When tradition is less than permanent: The Citadel’s football uniforms

It’s June, so that means it’s a perfect time for me to blog about one aspect of The Citadel’s football program that has always annoyed me — namely, the uniforms.  For a school as tradition-laden as The Citadel, you would think that the football uniforms would have remained largely unchanged over time.  You would be very, very wrong to think that, though.

Now, why should anyone care about how football uniforms look?  I’ll tell you why.  It is all-important to success on the gridiron.  I have personal knowledge of this.

Many, many years ago, I began my star-crossed athletic career by participating in my hometown’s Pee Wee football program.  I was assigned to a team which I will not name, so as to protect the innocent.  The coach took one look at me — very tall for my age, and even skinnier for my age — and decided that I would make an ideal left tackle.  He also elected not to play a tight end on my side of the field, so I was what pigskin cognoscenti call the “weakside tackle”.

During games, opponents would often overload my side of the field and race into the backfield, tackling the ballcarrier for a loss despite my heroic efforts.  The coach would then blame me for the failure of his game plan, which he thought brilliant, never seeming to understand that running a delayed handoff on every play was not necessarily the way to go.

However, the biggest mistake he made came when selecting the jerseys for our team.  We received orange jerseys with black numerals on them, very plain indeed.  I was given a jersey with the number “2” (certainly a fine number for an offensive tackle).  The reason?  I was the second player in line.

After being washed, the jerseys turned a orangery-pinkish color, gradually turning even pinker as the season progressed.  The iron-on numerals were also of poor quality.  My numeral started falling apart by the second half of the first game, with the bottom part of the number almost completely gone by the third game.  By the time the season was over the number “2” had essentially turned into the punctuation mark “?”.  (Wearing the “?” was probably appropriate, since most of the time I was not really sure what the coach expected me to do.  He was the Ray Handley of Pee Wee coaches.)

It is almost needless to say, but without the pride and confidence instilled by wearing quality jerseys the team struggled and barely finished above .500 for the season.

The folowing year’s campaign was completely different.  The new coach was much better, as he actually knew what he was doing.  We ran a sound offense featuring two tight ends (I was the “blocking” TE; in retrospect it is a bit puzzling that we always ran the ball to the other side).  We also had four players on our team who eventually played college football, which helped.  However, none of that was as important as the improvement in the quality of our jerseys.

They were black, of good material, with significantly superior iron-on numerals (which were white).  Even better, they had “hoop” stripes on the upper sleeves, with red in the middle bordered by white.  Very classy.  I should also mention that no one on the team had to wear a “kicker” number.  Everyone had a number “50” or above.  I was number “86”.  Hines Ward would have approved.

The team powered through the regular season undefeated, and in the title game whipped a pack of green-shirted hoodlums to win the city championship.   I have always credited the uniforms for providing much-needed confidence and an “edge”.  Without them, perfection would never have happened.

The Citadel has gone through so many helmet design changes that the guy at The Helmet Project can’t keep up with them all.  He very politely states on his website that “The Citadel has a large and interesting helmet history”.  Interesting is one word for it…

Another helmet devotee, who runs a fine blog called The Helmet Archive, has drawn more of the old helmet designs used by the Bulldogs over time.  I would encourage anyone halfway interested in this topic to peruse this link [edit: now disabled], which shows most of the helmet designs worn by the Bulldogs since 1960.  The Helmet Archive also has a link to a photo page that shows many of the helmets/uniforms The Citadel has had over the last 50 years.  It’s good stuff (the pictures, that is; the uniforms, not so much).

Generally speaking, when it comes to most of the designs, I have two basic complaints about The Citadel’s uniforms, besides the fact they’ve changed too many times:

1)  The helmet logo is usually either too detailed or just looks stupid (sometimes both)
2)  The jersey (and on at least one occasion the helmet) often doesn’t have the “The” in “The Citadel” on it

I find that second issue particularly grating.  Look, if the name of the school is going to be on the front of the jersey, that’s fine — but get the name of the school right.  The lettering needs to be just large enough to be read by someone watching the game on TV (that’s right, TV; I’ll get to that in a minute) and the name should read “THE CITADEL”.  This has not always been the case in the past, and it isn’t the case in the present, either, as can be seen with this shot of the current jersey.  Is it too much to ask that the correct name of the college be used?   I hope not.

The photo of the current jersey also illustrates the problem with the lettering not being clearly legible.  This shows up more in the away uniforms, as the light blue color of the lettering doesn’t show well on white (especially on a sunny day).  Again, it doesn’t look that good on television, either, and it needs to “pop” on TV (the same is true for the helmet logo).  I would make the lettering a little larger, put a thin navy border around the letters to further distinguish them (“shading”), and obviously it should read “THE CITADEL”.

