On Monday night, the University of Maryland football team did what it set out to do: defeat the Miami Hurricanes. But the eight-point margin of victory did little to silence the next-day confusion about just what sartorial statement the team was trying to make with its new uniform.
Was the university upping the visual ante to signal a new coach and new leadership at all levels in College Park?
Were the multihued jerseys signaling yet another salvo in a very colorful corporate contest between Under Armour, the aggressive Baltimore upstart in athletic gear that designed the new outfits, and Nike, the global Goliath of the field (and court and mat and ring)?
Judged by postgame chatter, the Terps’ uniforms — based on the Maryland flag, called “Maryland Pride” and chosen for the season opener — are something of a milestone, although its meaning is still under debate. Twitter detractors were comparing the uniform rethink to the mid-1970s low point when the Chicago White Sox hid their shame and bared their knees — hitting the field in black shorts. Another sniper suggested that the red-and-white cross on each player’s left shoulder clashed with the yellow-and-black on the right shoulder, like a collision in which crash-test dummies actually bleed.
The state’s celebrated historian, Robert J. Brugger, reached for the right word. “I must say the uniforms were splendorous,” said Brugger, author of “Maryland, a Middle Temperament.” “Obviously someone spent a lot of time thinking about how the flag could be used on clothing.”
To Class of 1976 alumna Gayle King, editor at large of O Magazine and red-carpet regular, the uniforms demonstrated a lot of thought but not a clear one: “It seems like there’s three different things going on at the same time,” she said. “I love the Maryland flag, but it seems like they’re coming at it from all angles.”
But another alum got all rah-rah to see the flag’s familiar asymmetry. “I like the fact that it stands out,” said Joshua J. Cohen, the 38-year-old mayor of Annapolis. “I like that, as we’re about to roll over the opposing team, they’ll be able to admire our state flag more clearly in the milliseconds before they get pummeled to the ground.” He laughed, suggesting he was getting carried away.
Speaking of getting carried away: “It looks like someone on the street with mismatched shoes, it’s almost like someone in costume,” said GQ senior editor Will Welch, who detected a transcontinental rivalry in the design. “This is them ripping a page from the playbook of the Oregon Ducks,” who get to hit the field in super-cool matte black helmets (supplied by Nike). The University of Oregon has an imaginative booster in Nike impresario Phil Knight, and Under Armour, started by Kensington native and former Terp Kevin Plank, was perhaps swiping at the famous Swoosh.
In Welch’s eyes, Oregon’s more cheeky designs are a notch more nuanced than the American Gladiator garb in College Park. And, besides, in the state where Johnny Unitas and Artie Donovan grappled to greatness in muddy football fields, “the best accessory was a broken nose,” in Welch’s words.
But CEO one-upmanship is not turning the Terps into corporate twerps, explained Wallace Loh, the University of Maryland president who has ushered in new leadership in the athletic department and many top College Park positions since his arrival in November. Yes, the players road-test new designs and promote new products, but the university benefits from the cost-free uniforms, plus a cash gift from the corporate partner.
“Obviously, businesses compete with each other. Universities compete with each other as well — for students, for grants, for top professors,” explained Loh, who said he admired Plank for making such a commitment to his alma mater. “Kevin Plank, who probably could establish his corporate headquarters anywhere, has decided to establish it in Baltimore, and he’s expressing his pride in his Maryland roots.”
The design was judged a success in the Under Armour headquarters because it was a success on the Terps’ field, said Matt Mirchin, the brand’s marketing executive. “Anytime you do something new and bold and different, you know there’s going to be mixed reactions.”
Though the Maryland Pride won’t be seen again on the players, that’s not because of those mixed reactions. “What they wore last night was only planned to be worn for one game,” Mirchin said, noting the various options of jerseys and pants can be assembled in as many as 32 combinations. “You will see new versions week to week.”
What’s more, said Brugger, the historian, the flag with its four colors (when other states have merely two) is in keeping with Maryland’s tradition of combining elements in a sometimes uneasy alliance. The state started as a colony known for its religious tolerance, and it struggled in the Civil War as a place where Union loyalists and Confederate sympathizers coexisted, albeit under martial law. He noted the red-and-white cross in the flag was once such a mark of Southern defiance that men and women were arrested for merely wearing the colors.
Color statements have thus long been provocative. “You have to be prepared for people to be talking about that,” said Welch of GQ, “as much as they’re talking about who’s starting at tailback.”