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The Worst, Good, and Best College Football Helmets July 20, 2011

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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As a former student manager in major college football (Purdue, specifically), I am intimately familiar with football equipment, from the uniforms to the helmets to the weight and feel of different tackling dummies and agile pads.  Moreover, as somebody who tends to think visually, I have always had an eye for uniform design and general aesthetics.

Nothing is as iconic to a program as the look of its helmet.  It is what people are most apt to recognize when watching a team on TV, and is, by and large, the enduring symbol of the program, and, to some people, it is what comes to mind when the very school is mentioned.  For example, when Notre Dame is mentioned, who does not think of the plain golden shells?  Mention Michigan, and everyone is apt to think of the dark blue helmets with the distinct yellow patterns.

But as any discerning fan could tell you, not all helmet designs are created equally.  Some look so-s0, some look far better, and others need a re-design faster than you can snap the ball after a hard count.  After years of observation, I have come up with my own list of the helmets that merit distinction over others.  So below are listed the worst, the good, and the best (what, you thought I’d be using the “good, bad and the ugly” cliche?)

The Worst:

Penn State:  Yes, I’ve read other sports blogs that have actually ranked this helmet as one of the best-looking in college football.  (Pause)  Needless to say, those guys need their heads examined.  The whole Penn State uniform is a waste, starting with the helmet.  It needs that oblong-shaped Nittany Lion logo on each side in the worst way.  As it is, the helmet is a symbol of a larger problem with the program, and indeed with the entire state.  Joe Grand-Pa and Pennsylvania are both clinging to a glorious past that is becoming an increasingly fading memory.  A changing of the guard and of head coach — and deciding to the join the late 20th Century with a helmet decal would show that they’re no longer living in the ‘was’ and are finally living in the ‘is.’

Oregon “graphite” helmet:  I hear this design appeals to young people.  I’m still young, but I suppose not young enough.  Moreover, I cannot believe that the team chose this helmet over their beautiful green helmets when butting heads with Auburn in the BCS National Championship game.  They deserved to lose on those grounds alone.

TCU “pewter” helmet:  I have nothing against pewter.  In fact, I think it looks pretty sweet as part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ ensemble.  But this is way over the line.  It looks like the T-1000 nemesis from the movie “Terminator 2” threw up all over them.  Worse yet, there’s no sign of the horned lizard on the decal.  The program has those beautiful purple helmets, and yet they have worn these monstrosities?  What in the name of Sammy Baugh and Davey O’Brien is this world coming to?

The Good (the best honorable mentions):

North Carolina:  Few college helmets rock the Carolina blue.  Only one, to the best of my knowledge, does so at the D-1A (pardon me, the FBS) level.  Plus, UNC has, for a long time, used a tasteful among of dark blue trim, and the NC brand decal looks like its the perfect size.

California:  Given that dark blue is my favorite color, I confess to have a bias in favor of such a shell color.  But the Chicago Bears helmets are dark blue, and yet those helmet look generic as all get-out.  Indeed, there are two things that give Cal’s helmet nice aesthetics.  One, its dark blue is a very, very fine metallic.  Two, if you look closely enough, the yellow-gold “Cal” decal is govered in metallic gold glitter.  It’s a nice combination.

Purdue:  As any marketing consultant will tell you, if you want your product to look prestigious, make it black and gold.  Behold, Exhibit A.  If only the gold were a little darker to make it more commensurate with “Old Gold.”  In years past, that was indeed the case.  That said, can a “P” logo look any neater?


Louisville:  Where to begin?  The Cardinal mascot/nickname manifests itself in a number of different leagues, not just U of L:  Ball State, Illinois State, St. Louis in MLB and Arizona in the NFL.  That said, none of them come close to the best-looking Cardinal logo:  that distinction belongs to Louisville.  Its red facemask during the Bobby Petrino (and, regrettably, the Steve Kragthorpe) eras provided the wonderful contrast to the white shell, so it was a shame the Charlie Strong switched to the white facemask upon his inauguration as U of L’s current chief executive.  To be sure, though, his introduction of the black and red triple centerstripes was an improvement over the tapering red centerstripe that they replaced.  If Coach Strong brought back the red grilles, he would achieve perfection of that design.  FYI:  look closely at a U of L helmet, and you shall see that the white shell is (or, at least was) covered in silver glitter, topped off with clearcoat.

Hawaii:  Can a metallic green be any darker and still be green?  That alone gives it a considerable cool factor.  Moreover, the Tapa-inspired “H” decal is most appropriate for the university and geographic setting, and who is not mesmerized by the elaborate pattern in the center stripe?  As an aside, the silver road helmets were a mistake.  All green, all the time, is the only way to go for the [erstwhile Rainbow] Warriors.

