Illinois football turns back the clock with Butkus-era uniforms


Pictured is the new design for the Illinois jerseys, which are patterned after those used by the team in the 1960s. The jerseys are part of a larger project to bring Illini football into a new century. Courtesy of the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics

By Wes Anderson

When the orange-clad Illini faithful settle into their seats on Saturday morning, the Memorial Stadium that lies in front of them will look like it never has before.

In keeping with the swift resurgence that has defined head coach Ron Zook’s career, upgrades to the 85-year-old landmark have the future squarely in mind. Among the amenities making their debut this weekend: a brand-new press box, luxury skybox suites, massive weight training facilities and a resurfaced playing field.

But once the Illini players rumble onto Zuppke Field, they’ll turn the clocks back more than 45 years.

To celebrate the completion of the estimated $120 million “Illinois Renaissance” renovation project, not only will a slate of Illinois football greats return to Champaign, but the Illini will also don throwback uniforms that hearken back to the program’s rich history.

The uniforms are modeled after those once worn by legendary linebacker Dick Butkus, who played for the Illini from 1962-64. In a statement released by the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, the Illini and Chicago Bears legend said the tribute is “something I’ve been looking forward to all summer.”

Brit Miller, who is the starter at Butkus’ position of middle linebacker, appreciated the significance of the jerseys and found the tribute to be a fitting gesture.

“I think that’s definitely the proper way to break in the new stadium,” Miller said. “Being able to say that I know Dick Butkus, and to be a part of what he did and something that he made famous, it’s going to be chilling.”

After the game, the DIA will auction off the jerseys and helmets.

The possibility of wearing a throwback jersey has been around for nearly a year, according to Chris Hanna, assistant athletics director for sales and marketing. The DIA contacted Nike around November 2007, Hanna said.

“They only make about three of these throwbacks per year, so we were very fortunate to be selected,” Hanna said.

Andy Dixon, the Illinois equipment manager, said Nike then submitted designs to the DIA for approval before producing the jerseys.

“We told Nike what we wanted, they told us what we could do,” Dixon said.

The jerseys the players will don on Saturday will be a simple, solid navy blue with orange numbering and a commemorative “Illinois Renaissance” chest patch. The pants will be white with a blue-orange-blue stripe down the side.

As for the helmets, they will be orange with a white-blue-white stripe down the middle, grey facemasks and player numbers on the side, as they were in the early 1960s. Additionally, they will have stars above the number, which were awarded to players by then-coach Pete Elliott.

“The stars were indications of good plays, very similar to the Buckeyes given out on the Ohio State helmets,” Dixon said.

However, he added that, since the Illini don’t use such a reward system today, every player will have “about the same amount” of stars.

Not everything is perfectly authentic, however. Modern jerseys emphasize breathability and a tight fit, so Nike translated the Butkus-era look to a modern jersey template. Dixon said the seams on the throwback jerseys were in nearly identical positions to the current uniforms.

“The uniforms back in 1965 were very big and blousy, and there was probably a lot of holding going on,” Dixon said. “We didn’t want to give up anything performance-wise.”

Also like the everyday uniforms, the jerseys will still have the ubiquitous Nike swoosh logo.

The turn-back-the-clock digs will be a first for the Zook era. Since coming to Illinois, Zook has made sweeping changes to the look of his team, including the uniforms. After his first season, he ditched the then-standard orange pants and black shoes in favor of an entirely new Nike design that included white pants and white shoes, similar to what his players wore at Florida.

Since the switch, the Illini have only worn orange pants once – in a loss to Iowa, on Oct. 13, 2007.

Zook’s preference for white pants may explain their presence on the throwback jerseys, given that the Illini of the time period actually wore solid orange pants at home for most games. They did, however, wear white pants similar to the throwback design for road and certain home games, according to Dixon.

Accuracy issues aside, the Illini were quick to give the retro look a thumbs-up.

“I think it will be really good,” offensive lineman Xavier Fulton said. “They’re clean, really simple jerseys, and they’re going to look great.”