Uniforms are the best part of college football. They are about tradition, style, grace, and fun, and they divide a fanbase like little else. Sure, every uniform houses a school’s athletic logo and that school’s athletic colors as well as identifies players via numbers and usually name plates. But uniforms go above and beyond, also representing a university, community, and even state. Notre Dame’s golden lids are the representation of the Gold Dome at the heart of their campus. Arizona State’s alternate uniform incorporates copper color in reference to the state’s copper mines. Our “friends” to the east recently introduced a uniform color inspired by the nearby Smokey Mountains. At its extreme, uniforms define the team logo (looking at you, terrible NFL Cleveland Browns logo of a plain brown helmet). Without question, the design of a team uniform is of the utmost importance.
Over the past ten years, there has been remarkable attention paid to college uniforms and their designs—likely fueled by Nike’s work at Oregon. New helmets of chrome or matte have become popular at programs around the nation, as have ‘blackouts’ (or other color rushes), and teams everywhere have expanded their wardrobes to include alternates for special occasions or special games. Various uniform combinations are commonly seen as a recruiting tool as well as a way to drum up excitement among the fan base. Only the most successful/traditional schools have resisted this change. Michigan would never take the field without its winged helmets, just as Alabama wouldn’t dare to change having players’ number adorn each side of their headgear.
This brings us to the Commodores. As a perennially unsuccessful team over the past half-century, new coaches have used uniform changes to excite the fanbase and try to draw support. Due to this, Vanderbilt has rarely had a ‘consistent’ look. I won’t delve too much into the 20th century history of the Vanderbilt uniform (not much of it is particularly notable), but suffice to say helmets, jerseys, and pants have taken on a wide variety of logos, stripes, and colors over the years. For this piece, I’ll take a look at the most recent Commodore uniforms, assess what I perceive their strengths and weaknesses are, take a guess at how Mason has altered the standard Vanderbilt look, and how Vanderbilt could best update its uniforms in the future.
To make that much easier, the following Dropbox link contains a folder that has every combination of uniform Mason has worn since 2014 along with some popular 2012 combinations and the 2000, 2002, and 2008 sets for reference. If I missed a set from the past 3 years, please let me know and I’ll update the folder. Before reading further, I highly recommend taking a look at them. And yes, we’ve had no less than 5 uniform overhauls in the past 16 seasons.
At the turn of the century, Vanderbilt was wearing gold domes with the arcing “VANDERBILT” nested in a V logo. Uniforms were sponsored by Russell, and were extremely plain. We had two jerseys as far as I can find: a white one and a black one. The jerseys lacked any adornment, with only the SEC logo and manufacturer logo on them. No VU logo nor player names adorned them, and there was no trim around the lettering. The pants had a bit of personality however. The gold pants had a single black stripe down the side with a plain, symmetrical gold V at the hip. White pants had a black stripe down the side with a gold star at the hip.
When Johnson arrived in 2002, he brought updated uniforms with him. Jerseys and pants came in black, gold, and white. White and gold jerseys all had black lettering and only a Nike logo on them, with one horizontal shoulder stripe at the bottom of the sleeve. All pants had a two-color stripe down the side, but no logos. The helmets were updated to the look we know today: gold base with a white stripe and black borders and the Star-V logo on the side. The current gold helmets are the longest-tenured helmets Vanderbilt has used in decades.
Uniforms were updated significantly in 2008 to one of Nike’s new patterns. The shoulder stripes were removed, and piping was added that dropped from the interior of the shoulder and surrounded the front player number. The Star-V logo was placed at the neck line and in the place of player names on the back. The numbers were also outlined in a contrasting color as well. White jerseys had black lettering with a gold outline, gold jerseys had white numbers in a black outline, and black jerseys had white numbers with a gold outline. The pants also received a change, adding a Star-V logo on the left hip and ditching the side stripes.
