Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

In the Age of Alternates, Subtly Strong Is Underrated

August 16, 2022

If you’re the sort of Nebraska fan who wishes the Huskers’ now-annual alternate uniform could be, I don’t know, better, cooler, riskier, I get it. There’s definitely an argument to be made that if a program is going to swim in these cool-chasing waters, half measures aren’t going to get it done.

The counter-argument to that might be the 2012 alternates. Plenty risky, pretty ugly.

Those days might be over anyway. During Scott Frost’s tenure, all of Nebraska’s alternate uniforms have had some sort of historical/traditional reference. (Yes, I think the Blackshirts alternates qualify though they’re also the most contemporaneous and purely cool uniform move Nebraska has made yet.) When it comes to alternate uniforms, the Huskers seem to prefer to look back, not forward.

I think that’s OK, though as a Gen-Xer I’m probably predisposed to that stance. I definitely don’t think most 17-year-olds care about The Scoring Explosion. If the aim of an alternate uniform is to appeal to that demographic, none of them are likely to notice the subtle differences in Nebraska’s newest alternate. It’s not one likely to get any non-Nebraska fan to stop scrolling.

 

The challenge with the Huskers’ preference for nostalgia is that the uniforms haven’t changed a ton in the past 60 years. Here’s a partial list of the major uniform developments:

1962 – Bob Devaney arrives and Nebraska debuts those beautiful serifed numbers. They’re still the best uniforms the Huskers have had.

1967 – White helmets are here to stay and they now include NU on the sides.

1969 – Goodbye gorgeous serifed numbers.

1970 – The U is dropped and the N stands alone on Nebraska’s helmets. Until the alternate era, the Huskers are all set on headwear.

1978 – The N is added to the sleeves.

1984 – The N is off the sleeves, stripes are on and this is basically what Nebraska will wear through the rest of the Osborne era.

1995 – Stripes are removed from the pants, which qualifies as a big deal in this context.

2002 – The gussets are here.

2003 – The gussets are gone, and Nebraska’s just back to normal.

2012 – The annual-alternate era begins.

That’s six decades and a timeline that includes 10 entries. From 1970 on, we’re mostly talking about stripes. As we’ve seen in other aesthetic contexts, Nebraska just doesn’t have a ton to pull from and that’s its own sort of uniform legacy. It’s the legacy you’ll find at a lot of blue-blood programs.

A program like Oregon was the perfect place to weaponize uniform design, and the Ducks did starting in 1999, because the visual history of the program wasn’t tied to sustained success at that point. (Didn’t hurt that Nike wanted to throw all of its marketing and design muscle behind it, too.) At the start of the 1999 season, Oregon ranked 63rd in all-time winning percentage. (The Ducks rank ninth in the 23 seasons since.)

These are the 10 all-time winningest programs entering this season: Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, USC, Penn State, Nebraska and Tennessee. They’ve all played around with alternates occasionally, but remove those for now. Picture the first uniform you can think of for any of those programs. Does it look basically like what they wear today? Could it also be from the 1960s? Can you picture another uniform for any of those schools? (Again, 21st Century alternates not accepted.)

The absence of uniform change is its own marker of historical standing. The tradeoff for that is you don’t get a ton of exciting alternates.

In that context, Nebraska adding an N to the sleeves for an alternate in 2022 is one of the most notable design elements it had at its disposal. It’s such a small change that the average college football fan flipping on the game might not even notice. But at Nebraska, it qualifies as a big change. You could argue that the 1983 Scoring Explosion poster used to tease this throwback uniform is a bigger piece of the Huskers’ visual iconography than the uniform itself (which was worn for five seasons).

If you’re willing to entertain that hypothesis, I think it makes Nebraska’s latest alternate a complete success. You take a tiny piece of tradition as inspiration and make something just for you.

Some other school can have a “cooler” alternate, and some other school will. But there’s nothing wrong with subtly strong.

Nebraska chose that path.

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