Carlson: How OSU football's uniforms became a hallmark of the Cowboys, not a footnote
STILLWATER — Coming off a historic season and bringing back a bevy of superstars, there was lots of excitement inside the Oklahoma State football program heading into the 2011 season.
Players were pumped about wearing the orange and black again.
Then a month or so before the opener, Nike announced it had overhauled the Cowboys’ uniforms, modernizing their look, adding several new options and allowing them to mix and match combinations ala Oregon.
Suddenly, the players couldn’t wait to put on the orange and black — and gray and white, too.
“There is a definite coolness to our new uniforms,” Cowboy wide receiver Justin Blackmon said at the time.
Coolness wasn’t a word often associated with OSU football before then.
But in this, the 10th season of the Cowboys’ mix-and-match uniforms, it is clear the uniforms have added to a decade of buzz around OSU football. The uniforms changed just as the Cowboys entered into the greatest stretch in program history. Not only did people want to see what they were going to do on the field, but they also wanted to see what they were going to wear when they did.
What colors would they pair together?
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What new wrinkles might be next?
It was like the Cowboys, who never really had a traditional, classic uniform that was unmistakably theirs, were wearing alternate jerseys every week.
It was hip and fresh and, yes, cool.
“There are a few schools that have done it,” said Paul Lukas, the man behind all things uniform-related at the “Uni Watch” website, “but there aren’t as many who mix and match it to the degree that Oklahoma State does.”
Oregon, of course, was the first program to go all in with mix-and-match uniforms. With the school’s ties to Nike — founder Phil Knight is an alum and the apparel giant’s headquarters are in nearby Beaverton — the Ducks started tinkering with wild and wacky options in the mid 2000s.
By 2009, their jerseys had wings printed on the shoulders and their interpretation of green had trended all the way to highlighter yellow.
In 2011, Nike decided to revamp uniforms not only at OSU but also at Arizona State, Washington State and TCU.
Under Armour got in on the trend that season, too, putting Maryland in alternate jerseys built around the state flag.
Oregon and Maryland, then and now, stand apart from the others in their outrageousness. School colors are sometimes more of a suggestion than a guiding force. Just about any combination or design goes.
Lukas said OSU has been more reasonable about its uniforms.
“Like the colors, the mixing and matching, it’s not crazy, over the top,” he said. “Clearly, it’s trying to get some attention. It’s saying, ‘Hey, pay attention to us. Look at us. Look what we’re doing here. We’re a little bit different.’ But it’s not crazy, over the top.”
We haven’t seen, for example, any neon orange.
“Personally, I would hope they don’t do that,” Lukas said. “I don’t think they need to go that far.”
And the Cowboys probably won’t.
Cowboy coach Mike Gundy credits Justin Williams for keeping the uniforms edgy without going over the edge. Williams is OSU’s director of football equipment operations, and for years, he has been the point person in Stillwater for the Cowboys’ uniforms.
Williams balances what the administrators, donors and fans like with what the players want.
“They like the gray, they like the gunmetal, they like the black,” Gundy said of the players. “The fans love the orange. So we try to mix and match.”
Gundy is happy to let someone else figure out the uniforms — “I stay out of it,” he said. “I don’t have any idea on helmets, decals, colors, any of that” — but he knows it’s a big deal to the players.
To recruits, too.
“We still get comments in recruiting about the variety and different things and colors that we have,” Gundy said.
Collin Oliver is among the recruits who’s a fan of the OSU uniforms. The defensive end from Edmond Santa Fe High School who has committed to the Cowboys says orange helmet, orange jersey, white pants is his favorite combination.
“You can never go wrong with it,” he said.
He grew up in the state, and even though he was still in elementary school when the Cowboys revamped their uniforms, he remembers the change.
“They started turning the corner, then they switched jerseys while they were turning that corner,” Oliver said. “It all came around in a good, full circle.”
That’s the thing about OSU’s uniform change: it was part of a new-and-improved era in Cowboy football. Had the Cowboys not continued the uptick that started before they went with the mix-and-match style — they won the Big 12 in 2011 and have a streak of winning seasons that will soon extend to 15 — the uniforms would’ve become a footnote for a so-so program.
Instead, the uniforms have become a hallmark of OSU football.
Lukas contends that’s what happened with Oregon.
“I don’t know that they started winning because of the uniform,” he said of the Ducks, “but it certainly gave a sense of legitimacy.”
So it is with the Cowboys.
They scored cool points with the uniforms, but the cool factor grew exponentially with success.
“It all looks cooler and feels a lot cooler if you’re winning,” Lukas said. “I don’t think there’s much cool factor if you go 3-9.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.