These are the uniforms Franklin had in his first year, but he added a black helmet to the rotation. The black helmet was the first black lid used since the script “Vandy” adorned the sides from 1979–83 (and featured in the Hall of Fame Bowl). This black helmet did not feature a centerline stripe. After a year with the program, the uniforms were overhauled before the 2012 season. This set (which I believe are the best set Vanderbilt has ever had) again came in black, gold, and white variants. New was the addition of a white helmet, the Commodores’ first since the 1986–1990 seasons. (An aside: For a brief time in 1987, these helmets also had “73” on the left side and an all-gold star-V on the right side!). VU Commodores has an excellent summary of the changes:
- For the first time since 1994,”Vanderbilt” will be displayed on the front of Commodore jerseys. The name will be in all caps above jersey numbers.
- A gold “anchor” emblem adorns the homeplate or front “V” neck of all jerseys. Last year, the Star V logo was stitched there. (Note that this anchor was not the anchor we use as an alternate logo.)
- “Anchor Down” text is stitched in the interior of each jersey neckline.
- Nike’s iconic “flywire” stitching is incorporated into the high impact shoulder area of each jersey.
- The gold jersey top features black shoulder coverings, black lettering and black numbers. Last year (the 2008-2011 uniform), the gold jersey had white numbers.
- All jerseys have an updated circular SEC patch stitched over the right breast. The Nike swoosh is over the left breast.
- Star V logos will adorn each hip of the pants. In 2011, a lone Star V logo was located on the left front of the uniform pant.
In addition to these changes, the font used for the numbers was updated to be a little bolder and a little more unique (particularly the digit ‘5’). The type used to write “Vanderbilt” also matched the typeface that the university uses in its official wordmark, adding coherence to the uniform that bonded it to the newly-updated field and jumbotron.
The Derek Mason era began with new uniforms as well, but I don’t think I need to remind anyone how that went. Mason first game featured new designs not seen before on a Vanderbilt uniform: A sublimated anchor pattern on the shoulder, a thinly weighted typeface, and black jersey that had gold lettering rather than white. On the pants, the hip logos were removed and the pants returned to displaying one Star-V on the front left hip opposite the Nike logo. The Star-V replaced the anchor on the neckline, and TV numbers moved to the top of the shoulder to accommodate the new shoulder pattern. They debuted with new black helmets, now in matte. Despite the updates to the black uniform, the gold and white jerseys and pants were not updated. Mason also tweaked the existing white helmet, removing the black and gold center stripe that adorned it in the previous two seasons.
Mason completely updated the 2015 uniforms to match the 2014 Anchor Down black set, with mixed success. First, the gold and white top and bottom were updated to match the black. The current gold jersey borrows its shoulder designfrom the previous gold jersey, adding black shoulder sleeve in the anchor pattern. It also continues using black numbering. The new white jersey added the black shoulder pattern present on the black and gold as well, giving these uniforms a unique look separating them from the solid white of the previous ones.
The most substantial changes happened to the white and black helmets. A chain stripe adorns the black and white variants, with our anchor secondary logo at the end of the chain in the back. The logos become monochrome, and the size of the star has increased.
The adage goes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but rather than keep a look we all associate with 9-4 seasons, Mason came in and put his own stamp on the program by switching up the uniforms after only two years. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it certainly wasn’t necessary. On the one hand, most of the uniform changes he oversaw reinforce the nautical/anchor theme we’ve been stressing since Franklin came in. Doubling down on the anchor iconography is good. “Anchor Down” is here to stay, and having the uniforms reflect this [legally] is a good thing. On the other hand, it’s not particularly necessary to replace what were ostensibly new uniforms. Each of the pieces have something that could be improved, particularly with typeface selection and the use of our primary Star-V logo.
The jerseys are the best pieces of the set. The anchor shoulder patterns look nice and are distinctive. The gold color on each of them looks correct, and they look distinctive from our opponents’ uniforms. My main issue lies with the numbers. The 2012-2013 set had big, large, bold numbers that had great legibility. The current ones reduced the font size, which is never a good thing. Additionally, the “Vanderbilt” on the front got smaller and harder to read. For such a long name and for a school with uniforms or a logo not instantly recognizable to any random Joe Schmoe flipping through ESPN on a Saturday morning, legibility should be the most important aspect to these uniforms. The typeface no longer matches the typeface used on our home field, which is disappointing. I could do without the fly wire coloring in the collar as well.
