Just a short walk from the tunnel at Kenan Stadium, the North Carolina football equipment staff is hard at work assembling and organizing UNC’s new uniforms in anticipation of Thursday’s matchup against No. 10 Miami.
Assistant Equipment Manager Jason Freeman has seen the recruits make their way to his office during tours. They admire the wall-to-wall dedication to all things Nike. The recruits try on uniforms, posing for pictures in front of their parents.
“We set up the mannequins and let them see what they’ll be wearing in the future, so it is a big part of what they see,” said Freeman, who has worked for UNC football since he was a student in 1995. “The gloves and the shoes. Carolina blue is a color they’re not going to see anywhere else in the country.”
One of UNC’s three new uniforms — a helmet-to-cleat black ensemble — has drawn particular attention. Thursday night’s nationally televised game will mark the first time a Tar Heel squad has taken the field in all-black gear, and the game has implications for UNC’s present and future.
Coach Larry Fedora understands that uniforms aren’t the only way to court recruits, but he’s looking for any advantage he can get.
“It may help on only one kid,” Fedora said. “If it helps on one kid, then I’m all for it because we need to continue to upgrade talent-wise every year and that’s how we’re going to get better.”
Do uniforms bring in recruits?
An August 2013 ESPN.com poll of 700 recruits showed just 3 percent of respondents considered uniforms the most important factor in choosing a school. Uniforms ranked behind academics, coaching, playing time, school tradition, location, experience sending players to the NFL and television exposure, according to the poll.
If recruits are interested, UNC has plenty of athletic apparel to offer.
The Tar Heels’ all-sport, 10-year contract with Nike, which was signed in 2009 and made retroactive to 2008, is worth $37.7 million and covers shoes, uniforms, coaching gear, balls and other equipment.
The athletic department has an allotment from Nike to pay for coaches’ and players’ athletic apparel, and all costs beyond the allotment must come out of the athletic budget.
Dominic Morelli, UNC football’s equipment manager, said the three new sets of uniforms cost about $75,000, with Nike picking up all costs within UNC’s allotment. In a typical year with no redesign, Morelli said, the team would spend about $30,000 to $40,000.
Freshman wide receiver Ryan Switzer said while the uniforms were a draw, his decision had more to do with the coaching staff.
“Anytime you’re playing a sport, you love the gear and more uniforms mean more gear, so with coach Fedora and them decking us out with multiple uniforms and helmets — it was one thing,” Switzer said. “I wouldn’t say it was a big, big reason, but it’s something that’s nice.”
Scout.com ranked UNC’s 2013 recruiting class 29th in the nation among 126 FBS schools. UNC’s 2014 ranking — with fewer than four months left before signing day — comes in at 16.
Freshman running back T.J. Logan, a Scout.com four-star recruit from UNC’s 2013 class, said standout college football uniforms get high school teammates talking.
“Jerseys were a big thing to me and helmets and stuff because you look on TV, you see Oregon,” Logan said. “Guys are going to want to go on the field looking nice.
“You look nice, you play nice.”
Aaron Wasson, director of equipment operations at Oregon, said that after years of grabbing attention for uniforms, he believes the school now signs recruits because it wins consistently.
“(Uniforms) may have initially given opportunities for our coaching staff to get in the door with recruits that maybe historically we haven’t be able to on a national level,” he said.
Following Oregon, even traditional programs like Notre Dame and Michigan have dabbled in alternative uniforms.
Freeman said UNC hadn’t deviated from its blue and white much under Fedora’s predecessors in the 1990s and early 2000s, but that was largely because alternate uniforms weren’t on the college football radar.
“When Oregon started changing, that’s when the landscape changed,” he said.
Some jerseys are hits and others draw criticism. But the change always receives the attention UNC Recruiting Coordinator Walt Bell and UNC’s coaching staff crave.
“Everybody loves new stuff. That’s kind of the big broad picture,” Bell said.
“When you narrow your focus a little bit, anything that puts us in front of (recruits) one more time, every picture that gets retweeted. Anytime that we can be in their pocket, be on their phone, be in front of them, the more people that talk the better.”
The Carolina brand
As a senior, safety Tre Boston has played through more conservative periods of UNC uniforms than the Fedora era, which has already included chrome and star-spangled helmets less than two years into his tenure. He said the uniform combinations add to the experience of coming to the locker room on game day.
“We used to come in every game and it would be like, ‘Carolina blue again. Yeah,’” Boston said sarcastically. “Now it’s at the point where we never know what we’re going to wear.”
Though Fedora makes the final call on what combination UNC will wear in a given week, he receives input from UNC’s equipment staff, Bell and the team’s seniors.
The blackout jerseys, which Fedora said are derived from the tar in the Tar Heel logo, are not exempt from criticism.
Paul Lukas, ESPN.com’s uniform columnist, doesn’t see why UNC has adopted a color different from the school’s traditional ones.
“I don’t think it’s a good look for UNC,” Lukas said. “It’s kind of a traditional-looking school, or at least that’s how I perceive them. Black is not a school color, and they’ve just sort of gone bonkers this season.”
Rick Steinbacher, UNC senior associate athletic director for external communications, said the school’s brand is alive and well.
“Carolina blue is our color. It will always be color. It will always be the fundamental thing that sets us apart,” he said. “We want to protect the heritage and tradition of that, but we also want to do some new different innovative things that we’ve seen other people have success with.”
Perception vs. reality
Ultimately the nation’s top recruits are attracted to winning programs, and UNC has had trouble competing on a national stage.
Bell said sleek uniforms help bridge UNC’s gap in recruiting.
“You’ve got to do everything you can to stay current, to make sure that people are still talking about you as a football program and as a football brand and trying to create a perception that’s different from the reality,” Bell said.
“The reality here is we haven’t won an ACC championship since 1980, but that’s not the perception.”
The results aren’t apparent in 2013 with UNC at 1-4, but Bell’s outlook is optimistic that recruits, even ones years away from a commitment, can sense a change in UNC’s program.
“I guarantee you with more than a couple (recruits) that was a factor, that things were changing here and maybe not in the sense that people feel,” Bell said. “Maybe not in the sense that everybody can tell, but that’s at least one little small physical piece of evidence that things are about to be different.”
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