For day two of Illinois Week here on Off Tackle Empire, I’d like to talk about one of the ways in which Illinois will definitely be worse. I’m talking of course about the sanctions imposed on the Fighting Illini for their transgressions over the years.
This punishment will be enacted not by the NCAA, but by Nike, who has seen fit to punish the program for losing so many games by making them wear God-awful bootleg Syracuse threads.
Though there were a couple of flaws, the 2014 uniform set was very well-received. In fact, when Syracuse had their uniform reveal on the same day four years ago, Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician had a poll in which respondents overwhelmingly preferred the Illinois uniforms.
The two major flaws with the 2014 set were the satin chrome finish on the orange helmets, which caused a perception that the color never matched the orange on the jerseys or pants, and the introduction of the horrible Gray Ghost uniforms.
The former fault is the only one that was corrected, as the new helmet has a matte finish. However, the block I logo is now blue and outlined in orange, which looks ridiculous against an orange background.
The latter fault is just as bad as ever. Illinois football wore orange and blue as part of every single football uniform they ever wore up until 2014, when Nike introduced Illinois to the lame, played-out cliche of a gray alternate for the sake of having gray, or as Uni-Watch calls it, Gray For Gray’s Sake. Nike figured they could do this without caring about the backlash because they don’t consider Illinois football important enough to respect our traditions or fans.
This is different from the basketball situation. Illinois basketball is still a high enough priority for Nike to put some thought into that they created the fantastic Flyin’ Illini throwbacks. No such consideration for Illinois football exists, but I for one was happy to at least have some handsome base uniforms.
But anyway, after creating a dank gray uniform that would summon all the croots to Champaign, Nike invented a half-assed callback to Red Grange in their press release. In their defense, when you search for images of Red Grange at Illinois, you get this:
So clearly Nike did their research and found that Red Grange had paper-white skin and wore a black and gray uniform and a gray helmet back in the days of the gray footballs. Perhaps they’ll want to push us to bring back that gray turf in the background of this photo. For the record, this is what the 1923 uniforms actually looked like, and I would argue that the massive steps back in player safety would almost be worth having something better than the Gray Ghost uniforms.
But alas, Nike has spoken and now the football team doesn’t wear the school colors on Homecoming anymore.
The 2014 set, for those two flaws, had many positives: the numbers were very distinct and easy to read, the helmet stripes were elements Illinois helmets had for many decades and the helmet logo was a massive improvement over the early 90’s New York Giants style ILLINOIS helmets. Most importantly, they looked unique and were readily identifiable as Illinois.
The new uniforms, on the other hand, immediately inspired the whole Internet to comment on how much they look like Pop Warner Syracuse. They were allegedly inspired by the Dick Butkus-era uniforms, but like the Red Grange thing, that’s just a tenuous, after-the-fact connection Nike came up with to justify plugging Illinois colors into their Late 2010’s C-Tier Football Team Uniform Generator. My colleague at The Champaign Room Brandon Birkhead brought up that last year, Washington State got these:
We got the same uniforms as Washington State just one year later, and with a cheesy, old-trend-that-wasn’t-cool-even-when-it-was-current Gray For Gray’s Sake uniform to boot. If they really wanted to do an update on the Butkus-era uniforms, all they needed to do was listen to what the fans have been saying for ten years and give us the one-game 2008 throwbacks pictured below.
Brushing aside the disingenuous nature of Nike’s backstory, the no-trim approach just looks like any other school without football tradition trying to be a thing, and the blue on the orange jerseys looks black for some reason. I’ve never been in the position of hating Illinois’ primary look.
This, unfortunately, is the consequence of failing to establish a consistent winner. Would a uniform supplier do this to Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma, USC or even Michigan? Wisconsin wasn’t even one of those “good in the 70’s therefore are royalty” programs and they’ve earned the clout to keep their uniforms looking similar and recognizable. This is yet another perk of being a winner that has just emerged in the last 10-15 years. In the past, you could be bad for years and still at least have a consistent, identifiable look with your uniforms. But this is 2018, and there’s really no precedent to look to. My fear is that now that we’ve missed the boat, even the unlikely scenario that Illinois becomes a consistent winner for a long period of time might not get us out of Generic Me-Too Trendy Football Uniform Hell.
At least they’ll probably have a completely new look in a few years.