The Green Machine: A History of Notre Dame's Green Jerseys

IsmailAnalyst IMarch 9, 2010

Over the years college football fans from across the country have grown accustomed to watching the Notre Dame football team compete in navy blue uniforms at home and white uniforms on the road.

However, every now and again the Fighting Irish will take the field clad in green uniforms, continuing a tradition that evokes hair raising emotion from players, coaches, fans, and opponents alike.  

The history and mystique behind the green jersey is long and considerable, spanning nearly 90 years of college football and including numerous extraordinary moments. They are even part of the reason why Notre Dame football players were given the nickname “Fighting Irish” by the press and others in the early decades of the 20th century.

Moreover, the Fighting Irish have surprised everyone and worn green for one game only, and sometimes for only the second half of a contest. Additionally, in past eras Notre Dame has worn green exclusively for years at a time.

Some of the best players in Notre Dame history never wore anything but a green jersey, while other stars never once ran onto the field in a green jersey during their career.

The following is an extensive history of these fabled green jerseys and a review of all the different styles the team has worn over the years, complete with pictures and videos to bring this amazing Notre Dame tradition to life.

Rockne Psychology: The Pre-World War II years

From the day of its inception, the University of Notre Dame’s official school colors were blue and yellow. Shortly after the campus’ main building was rebuilt (following a dangerous fire) and finished in 1879, the school switched from yellow to gold in honor of the new buildings gilded golden domed roof.

In the first decades of the 20th Century, the Notre Dame football team wore plain navy blue jerseys adorned, like most other schools, with nothing on them.

By the time the legendary Knute Rockne became head coach in 1918, very little of the Notre Dame uniform had changed.

During the 1920’s Rockne began putting numbers on the back of each player’s jersey, as was becoming common practice for football teams all across the country. And while he continued dressing his teams in navy blue, after a short time as head coach, Rockne began outfitting his freshman practice squad in green uniforms.

Soon enough, Rockne began fitting his team on game day in green uniforms to distinguish them from opponents whose dark jerseys clashed with Notre Dame’s traditional navy blue.

On October 8, 1921 Rockne led Notre Dame against Iowa in Iowa City, wearing green jerseys for the very first time. However, he could not bring home a victory against a stingy Hawkeye club. The 10-7 loss was the season's only defeat for Notre Dame, coming against an Iowa team that would finish the year undefeated in their own right.

In spite of this defeat, Rockne is known to have liked the decision because he believed it helped his passers find their receivers much more easily in his fledging new offense.

It wasn’t until the year 1927 that Rockne began using the green uniforms as a psychological ploy, and he ended up breaking them out in the most dramatic of ways.

During Notre Dame’s first ever match up against then undefeated and defending mational champion Navy in Baltimore, Rockne decided to start his second-string reserves.

Within five minutes, the Irish second-string unit had surrendered a touchdown.

After Navy’s spirits had been raised by the early score, Rockne had his powerful starting lineup rip off their blue jerseys and charged onto the field covered in shimmering green uniforms.

Navy never scored another point as Notre Dame rolled to an impressive 19-6 victory.

From this a new tradition was born.

For the remainder of Rockne’s coaching career and up until the onset of

World War II, Notre Dame would occasionally wear green uniforms.

Although Rockne and his successors would sometimes use the green uniform for psychological purposes, throughout this era they would mostly wear them from the beginning of games solely for distinguishing purposes.

Since color photographs from this era are all but nonexistent, it is difficult to say with any certainty what these Irish green uniforms looked like. But in all likelihood they were nothing more than green jerseys with white numbers.

This wonderfully amazing color video of Notre Dame’s crushing 1939 loss to Iowa and that year’s Heisman Trophy winner in Nile Kinnick, is one of the earliest films or pictures of the Irish green jersey.

The Irish begin this contest in their traditional blue uniforms, but switch to green (complete with white shoulders) for the start of the second half.

This white shouldered jersey was used throughout the 1930s and last made an appearance on blue jerseys in Frank Leahy’s first game as Notre Dame head coach in 1941.

Leahy Likes Green: The Post-War Years

Frank Leahy became Notre Dame head coach shortly before American troops were sent to fight in the Second World War, but once the war ended, he unleashed some of the most dominant teams in college football history.

During this golden era of Notre Dame football stretching until the early 1950s, the Irish began wearing green more often. In fact, the traditional navy blue uniform took a back seat as Leahy started suiting his team up in exclusively green for years at a time.

This is why we have so many pictures from this era with Notre Dame legends dressed in the green uniforms of that day.