The pants saw only a minor change. They return to only having one Star-V adorn the left pant leg, though now they have an additional star outline around them. The Star-V on each of the pants is either black or clear and the V takes the color of the pants the logo is printed on.
The helmets are a mixed bag. Your opinion of these is greatly dependent on how much you like traditional helmet designs, and are the most hit-or-miss element of the new set. They feature large, monochrome Star-V designs, a chain stripe down the middle that ends in the secondary anchor logo, and “Commodores” along the base of the helmets.
The updates to the black and white helmets make the ‘traditional’ gold helmet look a little stale. It’s a classic look that will never look bad, but in about 10 years it could be the trendy chain stripe helmets that look bad. The only issue with not updating the gold helmets is that the gold no longer quite matches the gold used on the black and white jerseys. Because of the subtle gold trim used on the 2012-2013 set, the gold helmet looked good with both jerseys. In contrast, the gold on the 2015 jerseys don’t seem to quite match the gold helmet anymore. Hopefully that can be rectified soon, but for reasons I’ll outline later on, it may not matter much anymore.
Because of the inconsistent logo used across uniforms, combinations are possible that have three variants of the Star V logo visible at once. On the all-white look, you have a white field star with a black V on the helmet, the standard logo on the neckline, and the black field and white V (with no gold and a superfluous black outline) on the pants. Consistent this is not.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Deep Water uniforms introduced in 2015. Fan, recruit, and player reaction to these uniforms has been extremely positive, for good reason. The helmet here is the best of the bunch: it is glossy with a black-grey field with wave patterns and features a gold anchor on the side and a gold anchor chain. The uniform color is battleship grey (sweet) and while not black and gold, looks really good (so good in fact, that I would be happy if these replaced our white jerseys). The jersey features a big custom typeface that fixes my issue with the standard uniform: slim, hard-to-read numbers. The proper Star-V is in the neckline as well. The at numbers are back on the side of the shoulder rather than the top. The jersey and pants also feature some additional piping and stitching that give the uniform some texture and break up the grey. On these pants, the Star-V is shifted to the front right hip and “Anchor Down” is emblazoned where stripe would usually go along the side (we didn’t get in trouble this time!). The Star-V on the hip utilizes the proper logo, which is a nice improvement over the standard set. On these pants, it makes sense that the Star-V can’t be at the hip. The only complain that I can level at these is that the “Vanderbilt” typography is the same used on the default 2015 uniforms. If they were shifted to match the font used across the athletic department and on the football field, this set would be perfect.
Uniform Trends Under Mason:
Below I’ve tabulated each uniform combination worn since Derek Mason took over in 2014 along with some observations. Below the table are some of the overall trends I noticed and some conclusions we can draw from them.
In 2014, Mason was all over the place with uniform combinations. Adding to the debacle of the first game’s “Anchor Down” name plate, Derek Mason rolled out an absolutely awful combination for the following game against Ole Miss game: White-gold-white. In addition to not being able to coach the team on the field, he couldn’t even put colors together that visually represented Vanderbilt, or even looked good. He used 9 different uniform combinations in 2014, with only Gold-White-Gold, Black-Gold-Black, and Black-Black-Black repeated, leading to an inconsistent visual identity for the team. Black helmets were worn five times, followed by two each for the white and gold. Each helmet was worn at least once for a home game and an away game. The white jersey was only worn away (makes sense), and home games were 5 black, 3 gold. Black pants were also worn 6 times, but with no consistency as whether they were only home or away or only against SEC competition. It was a mess.
Years 2 and 3 under Mason have been much better with visual consistency, aided by having uniforms that were more coherent in theme. The Deep Water uniforms were worn twice in 2015 and once as a unit in 2016. The black helmet again came out six times, with each other helmet getting worn twice. Unlike Bobby Johnson’s sole use of the gold dome, we’ve seen over the past three-plus years a shift to the black helmet being the primary lid, which I hadn’t realized until doing this research.
