The first time Clint Cuffle saw a photo of the new-age short-sleeved basketball jerseys Adidas has championed recently, the former University of Evansville guard admits he couldn't help but chuckle.
"I was surprised," Cuffle said. "I didn't think they'd ever come back."
Eleven years before Adidas unveiled form-fitting short-sleeved jerseys for the Golden State Warriors to wear in a nationally televised Feb. 22 game and for three of its flagship colleges to wear in this month's NCAA tournament, Cuffle thought he witnessed the death of T-shirt-style jerseys in high-level basketball. Evansville broke with more than 50 years of tradition before the 2002-03 season, replacing its trademark short-sleeved jerseys with sleeveless ones similar to what every other Division I team wore.
When Evansville hired new coach Steve Merfeld and new athletic director Bill McGillis in spring 2002, one of the first things they discussed was whether to keep the short-sleeved jerseys or not. They polled current and former players, eventually deciding change was needed because the feedback suggested the short-sleeved jerseys restricted mobility and were detrimental to recruiting.
"Those were the two main reasons for the change," said McGillis, now an associate athletic director at South Florida. "Unfortunately, in 2002 we didn't have the lightweight jerseys and material we do today. Had we had that at that time, who knows if there would have been a change? But it was a heavier material back then and you didn't have options."
The change was fairly well received at the time at Evansville despite the school's decades of short-sleeved tradition.
Evansville first adopted short-sleeved uniforms in the late 1940s at the request of coach Arad McCutchan, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame who led the Purple Aces to five Division II national titles. Drafty conditions at Evansville's practice gym led players to wear T-shirts during practice, so McCutchan figured they would be more comfortable in them during games as well.
Since so few other basketball teams wore short-sleeved jerseys, they became synonymous with Evansville basketball as the decades passed. The school briefly went to a sleeveless look after McCutchan retired in 1977, but Jim Crews revived the tradition as a tribute to McCutchan and his former players in 1986.
When Cuffle decided to go to Evansville in 2000, friends and family in his hometown of Riverton, Ill., immediately recognized the school as "the one with the sleeves." Cuffle insisted the sleeves never bothered him much either aesthetically or on the court, but he admits that not all potential recruits at the time felt the same way.
"When I was there, we'd have recruits come in and say, 'Oh, they make you guys wear sleeves?'" Cuffle said. "We usually convinced most people it wasn't a big deal, but it was a disadvantage. I wouldn't say it was a major factor, but we had to overcome enough hurdles as a small school without adding another one."
Evansville has remained sleeveless since the 2002-03 season, though the Purple Aces have worn throwback short-sleeved jerseys, most recently during a 2011 game against league rival Illinois State.
Even though Cuffle thought Evansville was done with T-shirt jerseys for good when the Purple Aces got rid of them in 2002, he could see that changing with the introduction of the new modern lightweight short-sleeved look. In addition to Louisville, Baylor and UCLA wearing them during conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament this month, players in the McDonald's All-American game will also don the short-sleeved look.
"I liked the way they looked," Cuffle said. "The new coach at Evansville, Marty Simmons, has been at Evansville a long time and wore the sleeves when he played. So I could see them coming back to Evansville for sure."
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