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October 5, 2012

Whiteout---The Oregon Connection

Several years ago, legendary Grambling State University head football coach Eddie Robinson spoke at a Coaches Clinic.

One of the all-time greats in the history of college football, Robinson spent 56 years at the same school, a feat that seems impossible in today's modern game.

"I've had one job and one wife my whole life," Robinson said.

Robinson won over 400 games and coached numerous players who went on to star in the NFL, including Hall of Famers Buck Buchanan, Willie Brown, and Charlie Joiner, along with Super Bowl XXII MVP Doug Williams and former Green Bay Packers star Willie Davis, among many, many others.

On this particular day, Robinson posed his listeners a question.

"Does anybody in here know the definition of the word insanity?" the old coach said.

Reaching into a dictionary, Robinson defined insanity as 'Doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.'

"You've got to do something different if you expect something different to happen," the old coach said, exuding the wisdom and confidence that can only come from having gone down the hard road many times oneself, and having done so successfully.

Under Coach Robinson the Grambling Tigers were known, along with being a stellar football program, for their unique uniform combinations, which were ahead of their time.

Robinson clearly wasn't afraid to shake things up, and neither is Larry Fedora, who is embracing his new era at North Carolina with a fresh attitude as it relates to uniforms and appearances.

"I think the fans love it. I think the players get excited about it, any time you're changing uniforms---any time you're doing anything that's different," Fedora said earlier this week.

This weekend, as North Carolina prepares to take on Virginia Tech in an important game with ACC Coastal Division implications, the Tar Heels are doing things decidedly differently.

For the first time since the early 1960s, UNC will wear white helmets as part of a 'Whiteout' on Saturday that includes all-white uniforms and an encouraging message to fans to wear white themselves.

Make no mistake---Butch Davis tried hard in his time to make similar changes, and he succeeded to the point of adding navy blue combinations to the equation.

But from what we're hearing, Coach Fedora is planning to take this thing to a whole new level.

UNC did a slight modification of its typical home uniform last week by adding the American flag to the helmet in recognition of Military Appreciation Day.

It went over well across the board, from players to coaches to fans to members of the Armed Forces.

"Our guys were excited about putting the flag on the side of the helmet. They really were," Fedora said. "That just adds to it and it's kind of the wave of the future and the way it is with players now and fans and everybody, it adds one more element to the game."

Mixing and matching uniforms is nothing new of course, but for tradition-rich UNC, which prides itself on a storied history of athletic success across various spectrums, sometimes change of this nature takes time.

And for some people, uniform change is not a welcome thing.

A lot of fans, quite understandably, want the Tar Heels to wear the same powder blue uniforms at home that they've been wearing since, well, anybody can remember.

To those folks I say two things. You are entitled to your opinion, but your opinion isn't in line with modern college football and the expectations of high school recruits.

You see, the college players and high school recruits absolutely love uniform shake-ups.

They simply love it.

"Kids lose their minds when they see the different uniforms. They lose it. They absolutely love it. It's like a kid at Christmas when you see it," said UNC director of player personnel Marcus Berry, who spoke with Tar Heel Illustrated this week about the new uniforms.

The last time UNC shook up its look this much was back in 2009, when the Tar Heels came out for the ESPN Thursday Night Game against Florida State in Kenan Stadium decked out in all navy blue.

Berry, who was in the locker room when the UNC players saw the uniforms for the very first time, believes the uniforms contributed to Carolina's fast first half start that night because of the extra surge of intensity and spirit it gave the team.

"The way they (the UNC players) reacted, I think that had something to do with why we came out and played so well (in the first half against FSU)," he said.

"If everybody could have seen the way the kids reacted, the kids' eyes, when they walked into the locker room. You've got to see how the kids react. You've got to see it. It's the same look as a little kid's face when he comes down Christmas morning. It's the same look. It fires them up."

It sounds a little harsh, but UNC is not Notre Dame or Ohio State on the gridiron as it relates to tradition.

It's just not the case.

They don't have those gold helmets or crimson jerseys that are undisputed icons of those two schools.

Simply put, UNC has to market itself differently to stand out to the modern football recruit.

"Once they (recruits) get to (the UNC) campus they like it," said Berry. "The challenge is getting them here."

That particular challenge is something familiar to the people of Eugene, Oregon.

Folks in Eugene pride themselves on having a big-time football program, but are located in a place that doesn't exactly stream out loud 'Football Hotbed.'

Earlier this year Oregon head coach Chip Kelly spent some time in Chapel Hill, where he studied the Tar Heels and spent considerable time with his friend Fedora.

In addition to being close friends, Kelly and Fedora employ remarkably similar offenses.

And as it turns out, they're both similar in that they're looking to have football programs that can compete with anybody in towns where that hasn't always been the case.

For a school like Oregon, how do you get kids from California and Texas and Florida and other places they recruit to come on visits to Eugene?

Simple.

You do something different that attracts attention and makes people stand up and take notice.

So about a decade ago, Oregon started mixing and matching its uniform combinations. A lot.

Some of them have been better than others. Some were simply atrocious.

Who can forget the all-yellow uniforms of the mid-2000s, which combined with a green stripe down the side made the Ducks look like a bunch of unripe bananas?

How about the 'chain link' uniforms from a few years back?

Whether you liked them or not, they got people talking about Oregon football when they otherwise wouldn't have been, and that has been a great thing for the people of Eugene.

What is more, Oregon uses the uniforms to improve team morale.

The coaches don't make the decisions on what the kids wear each week. A select group of seniors has that privilege.

"They (Oregon) get the kids involved in it," said Berry. "Coach Kelly has never chosen what the kids wear. They have a group of nine seniors, and they vote on it every single week."

In the end, Oregon's great uniform experiment met its purpose and then some.

It, along with the sustained success of the Ducks on the field, has kept top recruits intrigued and engaged with Oregon football, and it's helped the program remain among the elite in the Pac-12 and nationwide, where they figure to be for the foreseeable future.

"Oregon has already proved that (uniform combinations are) a recruiting tool and now you've got Maryland with Under Armour on this side of the country trying to do the same thing so everybody is doing it," said Coach Fedora. "It just adds to the game. I think it's fun. I think the players enjoy it and I know the fans do."

Oregon, of course, does have the advantage of being the alma mater and favored school of Nike founder Phil Knight, but don't forget that UNC has the largest contract of any college athletics department with Nike, so the possibilities are endless.

UNC could have combinations of white, powder blue, navy blue, or even silver in the coming years.

Maybe we'll even see the Tar Heels rocking the 'mirror' helmets like Oregon were in the Rose Bowl last year when UNC returns to a bowl game following this year's probation.

Oregon's football past, prior to the 1990s, was significantly less stellar than North Carolina's, so the question has to be posed, just like Eddie Robinson posed that question about insanity to his listeners so many years ago.

If it can happen at Oregon, why can't it happen at North Carolina?

For this week at least, it is happening at UNC.

The big question now is whether or not the UNC players can use it as motivation to get over the hump and beat the Hokies, thereby making it much more likely that the 'Whiteout' will become a regular part of Tar Heel football in the coming years.

Coach Fedora says it will regardless of Saturday's outcome, but rest assured a win Saturday has a good chance of making the 'Whiteout' a new piece of UNC football history.

And for a program that has been driven through the mud the past couple of years, chances to make new history should be welcomed, embraced, and lauded as important features of a new day in Chapel Hill.











 

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