- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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When Oregon ran onto the field for its Aug. 30 opener at Mississippi State, you could hear the gasps clear up to Memphis. The Ducks wore yellow jerseys and yellow pants with green borders up the side. And not just any yellow, either. This was Lightning Yellow, a yellow not found in nature, the yellow of reflective vests and mustard on steroids. With one change of clothing, the Ducks had turned into the Fighting Hi-Liters.
As the favorite campus of Nike head coach Phil Knight, whose headquarters are right up the road, Oregon gets first dibs on the finest innovations that Swooshville has to offer. The uniform material, a tough form of Lycra, is lighter than the typical synthetic nylon, and retains very little moisture. The players felt light and they looked tight.
Nike may not appear on the runways of Paris, but the Day-Glo look received coverage across the country. Sportswriters, who, if my two decades in press boxes can be any judge, know something about mustard on clothes, mocked the unis from coast to coast. Chris Fowler held up a Lightning Yellow jersey on GameDay the following Saturday.
The Dockers Generation may have recoiled, but Ducks coach Mike Bellotti was quoted as saying that every recruit he spoke with loved the Day-Glo look.
As quickly as the uniforms made a national splash, they disappeared. From the time that Oregon unveiled the uniforms last spring, no one at Nike or in Eugene said they would be a one-game-only item, like NFL throwback jerseys. But in the six games since the opener, the Ducks have worn some combination of green (OK, Thunder Green) and white. Was there a case of fashion buyer's remorse? Did Queer Eye for the Straight Guy call on Bellotti?
Oregon equipment manager Pat Conrad confirmed that the uniforms weren't supposed to be one and done. Conrad went to work in the equipment room in Eugene as an undergrad in 1978. He never left. He is as evergreen a fixture in Oregon athletics as the trees outside of Autzen Stadium. When he answered the phone Thursday morning, he chuckled softly when asked about the uniforms.
It turns out that, on Labor Day weekend, the Ducks' new look split a SEC doubleheader. They beat the Bulldogs, then they suffered a season-ending loss to Tide.
Conrad got home from the cross-country flight home from Mississippi State. At 4:30 a.m., he loaded his Lightning Yellows into his washing machine. When Conrad opened the washer that Sunday morning, well, you could say that all the color drained from his face, but that would hit too close to home.
"At 6 in the morning," Conrad said, "I figured out that I have a little bit of a problem."
Tailback Terrence Whitehead should run the way the color of 68 jerseys and 70 uniform pants ran. Between loading and the rinse cycle, Lightning Yellow had changed to Cloudy-With-A-Chance-of-Drizzle Yellow.
Seven weeks out, Conrad can smile about it. He described the color as going from French's to Grey Poupon. That morning, with no sleep, as the defining feature of the new uniforms literally went down the drain, "You wouldn't want to quote what I was saying," Conrad said. "I continued to wash them until 10. I'm lucky I didn't run into anything. My head was hanging pretty low."
Conrad usually washes football uniforms at 120 degrees. He put the new batch in at 122, with the water cooling to 115 during the cycle. Water that hot, Conrad said, does the best job of sanitizing and getting out grass stains. Equipment managers would rather send a player on the field without his helmet than send him out there with grass stains.
"It comes down to how discerning you want to be as an equipment manager," Conrad said. "(Appearance) definitely reflects on us."
The $9,660 Question -- that's 68 Lightning Yellow jerseys and 70 Lightning Yellow pants times $70 each -- loomed. What did the tag say?
"They (Nike) told me not to wash them above 110," Conrad said. "They didn't say, 'If you used above 110, you're stupid.' They just said wash them at 110. I was going by old-school thinking."
It's tough being a nylon thinker in a Lycra world. Conrad said the post-wash color doesn't look dull until a player with a washed jersey stood next to a teammate in a new one. "If you wore the same 70 uniforms, nobody would know," he said. "If you see the extra 30 uniforms we had, people would see the difference."
Oregon ordered new Lightning Yellows, and Nike put a rush on the order. When the uniforms arrived the other day, two jerseys had misspelled names. The Ducks are off this Saturday, but Conrad believes that his players will be able to wear their spring-like-a-daisy colors in a week, when Stanford comes to Eugene. The final decision, he said, is up to Bellotti. Maybe lightning yellow would help. After a 4-0 start, the Ducks have lost three straight.
In 1986, early in his career as equipment manager, Conrad didn't pack the coaches' winter jackets for a Sept. 27 game at Nebraska. When they arrived in Lincoln on Friday, it was 78 degrees. During the game the next day, the temperature hit 32. Until Labor Day weekend, that was the only candidate for his My Most Embarrassing Moment essay.
Nike hasn't sent Oregon a bill yet, so Conrad doesn't know whether the nearly 10 grand is coming out of his budget or not. If it seems like equipment managers only get noticed when they screw up, that's not the intention. Let's hear a Cheer for Conrad. Give a Shout out to him. He got a bad Bounce, but All is not lost. You can't just Wisk away the experience. He'll Gain from it.
And if you can figure out how to squeeze Arm & Hammer in there, you know where to write.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy didn't recall Oregon's "Lightning Yellow" uniforms. Let's just say there was a Wisk in wearing them after opening day.