There's Angelo Bertelli's 1943 Heisman painting, Johnny Lujack on the cover of Life Magazine, Johnny Lujack Topps card from 1955 , a magazine from 1950 with Bobby Williams on the cover , Johnny Lattner on the cover of Sport magazine from 1953, and Lattner again on the cover of Time Magazine .

This practice of wearing green almost exclusively was continued by Irish head coach Terry Brennan from 1954-58.

That explains why Heisman trophy winner and Notre Dame legend Paul Hornung claims to have never wore any blue uniform during his career in South Bend.

Here are a few more pictures of Hornung leading the attack for the Irish.

However, the traditional navy blue uniform returned as the primary jersey when Joe Kuharich took over as head coach in 1959.

Kuharich did continue the tradition of wearing green occasionally, but more importantly, added UCLA-style shoulder stripes and a green shamrock to the gold Notre Dame helmets.

Color photographs from this period are exceedingly rare but it is believed the team had white stripes outlined in gold on their green uniform.

During Hugh Devore’s one year stint as head coach in 1963, the shoulder stripes were removed and the helmet shamrock replaced with white numbers.

Blue continued as the primary uniform, except for one occasion.

For Notre Dame’s last game of 1963 at Yankee Stadium against the University of Syracuse, the team played in green for the one and only time all year.

It would be a long time until an Irish squad donned the famous green jersey again.

Parseghian’s Uniform: Notre Dame in the Modern Ara

When Ara Parseghian took over as head coach in 1964, he returned Notre Dame to a more basic uniform design and continued the practice from the previous two coaches of using blue as the primary jersey.

What’s more, over Parseghian’s eleven seasons at Notre Dame, from 1964-1974, the Irish never wore green for even a single game.

In the middle of this era, just as football was being televised in color and massively popular, the Parseghian green-less uniforms became the quintessential Notre Dame Fighting Irish look for thousands of fans across the country.

This lack of an appearance for over a decade would ultimately set up perhaps the green jerseys finest moment in school history.

The Trojan Horse: Devine Intervention

Dan Devine took over for the retired Parseghian as head coach for the 1975 season and changed virtually nothing to the Irish uniforms.

However, on October 22, 1977 Devine charged up the Irish faithful by switching his team’s uniforms from blue to green in between warm ups and the start of the contest against arch-rival USC in what would become known as the "Trojan Horse" game.

This game also became known simply as the “Green Jersey” game and Notre Dame ended up crushing USC on their way to a national title in 1977, spurred on by the emotion of this victory.

Not only did Devine make the switch for the rest of the game , but he would have Notre Dame suit up in green for the remainder of his career until his retirement after the 1980 season .

It is believed that the Irish did wear the traditional blue for a game or two after the Trojan Horse game in 1977. As you may notice, Notre Dame did not have names on the back of their jerseys against USC, but they would in the later stages of the season.

The likely explanation is that the team switched back to blue at home against Navy (and possibly Georgia Tech) while the green uniforms were being fitted with nameplates.

To add to the “Green Machine” mystique, the Irish would also introduce a white road version of the green jersey. This would become Notre Dame’s primary road uniform and was worn during several memorable games, including the 1978 Cotton Bowl versus Texas which clinched the National Championship for the Irish.

The white “green” jersey would also be worn during perhaps Notre Dame’s biggest comeback in the famous "Chicken Soup" game against Houston in the 1979 Cotton Bowl.

And lastly, here is a website with great pictures of the 1981 Sugar Bowl against Georgia with Notre Dame wearing the road green uniform in Devine’s last game as coach.

Now and Again: The Green Jersey Since 1981

The coaching period from Gerry Faust to the recently fired Charlie Weis has seen very little use of the green jerseys. Over the last 29 years, Notre Dame has only worn the green uniform on nine separate occasions.

Faust provided some fairly radical changes to Notre Dame’s basic uniforms by lightening the color of blue and adding sleeve stripes, but he only wore green uniforms against USC in both 1983 and 1985 (switching at halftime during the latter game.)

I have been unable to find any pictures or documentation of these uniforms, but it is likely that they were very similar to the ones worn in the late 70s.

However, Faust had the stripes on the primary uniforms removed for the 1984 season, so it is curious to wonder if the ’83 green jerseys had stripes as well.

The green wouldn’t be donned until Lou Holtz put the Irish in white road jerseys with green numbers and socks in the 1992 Sugar Bowl , exactly 11 years to the day since Notre Dame last worn road white “green” against Georgia in the 1981 Sugar Bowl.

A few years later, Holtz would outfit Notre Dame in the famous green uniforms for the 1995 Fiesta Bowl against Colorado. Here is a web site with pictures from the game.

