Did Nike Ever Really have Washington’s Best Interest In Mind?
Former Washington Head Coach Don James once said that The purple “Block W” on the metallic gold helmet was “the most feared helmet in the country.” It stood for toughness and it stood for grit. Every player, whether a walk-on or Heisman finalist wore the same helmet. Team first is in Washington Huskies DNA. It is the team’s identity.
During their partnership with Nike however, many Washington fans felt that the team’s Purple and Gold identity was fading. Fading from purple to lavender and gold to brown. The changes in the color scheme were more than just going in a branding different direction, they were an identity shift. On July 10th, 2019, Adidas released their new uniforms for public viewing and Washington Husky football fans were treated to the traditional purple and true gold which has long characterized the Washington football culture.
Moreover, it demonstrated that what Nike failed to do for the entirety of their 20 year partnership with UW, Adidas succeeded in their first attempt. With Adidas’ firm grasp on Washington’s true identity, it left many fans were wondering: “Did Nike Ever Really Have Washington’s Best Interests In Mind?”
“We don’t need millions of uniform combinations,” said avid Husky fan, Duncan Wilson of Friday Harbor. “That would detract from the Washington Brand,” he said. “We’re Purple and Gold.”
When asked about his response to Adidas’ newly designed uniforms Wilson says that he’s “generally positive,” noting that they are “consistent with the Don James era.” “They are certainly not weasel-esque,” he said.
“The Weasel” is a reference to what many UW fans unaffectionately call the 2001 Nike-influenced Washington logo. It was the right-facing profile of a Husky canine that many said looked liked more like a varmint than a Dawg.
Michael Etezadi, 39 of Bellevue says that Nike continually “missed the mark” after the 2000 season…roughly the same time that Nike dropped “The Weasel” on Washington.
Wilson and Etezadi are not alone. Many fans have long felt that the UW brand has been lost in the wilderness for the better part of 20 years. The general sentiment towards Nike for many has been, “Nike didn’t have their finger on the pulse of Washington’s identity.” “Nike didn’t care.” “Nike had other teams as a priority…” namely, The University of Oregon.
No Love Lost
29 year old Jamal George, Firefighter and Paramedic in Midland Texas has been a Husky fan since 1997 when his brother, Odell George, was a linebacker at Washington from 1997-2001. He said that his dislike for Nike was “because they show certain programs more love.”
George said that he didn’t even need to see the new uniforms to be happy that UW bid Nike adieu. He could see favorable treatment to schools. “For instance,” he remembered, “Ohio State was one of the few schools to get the Lebron cleats.”
“They gave better gear, better designs, and more product exposure to other schools,” George continued. “That’s part of the reason that Miami left Nike is because they gave Oregon so much attention.”
During the 2000’s, as the Husky Football program experienced its lowest moments and the losses to Oregon continued to mount, the disdain for Nike grew more each year as they watched their once majestic purple fade into a languid lavender.
The disparity between Nike’s commitment to Oregon over UW became glaringly obvious during Huskies 12-game losing streak to the Ducks as Nike dished out uniform combo after uniform combo for the Phil Knight supported team, while seemingly remaining incapable of producing football pants that matched the gold on the Washington helmets.
Etezadi agrees with George on the Nike-produced designs. “The uniforms just looked like Nike didn’t give a damn,” Etezadi said. He said that since Nike is at the top and are dealing with dozens of clients, they simply didn’t want to spend the quality time developing the designs or understanding the culture and heritage at Washington…despite being the closest major market to their American Headquarters in Portland, Oregon.
Etezadi also feels that Nike may have just run out of ideas or were not involved closely enough with Washington to truly care about Washington’s purple and gold identity. It rubbed him the wrong way when Nike unveiled new uniforms in the early 2000’s. “It was like they were lavender and tan rather than purple and gold,” he said.
“There’s a lot riding on this deal for Adidas to make the uniforms look really good,” Etezadi said. “For Nike that never really was the case,” he remembered. Many said that it seemed like Washinton would just take whatever Nike gave them and Nike knew it. For example, Etezadi pointed out how the triangles all over the uniform made them look “sloppy.” Now, however, “We’re seeing UW Athletic Director, Jennifer Cohen’s involvement in the designs.” he said. Under Cohen’s careful watch, we are seeing the UW brand return “back to the Don James-era Purple and Gold.” Etzadi added, “this is the purple and gold that I grew up watching.”
For some Husky fans, simply returning to the glory of our vintage purple and gold was enough to convince them that Adidas understood Washington’s culture in a way that Nike never cared to demonstrate.
Why The Adidas Dollars Made Sense
While the bad uniforms, strange logo, and perceived inattentiveness to detail were fodder for fan-based conspiracy theories, Nike revealed that their true colors were green and yellow when they declined give the University of Washington a larger apparel contract than their previously established contract with the University of Oregon. Despite a much larger market in Seattle (all Western Washington) keeping Washington in the Nike portfolio would have been a top priority.
However, with Nike out of the way UW AD, Jennifer Cohen made it rain/reign in Seattle in signing the 8th most lucrative apparel contract in college sports. It’s easy to see why the switch to Adidas made sense to UW Athletic Director, Jennifer Cohen. Firstly, although jerseys don’t win games the $119,000,000.00 contract will be helpful in covering expenses of other sports and helping them be more competitive.
With the $7.6 million department debt, that she inherited, in her rear-view mirror, and a $1.1 million promise to help fund marketing, Cohen has been able to extend Basketball Coach, Mike Hopkins to a long-term deal, lure Oregon’s Track and Field Coaches, Andy and Maurcia Powell to Montlake, and recover much of Washington’s identity.
With the new “we’re here to create” mantra, Husky fans can expect to enjoy the unique Husky-centric products they have long deserved. For example, in years past, if Washington would wear a “We Believe” t-shirt at a game at March Madness one could expect 60 or so other teams wear the same exact shirt. Now, Dawg fans can stand above the mass-produced messages with a message that is uniquely Washington.
Many hardcore Husky fans are also happy to get away from indirectly funding the Oregon Athletic Department. Under Nike, and specifically through founder and Oregon alum Phil Knight, each Nike purchase either directly or indirectly funds the University of Oregon Athletic Department.
In the sponsorship and supply agreement with the University of Washington, Adidas has also demonstrated a deep and ongoing commitment to UW by allocating $1.25 million in the first year and $1.1 in each of the following 9 years for marketing purposes.
With the new Adidas deal, another layer of intrigue has been added to the Border War between the Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies. With UW serving as one of Adidas’ flagship programs, It is reported that just as Nike uses Oregon as their testing ground, Washington will get first crack at Adidas’ technical advancements. Now, the Border War will also pit Adidas versus Nike for the hearts of the fans, and the recruits.
Since the Dawgfather’s resignation in 1993, many feel that the program drifted from the “Purple Reign” identity which Don James ushered in. Under the leadership of Jen Cohen and UW Head Football Coach, Chris Petersen and the focused design team of Adidas, the Husky faithful have seen their identity restored in short order. Purple is reigning once again on Montlake. Did Nike have Washington’s best interest in mind? While that debate may rage on, the commitment to UW’s grand tradition of purple and gold by Adidas is apparent in the apparel.
Maynard Warren also contributed to this story.