I heard someone asked Mark Richt about the infamous black helmets at the Atlanta fan gathering the other night. Richt, having picked up on the fact that a lot of fans hated the helmets, noted that ideas like that are “good when you win, but not when you lose.”
I think it’s safe to say that the black helmets would have gained more fans had the Dogs upset the Gators last year while wearing them. But even then I think there would have been some resistance to them, simply because Georgia’s iconic red helmets with the elongated black “G” on the side are among the best-looking headgear in all of college football. In all of sports, for that matter.
They’re a tradition and part of a beloved uniform with the red jerseys and silver britches. My son tells me that many young fans aren’t aware there was a time the Bulldogs wore anything else.
And yet those red helmets are a tradition that I can clearly recall being started, because that design was introduced at the start of Vince Dooley’s first season as coach in 1964. For at least a dozen years before that, under Wally Butts and Johnny Griffith, the Dogs had worn plain silver helmets to match their silver britches (though it’s mostly forgotten that a square G was affixed to the side of the silver helmets for a few games during the 1962 season).
Georgia football was in a sorry state when Dooley arrived in Athens, and the new coach decided a new look was in order. In a move that I don’t remember causing much, if any, uproar at the time, Dooley canned the silver britches in favor of white pants. And he got Anne Donaldson, my seventh grade art teacher, who was married to UGA assistant coach John Donaldson, to come up with a new helmet design to replace the silver gear.
The “new look” helmets were red with the new black “G” logo in a white oval on each side. The “G,” which Dooley liked because it was forward-looking, was inspired by the helmet design worn by the Green Bay Packers, who gave their blessing to Georgia’s design.
And yet the untold story is that the red helmets were almost … white!
This is something I first became aware of last year when I was looking at Mark Schlabach’s book “Georgia Football: Yesterday & Today” (West Side Publishing), and on Page 77 was a photograph from before the 1964 season in which quarterback Preston Ridlehuber modeled the new look: red jersey with white numbers and white pants featuring red and black stripes down the side. The photo apparently was intended as some sort of demo of the new uniform because it has arrow notations on it for the color and width of the stripes.
But what really caught my eye was the helmets sitting on the ground in front of Ridlehuber. They both sport the elongated “G” that we’re now familiar with, but instead of being the familiar red helmets that the team ended up wearing, they are white. One has the “G” in red; the other has it in black. And both have red and black stripes down the center of the white helmet.
I was shocked to see something other than red helmets in the picture. When I eventually got the chance, I asked Dan Magill, who’s forgotten more about UGA sports history than anyone else will ever know, what he knew of the white helmets. But he didn’t recall them.
He said to ask Coach Dooley, so I did. How close, I wanted to know, did we come to actually having the Bulldogs wear white helmets? And who finally decided on red?
Dooley’s explanation: “We were experimenting with different helmet colors at the time, though I was always in favor of the red helmet and decided on the combination of black on white on red, described by a very noted person as the ‘most harmonious colors in existence.”’
The former coach added that the final decision of going with red helmets instead of white “was my call.”
While I was at it, I asked what prompted him to bring back the silver britches in 1980 after 16 years of mostly white britches (with red road pants worn for a number of road games in 1978-79).
“Just a hunch,” Dooley told me. “I felt that the not so tasteful cheer associated with the silver britches when I first arrived had gone with time.” (The UGA student body used to have a chant in the pre-Dooley era that rhymed “britches” with another word, which the new coach didn’t like.)
Plus, Georgia was coming off a 6-5 season in 1979, and Dooley thought the silver britches “would rekindle the spirit of the Bulldog Nation.” (In reality, with Herschel Walker in the backfield, the national champion Dogs of 1980 could have worn just about any color pants and no one would have cared.)
Generally speaking, UGA has messed around with its uniforms a lot less than many other programs. (Check out one Clemson fan’s lament about his school’s Oregonesque mix-and-match wardrobe here.)
The red road pants, which Herschel wore in his debut game in Knoxville, were trotted out a few more times between 1985 and 1988 before being retired. Jim Donnan introduced black britches, which looked great with the road jerseys in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day 1998, but were a flop with fans when paired with the red home jerseys the next season in Jacksonville. Donnan also briefly tried to insert white pants back into the rotation, but that didn’t last. Neither did the black stripes he added to the center of the red helmet, an idea that Ray Goff also briefly had tried out.
Early in his tenure, Richt made a point of saying he liked Georgia’s traditional uniforms and didn’t see any need for variety, but he eventually gave in to player and fan pleas for a black spirit jersey — and it was a resounding success in its two appearances in the 2007 season, combined with fan “blackouts.” The red helmets, black jerseys and silver britches looked really sharp, no doubt about it.
But a lot of superstitious folks soured on that look after the Dogs lost handily to Bama in black. And then came the return of the black britches last year in combination with the black helmets in another loss to Florida. After that, black was suitable only for describing the mood of the Bulldog Nation.
Still, at some point I figure the black jerseys will resurface on an occasional basis. Hey, they’re 2-1, the players love them and UGA has sold an awful lot of replica black jerseys to fans.
Actually, I don’t think there’d be too many complaints if the black pants were worn with the traditional red helmet and white road jerseys every once in a while. (Maybe wearing them in a game that Georgia’s easily expected to win would be a way to ease them back in.)
And the black “Grambling” helmets? The 2009 lids are being sold off — hopefully a sign we’ve seen the last of them.
But I do have one other thought about uniform variations. Unlike many schools, Georgia hasn’t ever done a “retro” game because the idea behind those generally is to sell replicas of old uniforms, and who’d want to buy a plain silver helmet? But what if the Dogs were to sometime do an “alternative history” look?
While I’m glad Dooley ultimately decided on the red helmets, the white one with the black G would make an awfully cool collectible.