Mason’s use of the white helmet has declined since the 2014 season, only being used four times in the last two years: @Ole Miss 2015, @Houston 2015, vs. South Carolina 2016, and @Missouri 2016. Why we did a white out at home for a football game when our colors are black and gold, I don’t know; I can only hope that it never happens again. What I can say is that the Deep Water Helmet + Black Jersey + Black Pants will always be remembered fondly by Commodore fans.
With 3 different combinations of jerseys plus a Deep Water alternate, the question becomes when you wear which uniform. Mason wore the Deep Water set in the second home game of the year for 2015 and 2016, and wore an element of each uniform at the close of each season. My take is that they should be once-a-year uniforms worn on the first home game of SEC play. It’s early in the season, fan engagement should still be high, and it will look excellent on TV.
As for the helmets, the chain stripe is pretty cool and is cohesive with the anchor pattern on the jerseys. The anchor on the back is nice, though a little large. What bothers me about these helmets is the monochrome logo. Vanderbilt has an excellent logo. There is no need for it to change needlessly on the most prominent location on the uniform ensemble, and yet that’s exactly what happened. The black helmets would look much better if they had a white V in them rather than a gold one. It would absolutely pop and highlight the white V on the black jersey when they were paired. The white helmet fares worse: it simply has a black star outline with a black V on a white field. The previous white helmets had the standard Star-V logo on them (gold outline, white “V”) and looked much better—and were much more legible and distinctive—as a result. The gold helmet is more distinctive to Vanderbilt in the SEC (especially since newcomer Missouri exclusively uses a black lid), and I would enjoy it regaining its prominence in the wardrobe lineup. White should be avoided where possible since it isn’t one of our colors. It’s disappointing to see it relegated to only 16% of our games per year. I’d at least like to see what the gold would look like with a black chain stripe and anchor. I’d love if we wore the gold helmet to all away games and kept the black helmet exclusively for blackouts at the non-conference season opener and Senior Night.
The pants are the saddest part of the 2015 uniforms in my opinion. I like the fact that they don’t have stripes on them, but that means that the Star-V must be done really well. They aren’t. The Star-V on the pants has a star outline on it, making it look like a Dallas Cowboys Star with a V in it. It isn’t very legible either, and isn’t even the right colors on the gold jersey: instead of actually being the Commodores’ logo (gold outline, black field, white V), it’s simply a black star and an outline with a V formed in negative space on the gold jersey. The logo is correct on the black jersey, and is monochrome instead of having a gold border on the white pants. The whole look with the outline is terrible, and I hope it gets fixed soon. I personally also enjoyed having a star-V on each hip, so I’m disappointed that it has moved to the front left quarter and has the Nike logo on the other side.
To be honest, I think that the weakest uniform pieces we have are the white pants and the white helmet. The black variations of those look better, and we have little to gain by wearing white. We’re lucky in that Vanderbilt’s colors don’t suck and that a neutral color like white (or grey) is needed to offer some color balance (look at Ole Miss and Georgia, who consistently use grey pants). Black is one of our school colors. We may as well use it. If we do keep the white helmet and black pants, it should have some more black and gold on it, as it did in 2012 and 2013 (and earlier for the pants). Another weak uniform combination we’ve used over the past two seasons is Gold-White-Gold on the road. This would be one case when breaking the “Rule of 2” (where at least two of the three uniform pieces should have the same base color) would be good, as a Gold-White-Black combo would look better.
The Court of Public Opinion
I have demonstrated how our look has evolved, noted recent trends in uniform selection, illustrated my thoughts on the uniforms, and provided some peanut-gallery commentary on how they could improve. But what do you all think? What are our best uniform combinations, or the worst? What combination do you loathe, and am I crazy for not being especially fond of the white helmet? Here are some fun questions to consider:
Should we replace white uniforms with battleship grey ones?
Do we really need a white helmet?
Should we update the gold helmet with the chain stripe?
Should the gold return to being our primary helmet, or continue using the black helmet as our primary?
Are the uniforms perfect just the way they are?
On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you like them?