Wiedmer: Can clothes fashion Vols into winners?

Wiedmer: Can clothes fashion Vols into winners?

August 16th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

University of Tennessee linebacker Curt Maggitt models a new gray uniform during media day at Neyland Stadium.

Photo by C. B. Schmelter/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Tennessee assistant coach Willie Martinez was on the Georgia sideline that November day in 2007 when the Bulldogs first broke out the black jerseys. And crushed Auburn 45-20. And perpetuated the myth that clothes can make the football team.

UGA's defensive coordinator at that time, Martinez said of the gimmick, "It was very exciting. It set a really good mood. The players loved it."

But he was also there 336 days later when the program was back in black for a visit from Alabama. Somehow overcoming the Dawgs' Black Magic, the Crimson Tide prevailed 41-30.

Said Martinez of that shocking reversal of fashion fortune: "You still have to execute. You still have to make plays."

Much as the Big Orange Nation may dream otherwise this morning, still flush with justifiable excitement and relief over their Volunteers' tasteful new Adidas threads, Tennessee's 117th football team ultimately will win or lose because of how well it executes and makes plays.

Alabama hasn't markedly changed its uniform in more than 50 years, yet it's somehow managed to win three of the last four national championships. Sometimes it's the changes you don't make that make the difference.

Tennessee hasn't won a national championship since 1998. It hasn't won the SEC East since 2007. It hasn't finished with a winning record in four of the last five years, including the last three in a row.

So maybe change was needed, beginning with the uniforms.

"One of the top three questions we're asked [by recruits] is about our uniforms," new UT coach Butch Jones said as several of his players modeled the five uniform combinations for the upcoming season, including an all-gray ensemble (other than UT's trademark orange and white helmet) that included some snappy gray and orange cleats.

"We're all about tradition. But we're also about building on tradition. It's the world we live in."

Much as we ink-stained wretches have probably already grown tired of writing these next three words, Jones gets it. All of it. At least all of the preseason part, though that quickly will become irrelevant to the masses if the in-season portion doesn't produce at least as many wins as losses.

He gets the recruiting. The academics. Schmoozing with the boosters. Marketing. Oh, man, does he get marketing, which also circles back to recruiting.

With obvious input from Adidas -- which no doubt is on hyper-alert to please-please-please the Big Orange so the Vols won't jump to Nike when its current contract ends within the next two years -- the school began plotting the uniform changes in late January, not six weeks into Jones' tenure.

By Thursday afternoon, the big unveiling about to begin, the Vols' posh Neyland Stadium locker room looked more like a Garment District runway in New York City, complete with strobe lights, a glass runway and loud music.

With this for a backdrop, Jones briefly became the Ralph Lauren of SEC football as he described in great detail the various combinations, right down to the checkerboard pattern fabric used for the orange numbers on the white road jerseys.

He even fashioned the perfect punch line. Scheduled to begin at 3 p.m., the news conference didn't actually start until 3:13, which allowed Jones to open thusly: "I apologize for being fashionably late."

When the joke apparently failed to get the response he'd hoped for, Jones quickly added, "OK, have a chuckle ... fashionably late."

But even the most strident traditionalist would have a hard time suppressing a proud smile over four of the five combinations, each of them only slightly tweaking the status quo. As for the fifth option -- that "Smokey" gray concoction that lit up the Internet -- Adidas did a remarkably good job of basically adhering to the Vols' recognized style (right down to the twin wide stripes on the pants) while delivering a completely new look.

"As of right now, [the grays] will be a one-game deal," Jones said.

Of course, he also swiftly added, "It could grow from that. The 1914 team wore gray, and it went undefeated."

If you think this is all much ado about nothing, consider the following words from senior lineman Ja'Wuan James: "If I'd seen these [the gray uniforms], I'd have never committed to Alabama."

You can argue about the priorities of future SEC stars who would pick a school for its uniforms, but as James said, "Times have changed."

Fifteen days from today, we'll begin to find out if new uniforms can have the Vols dressing for success for the first time in four years. But just to be safe, they might also want to keep executing and making plays. It's worked pretty well of late for the guys in Bama's unchanged unis.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com