LSU:  Some teams prefer the use of a single letter or two or three for their decal.  Others prefer a pictorial depiction of the team nickname.  The Bayou Bengals are one of the very few that do both, and do so with a basic helmet pattern (yellow-gold shell, purple and white triple center stripes) that has remained unchanged since 1956.

Boise State: The metallic royal blue shell makes this stand out.  The orange time on the decal makes for a nice, aesthetically complementary appearance.  To be sure, it was a mistake for the program to switch over to gray facemasks, as the white ones provided a much better contrast.

Florida:  Given that I have included Boise State in this list of honorable mentions on the grounds that their blue and orange are textbook “complementary colors,” it is only logical I include the Gators’ bright orange helm as a contrast yet on the same grounds.

UCLA:  Possibly the nicest color of gold in all of college football.

USC:  I’ll be the first to admit, perhaps the Trojans’ fine tradition might have something to do with this mentioning.  But that aside, Southern Cal’s cardinal color does the helmet a heap of justice, and with the recent addition of a thin, fine metallic top coat, it looks even “deeper” during night games.


Florida State:  The Seminoles have traditionally sported a nice-looking metallic gold on their helmets, and my generation has grown up associating the garnet and white spearhead with some of the highest levels of modern success.  If only their gold still looked like it does in the left-hand photo, then they would have the nicest gold of any football helmet, hands down.

Northwestern: To be sure, this photo does the helmet design zero justice.  The television screen, in my experience, gives the same meager result.  NWU’s helmet must be seen in person to be truly appreciated.  Its base, cast-in color of the shell is actually black.  The metallic purple pearl and candy coat gives it the deepest purple of which one could conceive, and the black facemask brings out the purple all the more.  Besides, if you’re going to use the letter “N” for a logo, does the Wildcats’ N get any better (I ask rhetorically)?

Georgia:  Straight red with no frills, and possibly the best-looking “G” logo in the business.  The single, white centerstripe is the same as it was when the program debuted this overall design in 1964.

Cincinnati:  Do not be fooled.  This is not just another black helmet, oh no.  Having seen one of these shells up close and personally, this is actually one of the most uniquely-colored helmets in all of football.  Picture this:  a black shell, lightly covered in red glitter, topped off with a red candy coat for good measure.  Though that color combo is difficult to discern on TV, in person, you cannot take your eyes off it, it looks that cool.


South Carolina:  Normally when a team switches from a colored shell to a white shell, my standard reaction is that whoever came up with that idea needs his head examined.  To further augment the irony, prior to Lou Holtz’s arrival, the Gamecocks already had a nice-looking helmet with their garnet shall.  But when one sees things in toto, combined with the knowledge that South Carolina has had the same garnet and black triple center stripe pattern since 1956, it all makes for a very attractive package indeed.  Plus, the “C” logo is quite elaborate.

The Best:

Oregon:  The Ducks did a heckuva job when they unveiled this new helmet design for the 1999 season; in so doing, they set a precedent for what to expect out of early 21st Century helmet design.  Their metallic green is perhaps the most intriguing of that color in all of college football, and the ultra-modern-looking, yellow “O” provides just the right contrast.  It is a wonder they even bother with their white, yellow, black and “graphite” helmets at all.  What were they thinking not wearing these green babies against Auburn?

Ohio State:  By itself, it’s a rather generic design, to be sure.  Covered in Buckeyes, it’s one of the most sublime looks in college football.  It has gotten only better within the past ten years.  What used to be a generic fine silver coat has given way to something much neater:  A heavy silver base coat, combined with a topping of silver glitter, sealed with clear coat, making a very “deep” silver look.  The Buckeyes have set the standard for silver helmets in all of football, college or pro.

San Diego State:  What, the purists ask?  Why this peasant amongst traditional powers’ royalty?  The answer is simple:  the Aztecs have a distinct metallic red that makes it unique in college football, to say nothing of aesthetically pleasing.  My best guess as to their secret?  Possibly a black base shell, painted a gold-tinged metallic, then topped off with a red candy coat.  It’s a viewing pleasure.

Arkansas:  The Razorbacks themselves have a red (technically it’s “Cardinal” like that of USC, Iowa State, even Wisconsin) all their own, giving them arguably the most distinctive red-based shell in the game.  Given that they now have one of the best coaches in the business with Bobby Petrino, chances are more folks will pay attention to this distinct helmet in the near future.

Texas:  Normally, a plain white helmet with a white facemask is the epitome of generic in my book.  But in this case, the iconic Longhorn silhouette logo provides an excellent contrast, one that gives the white shell and white grille a very clean look.  Hook ’em!

