Tennessee and Nike will make it official on Wednesday, as the Vols are set to make the switch from the three stripes to the swoosh. Tennessee will do it big, with a live special at noon on July 1 before the new gear is released to the masses. But while coaches' polos and new ballcaps will be hot commodities, the issue guaranteed to get a rise out of the fanbase will be Tennessee's football uniforms.
Early rumblings don't suggest drastic changes to Tennessee's traditional look. Butch Jones has added subtle touches, most notably a tri-star decal on the back of the helmet and the state outline above the name on the jersey. But the primary scheme has remained the same for as long as your television has been able to show it in color.
Still, we love this conversation. Two years ago I was on my honeymoon when the smokey grays were unveiled, and when we got back to East Tennessee a few days later friends and family led with, "How 'bout those unis!" over anything about the wedding or the honeymoon something like three to one. It's what we do. Our initial post on the smokey grays had the most comments of any of our 2013 off-season coverage post-NFL Draft from mid-April thru mid-August.
So whatever comes walking through that door on Wednesday, we'll all have an opinion. Until then, here's one man's power ranking of the uniform variations we've seen in the last 25 years. These should be taken super seriously.
Ain't broke, don't fix. While I think Butch's aforementioned subtle changes have been well-received and I'd be curious to see what Nike can do with the subtle use of checkerboard, Tennessee's home orange & white uniforms are a college football staple. Our shade of orange is beautiful, unique, and other snowflake-like words. Let's call the no-stripes on pants version 1a and the stripes on pants 1b.
Most famously known as The Miracle at South Bend unis, as seen at the top of this post. Tennessee's away uniforms, as you'll see, were nothing special until the Vols went with this pattern to open the 1991 season. There were complaints about the orange-on-white numerals being difficult to see, so the Vols spiced it up by going with an orange-white-orange outline. It's a simple change today when everyone is doing little things like this, but back then it was a breath of fresh air. When Phillip Fulmer took over he moved the Vols from orange pants to white on the road, but kept these jerseys until...
The smallest bit of black on the uniforms would have caused an outrage on the Vol interwebs if they existed in 1994. As it were, Fulmer and the Vols pulled the trigger early and rode these uniforms to unprecedented success on the road. I have always disliked these uniforms with orange pants, but love the stormtrooper variation which lasted until Butch Jones arrived.
Again, snowflakes. Our orange is beautiful and more of it cannot be a bad thing. Though the orange pants have not been kind to the Vols since around 1982, they have always been kind to the eyes in East Tennessee. Both Lane Kiffin and Butch Jones have worked them back into the Neyland Stadium rotation, most recently against Alabama last year.
Though they are a painful 0-2, the smokey grays have found their way into the hearts and wallets of many Tennessee fans. Tennessee making it an official part of the university's color trademark should give Nike cause to use it even though adidas has outfitted a number of its teams in something similar over the last two years.
So I'm okay with the move away from black on the road unis, but I have mixed feelings about the inclusion of the TENNESSEE wordmark above the numerals. On the one hand, Tennessee has been doing this long enough and well enough to not need to tell people who they are (related: get off my lawn). On the other hand, I like the idea we believe we're seeing from Nike here. If you're going to do the wordmark, make it your own. Using the parallelogram outline in most of the letters is a good start down that path.
Holding the distinction of Lane Kiffin's biggest surprise for 2.5 months, the black jerseys carry the negative association of Kiffin and the positive association of a big win over South Carolina the only time they were worn. I think most would agree that if this was to be done again, it needs black pants to go with it (which were rumored to be unavailable on such short notice in 2009).
These were awesome as a one-time deal. Otherwise I think they belonged in the 70s.
White jersey, orange pants, nothing fancy here.
Perhaps closely tied to the team's disappointing performance in 2002, these were exciting in theory but didn't really do it for many in practice. As always, a key component in Tennessee's uniform is making sure you have the exact same shade of orange across the board, which these jerseys missed the mark on between the numerals and the side stripe.