By Brian Yauger
Can uniforms be cursed?
In 1986, the Youngstown State University football team surprised fans by coming out after warmups in never-before- seen black uniforms.
Those never-before-seen uniforms would become “never seen again” after the Penguins lost to Middle Tennessee State University on homecoming weekend.
The mastermind of this operation was none other than YSU president and former Penguins coach Jim Tressel.
Tressel was in his first year with the team, and from the start he wanted to hear suggestions from students on what the team could do to make their experiences better.
One thing he kept hearing was “a new look.”
“When we first got here and we were talking with student athletes about things that they were thinking about and what types of things could we do to make the experience better,” Tressel said. “A lot of the things they brought up, amongst many things that we needed to improve upon, was they said that someday we gotta get some all black uniforms.”
An inspiration for the design of the black YSU football uniforms came from an unlikely source.
The assistant coach at the time, Ken Conatser, came to the Penguins from San Diego State University.
According to Greg Gulas, the sports information director at the time, Tressel remarked how he liked the black uniforms and red helmets worn by the San Diego Aztecs during a film session, and the idea was born.
Tressel was able to secure a donation for the uniforms and kept them hidden away until the time was right.
“We were going to hold them until we were playing really well,” Tressel said. “Looking back in that first season, we weren’t playing very well at any point in time until the last game.”
Heading into homecoming week, the Penguins were sitting at 1-6. They weren’t playing as well as Tressel would have liked, but the donors disagreed and his hand was forced.
“About midway through the year, the people that helped us fund the uniforms thought it would be the perfect time to spring the uniform,” Tressel said. “I didn’t really feel the same because I knew we weren’t improving quite as much as I’d like, but I lost the argument, so we sprung the uniform out at homecoming against Middle Tennessee State.”
The homecoming game started normally. The Penguins came out for warmups with their red jerseys on, but when they stepped out onto the field for the game, they looked
different. The fans didn’t see the typical red and white; they saw black jerseys and black pants.
Gulas was just as surprised as the fans that day. 16 “The team came out for pregame warmups in their home white pants and red tops,” Gulas said. “They went in and changed. … I had no clue. I wasn’t tipped off. A lot of people weren’t tipped off.”
The team had a boost of energy from the new look, but it didn’t last long enough, as the Penguins had their biggest loss of the season in the new duds, falling 49-14.
“It excited us for about 10 minutes, and then we lost the game by about 30 points or 40 points,” Tressel said. “To me it wasn’t trick or treat, it was only a trick.”
The student reaction was just as lukewarm. In a column in the Nov. 4 issue of The Jambar, managing editor at the time Lisa Solley wrote this.
“Regardless of how sharp the uniforms are, the fact still remains that the team was rewarded with new uniforms for having one of the worst seasons since 1982.”
After that poor showing, the jerseys were never worn again in a game, but the black pants have been a staple for the Penguins ever since.
“That was my decision,” Tressel said. “I’m kind of a superstitious guy. It was probably silly, but we did end up wearing black pants throughout the course of time, but we never wore the black jerseys again.”
The black jerseys didn’t just go to waste, however. While never seeing game time again, the jerseys still had use.
“We always wore them in practice,” Tressel said. “They were kind of like the opponent’s jerseys, so if we were trying to demonstrate what the opponent’s formations or defense and so forth, they were always in those black jerseys. So it’s not like they didn’t get used.”
When asked about the uniform craze from a coaching perspective, Tressel gave some insight about the process during his time at Ohio State University.
“I think teams are trying to show how many different sets of jerseys they have,” Tressel said. “It’s different than when I was coaching my last couple years at Ohio State. I acquiesced and did a couple of throwback jerseys, but they were always either scarlet or white. … It’s sort of turned into a fashion show.”
As the importance of uniforms in the college football world has grown exponentially over the past 33 years, especially as a recruiting tool, there’s a possibility that we’ll see the black jerseys.
Since that fateful day all those years ago, a Tressel-coached team never worn black jerseys. Maybe it’s preference, or maybe it was that superstition in the back of his mind.
It’s safe to say that the decision worked out for him, however, as the Penguins went on to win four national titles during his tenure, donning the red and white.
“I’m a bit partial to the school colors,” Tressel said. “I know black is kind of one of our school colors, but I like red. But times change. When I was at Ohio State, I always avoided wearing black when they wanted me to.”
Like Tressel said, however, the times are changing and the Penguins may surprise us all once again with a new set of black jerseys. Thirty-three years is long enough for a curse to wear off. Right?