Another aspect of the jersey/pants that I would like to see changed is the current striping on the pants/shoulder area (the “side panels”).  That really needs to go.  I realize that it’s a Nike thing, so getting rid of it is probably easier said than done, but it’s just not a good look.

At least we no longer have the chevrons.  I would like to thank the person who decided to get rid of Ellis Johnson’s chevrons.  No coach at The Citadel seemed to put more thought into uniform design than Johnson.  Despite this (or maybe because of it), his teams played in what I consider the worst of The Citadel’s modern-day togs.

Not only did they feature chevrons on the shoulder pads (I should note that he wasn’t the first Bulldog coach to have them), but in his third year as head coach (2003), the team would wear the most abysmal of all of the Bulldogs’ helmet designs, which is really saying something.   Between the “gray shell” helmets and the chevrons, this was the nadir of The Citadel’s football uniform history.

The helmet featured a color that is not one of The Citadel’s primary (or even secondary) athletic standards.  Johnson didn’t like the way the blue helmet looked on blue jerseys, and stated that the gray shell exemplified the “storied history of the long gray line”.  Whatever.  The fact is that it clashed badly with the jersey; the logo borrowed from the New York Giants’ 1980s-1990s design (which wasn’t so hot to start with); and it naturally said “CITADEL” instead of “THE CITADEL”.  Just awful.  The Bulldogs actually kept that basic design for four seasons, too.  It is no surprise that The Citadel didn’t have much on-field success during this era.

Not that the gray shell look was the only poor helmet design; far from it.  Look at that photo link again.  Pick which decal of a bulldog is funnier — is it the one from 1964, 1967, or 1971?  Tom Moore’s coaching tenure featured a helmet design that just said, in text, “The Dogs”.  Robert Hill deserved better.  I don’t mind the helmets that just had numbers, although I see no particular reason to emulate Alabama (or Georgia Southern, for that matter).

The successful teams of the Charlie Taaffe regime had a script “The Citadel” decal in the style of one of the school’s marks of that time, a theme not unlike the current helmet design.  One of the more interesting (and better) logos was the “Star of the West” design employed during the late 1970s.  You can see this logo in a very cool picture found by the above-mentioned Helmet Archive site.  The problem with going back to that look is that A) trying to explain the “Star of the West” thing to people could be trying, and B) everyone would think we were imitating the Dallas Cowboys.

(Also notice in that picture the striping on the jersey and the pants.  Is that navy — or black?)

I don’t have a big problem with the current helmet design, but it’s not easy to see in person or on television.  I think it’s important to look good on TV, and if we’re going to have “TV numbers” on the shoulders and names on the backs of the jerseys (which I assume is also for recruiting), then we need to have a decal that shows well in HD.  I’m not a designer — I’m just a crabby individual who knows what he doesn’t like — but I would suggest that simple is best.

Some variation of the block “C” would, I believe, be the best way to go, with an appropriate border color to make sure it was easily visible.  It’s been used in the past on white-shelled helmets, but I think blue helmets are the best bet.  Put a white block “C” with a navy “shaded” border, and a stripe across the top (three stripes, actually — white surrounding navy), and you may have something.  It wouldn’t hurt to experiment with a few other color options.

Speaking of color options…

I came across a gallery of photos taken by Life magazine of the 1955 football game between The Citadel and Presbyterian (which was homecoming that year), a contest won by the Bulldogs 14-13.  This was apparently part of a feature on Mark Clark, who appears in most of the non-football photos (and several of the football ones, too), giving off a “John Wayne” vibe in each and every pictureGoogle has archived thousands of the old Life photos; these pictures are part of that collectionI’ll link a few of them, but with a couple of notes.

Check out the colors of the uniforms worn by the Bulldogs in these pictures:  this one, and this one.  Note the red stripes on the helmets (and jersey sleeves) and the darker blue of the jerseys!  At first I thought that perhaps the photo had been mislabeled, and that it was in fact PC’s players running onto the field.  Then again, why would our coaches and bagpipers be lined up watching them?  The following black-and-white shots indicate that they are definitely the Bulldogs, however:  here (photo op for the general), here (nice bow tie), here, and here.

I’m still a little confused by some of these photos.  In the preceding paragraph, take a look at the first two pictures that are linked, and compare them to the third one.  Do you suppose they made them run out on the field twice for the photographer or something?  Or was one of them before the game, and the other at halftime?  Then there is this picture.  It’s black-and-white, but compared to the other B&W shots, don’t the uniforms look darker?  (You have to love that scoreboard, though.)

[Edit: a few of the Life photos have been disabled.]

It could be that some of these are practice (or pre-game) pictures and the others are game photos; in fact, it’s likely, given the wardrobe change for John Sauer.  Regardless, they’re fascinating photographs.

Anyway, that’s enough on uniforms for one post.  To sum up:  simple is best, get the name of the school right, and don’t screw up the colors.  That’s all.