All this week we’re going to be publishing stories that have only ever appeared in Hail Varsity Magazine. If you’re not a subscriber or haven’t had the chance to see Hail Varsity on the newsstands, this is your chance to see what we were up to in year one. And, if you like what you read, click the subscribe link. There’s plenty more to come in year two.
Prior to last year’s first meeting with Wisconsin, where the Huskers’ donned alternate uniforms for the first time, we ran this feature by Brandon Vogel on the past 60 years of uniforms at Nebraska. It was accompanied by some excellent illustrations from Quentin Lueninghoener, also a staffer at the magazine, which you can see here. The story was originally published in Volume 1 Issue 4 of Hail Varsity Magazine.
Let’s talk about the ‘N.’ The N that appears on the Nebraska helmets, not its blockier cousin, the iron-N, which serves as the athletic department’s primary brand across all sports. Around Nebraska’s marketing offices the helmet logo is known as the “football-N” and it means something.
The Huskers’ uniform history doesn’t start there but in the 45 years since the football-N first appeared on Nebraska’s helmets in the 1967 Sugar Bowl – accompanied by a U at the time and for the next three years – that single, spare letter has become the defining identity of Nebraska football. It’s plain but proud and surrounded by plenty of empty space. In that way, it’s nearly a perfect fit for the state it represents.
It shouldn’t be a surprise then that when it came time for Nebraska to work on a new alternate look for one game – the uniforms you will see this Saturday against Wisconsin — that there was one element that was essentially off limits.
“Over time, with the branding that we’ve had and the consistency with the helmet and the championships we’ve won with it, the N has become iconic,” Michael Stephens, Nebraska’s associate athletic director for marketing, licensing and concessions, said. “Less is more. We didn’t want to change the logo on the side of helmet.”
Less is more might not be the description one would use for Nebraska’s alternate look overall, but that’s part of what made a look back at 60 years of Husker uniform history seem particularly important right now. Everything that came in the past played a role in what you’ll see on the field this Saturday.
In the early years, function definitely trumped form when it came to uniform design. Long before the age of uniform sponsorship, a team’s look was limited by whatever its supplier could provide. Some teams were able to create iconic looks even with those limitations.
Northwestern popularized the thin-wide-thin triple stripe that’s become a staple of football uniforms throughout college and the pros. It’s now known as a “Northwestern stripe.” The two-color stripe that circles the shoulders of such teams as Ole Miss, LSU, and the Indianapolis Colts was first used by UCLA in the 1950s. That’s now known as a “UCLA stripe.” Nebraska has worn both the Northwestern stripe (1946 – 1949) and the UCLA stripe (1957 – 1959, 1968 – 1974) through the years.
In 1962, however, nobody looked quite like the Huskers. Bob Devaney brought his good sense of humor, better football smarts, and a quirky new uniform to Lincoln that year. The Huskers ran out that year wearing slinky, stylized numbers that, like the coach himself, were almost jovial. Famed Sports Illustrated sports writer Dan Jenkins called Nebraska “ill-attired” in the “skinny numerals” in 1965, but it was perhaps the most distinctive look in recent Nebraska history. When the Huskers wore throwback uniforms for the first time in 2009, this was the design they revived.
Credit the Tom Osborne era teams with the look Huskers fans are still enjoying today. From 1975 to 2002, Nebraska’s look changed very little. The Huskers wore white or red pants with a triple stripe down the sides. The jerseys were defined by the one color, block numbers that scream tradition and highlight the strength of the scarlet and cream as a color combo. Look at any of the teams with traditional uniforms today – Michigan, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Tennessee, Notre Dame – and you’ll find that the common uniform link between them all is that one-color block number on at least one of the jerseys. Incidentally, all seven of those teams, plus Nebraska, currently rank in the top 10 in all-time winning percentage.
Most Nebraska fans have a deep appreciation for that continuity but, despite what some might think, many of the current players do to. Oregon and Oklahoma State may grab headlines by wearing something new each week, but Nebraska’s uniform still gets its intended message across.
“It says tradition,” sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah said of Nebraska’s standard look. “Just wearing the same uniform that Johnny Rodgers or Mike Rozier wore means a lot.”
The alternate uniform Nebraska will wear this week was a way to give the current Huskers a taste of the latest trends while still remaining true to the university’s identity. And while the futuristic look has a few nods to Nebraska’s tradition, it will also represent a series of firsts:
1. Nebraska will wear a black helmet for the first time in school history. It will also be the first time the Huskers haven’t worn either a white or red helmet since plastic replaced leather.
2. For the first time since 1933, a large N takes the place of the standard uniform number as the dominant element on the front of the jersey.
3. The Huskers will have an outlined number on the jerseys for the first time in at least 60 years, maybe ever.
4. Nebraska will wear all red uniforms for the first time since the 1986 Oklahoma game, a 20-17 loss in Lincoln.
Love them or hate them, Nebraska’s game against Wisconsin is going to look unlike any game that’s been played in Memorial Stadium before.
“We wanted to go to the edge of our brand, but we didn’t want to jump over that line and go into something that wasn’t us,” Stephens said of the alternates.
It’s tough to argue that Nebraska will be mistaken for anyone else with that giant black N coming straight at you. It still means something, even in black.
Just ask Justin Jackson, the senior center from Roca, Neb. With the exception of a few minor tweaks, he wears the same Nebraska jersey now that the players wore when he was born in 1990. That will change this Saturday, but he’s dealing with it just fine.
“It’s still the ‘N’ on the side of the helmet,” he said. “Every time you see that thing on there, especially during the game when it’s got some scuffs, it’s a sweet thing to have on.”