The best and worst of college basketball’s gray jersey fad

For a school like Purdue that clings to its traditions with white-knuckled fervor, change often comes slowly and reluctantly.

As a result, it was no surprise that a smattering of alumni were livid earlier this season when the Boilermakers unveiled a new alternate jersey radically different from anything they had worn in the past.

The primary color of the uniforms Purdue debuted against Miami on Nov. 30 was neither old gold nor black, the two school's official colors since its football team adopted them 125 years ago. Instead the Boilermakers donned gray jerseys with black numerals and trim and not a hint of gold on them.

"There were some traditionalists who stuck to their guns because our colors aren't gray, but I'd say the majority of fans really liked them," Purdue director of basketball operations Elliot Bloom said. "Purdue's got an image of being kind of a conservative place in a lot of ways, and I don't want to say we're trying to change that but in a way we are. We're trying to do some new things and branch out a little bit."

The sight of Purdue's new jerseys would have been even more jarring if so many college basketball powers weren't also going gray this winter. At least 18 prominent Division I programs have worn a gray alternate jersey this season, the majority of which introduced theirs in the past 12 months.

Texas debuted new gray jerseys with burnt orange trim and matching Kevin Durant brand Nikes during a Dec. 17 victory over Temple. Kansas State has donned its dark gray jerseys more frequently than any of its three other uniform combinations since unveiling them against Baylor last January. The trend has even reached the mid-major level, where VCU, Wichita State and Akron have each worn gray for the first time this season even though it's not one of their primary colors.

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If black had been the top choice of pro and college teams who wanted to unveil an alternate uniform the past 15 years, the new trend toward gray or silver may be a response to black jerseys becoming too common. Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, said silver and gray would be a natural replacement because they integrate well with other colors like black does yet also possess a "sleek, modern and minimalist" quality.

"Once everyone started jumping on the black jersey bandwagon, in time it's no longer unique anymore, so you go to whatever the next best thing is," Eiseman said. "But I think this is really interesting this kind of direction because it really is very different than what we've seen before. It's eye-riveting. You can't not look at it."

For schools who adopt alternate jerseys in addition to their traditional home and road look, the rationale is often twofold.

First, it's a money-making opportunity since it introduces a new product to sell at campus shops or sporting good stores. Secondly, it can only aid recruiting to send the message to prospects that they'll always be outfitted in the freshest, most up-to-date gear if they choose your school.

When Akron had the opportunity to update its uniforms this past offseason, assistant coach Rick McFadden suggested breaking away from the school's traditional blue and gold color scheme and adding silver to the palette. Coach Keith Dambrot liked the idea, so this season the Zips have introduced home white jerseys with silver and blue trim and silver alternate jerseys with white and blue trim.

"It looked pretty good and there weren't that many teams that had them," Dambrot said. "Anything you can do at the mid-major level to stand out, it helps you. We're always looking for ways to recruit better players and take our program to the next level, so giving kids a little different type of uniform is another way to do it."

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Even though Purdue's new gray alternate jersey received mixed reviews from its alumni, the players universally loved them. Senior guard Lewis Jackson told reporters after the Miami game that he wished Purdue wore the gray jerseys for every home game, though he admitted "a lot of old-school people might get mad at me. They like the traditional white and black."

Hearing that players and recruits like the new gray jerseys is enough to convince Bloom that they were a good risk even if they alienate a small percentage of alumni in the process.

"We always say the most important people in our program are our players and after that is the future players," Bloom said. "From top to bottom, all those guys absolutely love the addition of gray."

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