TCU:  This helmet is listed for the same reasons that I previously listed Northwestern’s helmet, and then some.  The reason I rank it higher than NWU’s is thus:  does it get any better than a silver-colored horned lizard on a deep purple helmet?  I submit ‘no.’

Kentucky:  Probably the most beautiful blue helmet in football, of any league.  It is almost enough to make you forget that most UK fans have their priorities out of whack, what with their fixation on basketball.

Alabama:  What other legendary football program can take small numbers, put them on the side of the helmet, and call that a fashion statement?  Granted, Bama was not the first with this feature, but they are the ones who have become the best-known for it.  That, plus the crimson helmet and gray facemask combo never goes out of style.  The Alabama helmet is a reminder that, like wearing a nice tuxedo, true elegance comes in the form of simplicity, not flamboyance.

Michigan:  Nothing beats the unique patten of the Michigan helmet.  It is, arguably, the very symbol of the whole Wolverine athletics department, if not the university itself.  Michigan’s hockey team uses this same patten on their hockey helmets.  The football team’s truck has a custom paint job with this famous pattern on the top of the cab.  I was not even ten years old when I first saw these helmets while watching Michigan play USC in the 1990 Rose Bowl.  Fritz Crisler was said to have brought this pattern with him from Princeton and introduced it to the program in 1938.  In all actuality, though, it is an innovation, not on outright invention.  This famous pattern is actually a combination of certain styling queues already prevalent in the 1930s.  Some teams had the “wing” on their helmets, while others used the three lines on their helmets in the ’30s and the ’40s.  Even more fascinating is how the pattern is applied.  The shell itself is actually that pale yellow (supposedly in line with the “maize” part of Michigan’s colors of Maize and Blue).  A stencil pattern is applied, and the ultra-dark blue paint (perhaps the darkest blue in college football) is sprayed over it, followed by removal of said stencil.  Voila — instant iconic helmet.

Ole Miss:  Granted, this is not likely to be given a top-ten spot in most people’s helmet rankings.  As I confessed earlier, though, I am naturally biased towards dark blue helmets.  But so what?  There are a number of them:  what make Ole Miss so special?  To me, nothing is better than dark blue with red trim.  This helmet has that in spades, and carries a genteel tradition befitting legends such as Archie Manning and Johnny Vaught.  It might be a quirky pick to some, but it works for me!

Coulda’, Woulda’, Shoulda’

Some teams used to have great-looking helmets, but have since tried to out-think the room and changed what were good things into not-so-great-looking things.


Indiana:  The one on the right is what they used to have.  Granted, the metallic crimson is quite pretty, before and after.  But whereas the “before” had a matching crimson facemask and some nice white center stripes to provide a certain contrast, the “after” now looks like a cheap knock-off of Oklahoma.

Boston College:  To be fair, there are many things to like about this helmet.  Maroon and gold is always a winning combination, especially if the gold in question is of the metallic nature.  The maroon center stripe and facemask provide a nice contrast, too.  The problem?  That’s all there is:  without a decent decal on the side, it is a grossly incomplete design.  A suggested solution to this problem would be to come up with a decal that is a combination of the “BC” logo with an eagle in the middle.  Do that, and the design would merit a spot among the honorable mentions.  Do it not, and the helmet remains an incomplete design and never lived up to its potential.


Michigan State:  In recent years, the Spartans have had a really nice-looking metallic green.  Moreover, take out 2001-2002 (where Bobby Williams foolishly went back to the generic “S” decal), and MSU has had an awesome Spartan helmet profile decal since 1995.  A nice metallic green just the right hint of blue, an awesome Spartan decal, and a white center stripe made for a nice-looking helmet design, one that would have merited some sort of ranking.  Not anymore, not with making the green darker, which detracts from the aesthetic, nor with the obtrusive tapering white centerstripe.


SMU:  On the right is what the Mustangs had from 2004 to 2007.  During that time, they had one of the nicest-looking shells in the game.  Then somebody (I suspect June Jones, when he took over as head coach) got the bright idea to switch over to white helmets.  Perhaps he wanted to hark back to the program’s glory days of the 1980s (pre-death penalty, at least).   Whatever his intent may have been, the white helmet is come-down compared to the dark blue.  Oh well…at least they got the royal blue and red center stripe combo right on the white shell.  Give them credit for that.

Do any of you dear readers think I am leaving any out?  Sound off in the comments section.  I would enjoy your reading your thoughts.



1. Ben Dugan - September 26, 2012

Delaware should change their helmets because Michigan should be the only school to have the winged maze and blue helmet.

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