami and Florida State. (Of note, this is the same Miami-Florida State game in which Brent Musburger discovered Jenn Sterger and C.J. Perry, who now work for rival pro wrestling companies).

Nike designing unis that managed to be both ostentatious and generic is quite a feat. And even when the company deviated from this template over the next few years, it managed to offend eyeballs with such looks at Syracuse’s season-opening highlighters worn against Washington in 2007.

Both the blinding color palette and deviations from traditions began, as most college football uniforms trends have in the 21st Century, at Oregon.

The Ducks’ run to the 2001 Pac-10 championship and that season’s Fiesta Bowl kicked off with the famed Joey Heisman billboard in Times Square. Generating as much talk as Joey Harrington’s campaign for the game’s top individual honor were the duds he donned for the photo shoot.

Harrington appears in the same uniform on the cover of the first EA Sports NCAA Football release for PS2 and X-Box.

Examining this look with a 2020 sensibility, one might ask, What the hell is with these Arena League-ass uniforms? Or maybe, Someone at Nike was way into 1999’s Any Given Sunday.

But the general buzz at the time marveled at the uniqueness. Oregon began a trend that really hasn’t ceased almost two decades later. Uncle Phil also deserves credit for executing the vision for a fresh look more effectively than some contemporaries.

After all, the Ducks weren’t alone in trying out a different approach at the turn of the millennium. There is good reason Oregon is remembered as starting the alternate wave, and not BYU or San Jose State.

Pardon the hyperbole, but BYU’s 1999 uniform might be the most hideous in college football history.

Looks didn’t improve into the Gary Crowton era, as BYU remained almost as stubbornly committed to navy blue and sand as the San Diego Padres. The 2004 Holy War provides some insight into the evolution of BYU’s bad look.

Still, the 1999 BYU uniform remained my most hated uniform all the way up until I began writing this piece. Then, @MattThompson87 hipped me to this San Jose State disaster.

Wow. WOW. I pride myself on having watched a lot of college football since the turn of the millennium, including — especially — from the lesser-covered conferences. San Jose State’s bad-even-for-the-Arena League duds somehow escaped me. But like Oregon’s successful relationship with Nike, the story of San Jose State and 4-Players Only is reflective of the state of the program.

College football programs signed apparel contracts with unlikely partners in the 2000s: Georgia Tech donned Russell Athletic for years, UConn famously sported Aeropostale and long before it made Kawhi Leonard’s shoes, New Balance produced unis for Wyoming and Central Michigan. Thanks to @HotSprots, the Chippewas’ New Balance-made Vegas Gold alternates worn in a 2008 edition of #MACtion — despite the insistence of some on social media, MACtion did indeed exist prior to November 2011 — came to my attention.

I can only assume the “Vegas” is because they’re reminiscent of the tacky gear one might find in an Off-Strip gift shop.

Ugly or not, though, Russell Athletic, New Balance and Aeropostale are all companies with which most of us are familiar. Not so much San Jose State clothier 4-Players Only. After prompting from @BrettFera, I did some research and found a fascinating story.

From San Jose State’s official press release:

San Jose, Calif.—– The San Jose State University football team is trailblazing a new path to pay dirt in game, coaching, practice and travel apparel. Beginning this season, 4-Players Only, headquartered in the Dallas suburb of Grapevine, Texas, will outfit the Spartans and its coaching staff. The school and the minority-owned company have signed a two-year agreement that includes an option for the 2003 season.

The uniforms will be unveiled in San Jose, Saturday, July 28, at a reception sponsored by local leaders of the African-American community for the San Jose State University football coaching staff.

4-Players Only is a new entrant in the field of sports apparel. Unique among its competitors, 4-Players Only is privately owned and operated by African-American women, manufactures its products in the United States as opposed to overseas and designs its apparel with an eye to today’s athlete.

“We wanted something original and different. I like the design and originality of the uniforms. 4-Players Only is on the cutting edge of fashion design,” says new San Jose State football head coach Fitz Hill, who took over after spending 11 seasons at the University of Arkansas. Hill is one of only five African-Americans who is a head football coach at the NCAA Division I-A level.

“We believe a partnership with 4-Players Only will be beneficial for recruiting because their designs and fashion lines appeal to today’s student-athlete. 4-Players Only innovative approach to apparel is consistent with our philosophy of making San Jose State University football a tier-one program.”

The concept is certainly cool; noble, even. In a landscape dominated by billion-dollar corporations that emphasize cost-efficiency over individuality — or worse, perpetuate human-rights violations — a privately owned business founded by people of color is an inspiring deviation from the norm.

But intention and execution do not always match. The following is from then-San Jose State coach Dr. Fitzgerald Hill’s autobiography, Crackback! 

Not every uniform can be iconic, obviously. But equally as certain that I have taken from this exercise: all of them have their own unique stories.