Don’t stick a sock in it: USC’s uniform tweak stands to play itself out as a black-and-Charlie White issue

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(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
USC tailback D.J. Morgan, out of Taft High, leaps Minnesota defenders during the first half of Saturday’s season opener at the Coliseum.

On the list of things that could make or break USC’s football season in 2011, the choice of the hosiery worn by the Trojan players during home games might rate somewhere between what direction the blades of grass are mowed on the Coliseum turf two days prior to kickoff and what brand of water is used in the giant fans spritzing everyone on the sidelines.

Then again, it depends on who’s doing the ranking.

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Chances are, without any prodding, very few in the overheated crowd of some 68,000 Saturday even noticed the entire Trojan roster sported black socks for the first time, breaking from years of all white, as USC nearly tripped themselves up in a 19-17 win over Minnesota. On TV, it wasn’t even mentioned.

“I hadn’t noticed it until it was pointed out,” Marcus Allen, the 1981 Heisman winner from USC, said Saturday watching a TV monitor from the set of a new Fox Sports Net college football show.

If traditional-minded ex-players, alums and long-time donors sensed there was something different, maybe they couldn’t put their arthritic V-shaped fingers on it. Now, they could be willing to put their foot down against it.

Black socks this year. A black jersey next. A black helmet after that. Before this slip-n-slide is finished, you’ve got a giant black eye, selling off pieces of your soul to gain favor for some one or some thing.

“When does it stop?” said Allen.

When someone swaps Traveler out for Black Beauty?

How dare Pat Haden and John McKay, the old guard and new caretakers of the program, sign off on Lane Kiffin’s trendy request. At a time when buzz words like “win forever” have been replaced by a “culture of compliance,” with university president Max Nikias looking over everyone’s shoulder, there’s an undercurrent of clothes, cleats and costume taking precedence, with Nike looking over everyone’s shoulder pads.

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It shouldn’t be a black-and-Charlie White issue here, but it really turns out to be that if you consider the outside influences here.

Those who sew up the uniforms — Nike, Under Armor, Adidas and Reebok, for starts – are the ones who push for as many alternative pieces of equipment to inspire more sales. Then the players get caught up in it.

The coach may push back, but he’s eventually put in a position of compromise. Especially when they’re put in a spot where there’s a kid trying to decide whether to go to USC or, say Oregon — De’Anthony Thomas, anyone? – and suddenly, he’s swayed by the uniformity issues. Who can pass up on a chance to wear fluorescent yellow socks?

(And why, may we ask, is USC a Nike school anyway? Why doesn’t the school just write a donation check directly to Phil Knight so the rival Ducks can fund another new weight room?)

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“Don’t let Nike tell us what to do; we’re not Oregon,” said Allen. “I hope that’s really not what it is. They have an outside interest and don’t understand the culture we’ve created and what has made us special all these years.

“Regardless of what other people say or do or ask, you have to be stronger than that. If there’s one thing we have that others don’t, and why others like to change, is our history of success. I prefer things to be as they are.

“I think I have a greater understanding of this now. This is what makes us different — and not so much the uniform but the way we’ve done it. It may seem conservative to some, which is fine with me, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be done.”


Black is black everywhere at the Coliseum.

Black USC polo shirts have emerged on the USC sideline, by the coaches.

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Matt Barkley sported a black undershirt Saturday, with black wristbands. The student store is already full of Nike black-colored shirts and caps for all ages and genders.

We should have seen this coming a year ago.

Before USC’s 2010 opener in Hawaii – Kiffin’s first game as the head coach — senior receiver Ronald Johnson wanted to wear black socks. Kiffin said no.

“He wasn’t happy with me because I told him he couldn’t wear black socks,” said Kiffin after the 49-36 win, in which Johnson caught three TD passes and returned a punt 89 yards for another score. “It was like a 15-minute ordeal before the game.”

Ordeal? There’s something any parent can relate to with some empathy. Try getting your kid dressed in a private-school uniform when they’re not willing to conform.

You act like the parent and do what’s right. Or you fold.

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“Look, when you sign with USC, you sign up to wear that uniform,” says Petros Papadakis, the former USC running back, son and brother of former USC linebackers, and college football TV analyst who makes his opinions heard on his weekday Fox Sports Radio show.

“In today’s age, everyone wants to be different. The Oregon thing has spread to Wyoming, to Arizona State, to Georgia. But if a kid is obsessed with wearing a bunch of different uniforms, they’re not going to sign with USC just because they’re wearing black socks.

“I just think it’s a weak attempt to change a classic uniform that shouldn’t be messed with. Why bother? If I was back as a player, I think I’d want to look different. I put on the white socks, hiked them up as high as I could and got the crap beat out of me. But now I understand the tradition and why things don’t have to change.

“USC should be a trend setter, not following other’s trends. You can’t succumb to the pressures of a shoe company.”

You see new Maryland football coach Randy Edsall, on ESPN, talking about the new Under Armor color combo created for his team, allowing the captains to pick and choose the schemes.

“I like all black,” he said. “They really stand out and make a statement.”

The statement: We need to change because we’ve got nothing to build on at this point. The kids really want it that way. So I’m all in.

Kiffin might be a sock puppet caught in a tough spot, following with what Pete Carroll was allowed to do in the past. If Carroll was the cool uncle, Kiffin can come off as the uncool knucklehead, muttering his way around the media and alums.

Kiffin did make one other uniform change this week, again somewhat off the radar. During practice, he made the scout team wear power blue and gold. Like UCLA.

“I think we just got bored,” he said.

There’s a well, thought-our process behind every change, apparently.

Carroll certainly tweeked some things in his time. The color of the facemask (from red to gray). The shoelaces. Even, egads, some stripes on the jersey. Then going dark colors at the UCLA game. But all that was going retro, harkening back to the glory days.

Oh, and Carroll won games.

Kiffin . . . well, now the sock’s on the other foot.

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Remember more than 10 years ago, when Fox owned the Dodgers, and the team showed up one Saturday with dark blue jersey tops and a white script across the front? Along with a Dodger cap with a silver brim and silver “L.A.” logo. Walter O’Malley must have been rolling over in his ravine. The backlash ended it that day.

This change USC made on the Coliseum turf this time isn’t nearly as visually arresting. Yet Kiffin might heed to something that happened nearly 20 years ago, when head coach Larry Smith once got bold enough to change the helmet logo.

He took away the fierce Trojan warrior character and replaced it with the sleeker, artistic Trojan, used more on the president’s letterhead.

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That was 1992. It turned out to be Smith’s last season, after the team lost the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim, and Smith uttered the now famous phrase: “Names and logos don’t mean anything. You don’t beat someone just because of your name and logo.”

Or, by wearing untraditional socks.

USC needs a black sock scandal like a USC alum needs to be seen wearing black socks with sandals.

Either way, someone’s gotta call ‘em out on it. Don’t put a sock in it.

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