Holtz successor Bob Davie brought out the green jerseys only once, for the 1999 Gator Bowl against Georgia Tech. Additional pictures are available here .

After starting the season with a string of victories, head coach Tyrone Willingham brought out some very bright green uniforms against rival Boston College. This version was simplified in contrast to the previous two green uniforms, but can lay claim to being the brightest of all the green shades the Irish have ever worn.

Being a student at Notre Dame during the green jersey revival in the late 1970s, Charlie Weis most likely had a soft spot for the celebrated uniforms. That may explain why he wore them for one game in each of his first three seasons as coach of the Irish.

Most people remember the 2005 match up against USC, also known as the "Bush Push" game , where Weis surprised Irish fans with green jerseys .

Weis also broke out the same green uniforms in 2006 against Army on Senior Day .

And finally, the last green jersey Notre Dame has worn was the 1977 throwbacks from the 2007 season against rival USC .

A Kelly Shade of Green

If we were to break up the green jerseys into four main designs, we would have the following:

1. Pre-Parseghian

2. Devine

3. Holtz to Willingham

4. Weis

All of the green jerseys worn before 1964 were more or less simple green jerseys with white numbers. The only exceptions to this are the white shouldered green jersey from the mid-to-late 1930s and the UCLA-striped green jersey from Kuharich’s tenure.

The Devine-era produced a green jersey with yellow numbers and white outline, as well as the white road version with green numbers and yellow outline. The road white version also had green cuffs on the sleeves.

The three sets stretching from Holtz in 1995 to Willingham in 2002 were all fairly similar except for some minor changes in the collar, sleeve, and shade.

The 1995 version had numbers and an interlocking ND logo both in white with blue outline, as well as a gold collar and cuff of the sleeve. A small golden dome was also added to the base of the collar.

The 1999 version was similar to its predecessor, except the shade of green was darker, the numbers and ND logo were outlined in gold, and the collar and sleeves were striped in a gold/blue/white/blue/gold pattern.

The 2002 version lightened the shade of green and did not have anything on the jersey except white numbers and interlocking ND logo on the sleeves both outlined in gold.

And lastly, we have the Weis-era jersey, which created a new design complete with a very dark shade of green, gold numbers, and TV numbers with white outline, as well as a small gold interlocking ND logo at the base of the collar.

Furthermore, kelly green is the unofficial traditional shade worn by the team, but as you can see, there have been a few different shades of green used over the years.

The early pre-modern jerseys appear to have been a medium shade of normal green that looked lighter or darker depending on the quality of the photograph and the amount of light. I contend that these uniforms never approached the shade of kelly green.

The 1999 Gator Bowl version was quite similar to the pre-modern era jerseys worn by Lattner, Hornung, and company. It was a solid green color, but not nearly bright or pale enough to be kelly green.

The one version that can be ruled out is the recent Weis production from 2005 and 2006, which has been said to be forest green, but is actually approaching the shade of myrtle.

The 1995 Fiesta Bowl version is quite bright, but the hue is still much closer to a forest green than kelly green.

The 2002 version is extremely bright and actually seems fairly close to kelly green, but the polyester fabric mixed with natural and artificial light wreaks havoc on the ability to see a true shade (*see note below).

Finally, I would say the Devine era green jerseys are the most accurate, with the recent 2007 throwback editions being the closest to kelly green in Notre Dame history.

It appears that the green originally used by Devine for the Trojan Horse game, and for the next season or two, was a bit darker and closer to normal green. Yet, by the end of Devine's career in South Bend, the green uniforms seem to have been brightened considerably closer to kelly green.

(*Note): Uniform materials in the past made it easier to determine color, but we are left with mostly poor photography and lighting. Today, we have tremendous photography, but uniform materials which place a heavy emphasis on metallic add brightness to the detriment and sacrifice of shade color.

So, what do you consider the classic or quintessential Notre Dame green jersey?

Summary: Are They Bad Luck?

One of the more interesting parts to the story and history of the Notre Dame green jersey, is how they have been perceived as bad luck in recent years.

For the record, since the green jersey became used only for “special occasions” after Devine's tenure, Notre Dame has a record of 4-5 while wearing the fabled uniform. That includes being 1-5 in their last six opportunities in green.

Probably the biggest reason they are viewed as bad luck is because they were worn for a few gut-wrenching losses in recent years, including a stupefying loss while undefeated at home to Boston College in 2002, a terribly heartbreaking loss to USC in 2005 and perhaps the worst loss in Notre Dame Stadium history in 2007 to the Trojans.

Added to that is the fact that three out of the four victories in the green were not memorable in the least bit: two victories against mediocre USC teams in the 80s and against a woeful Army club in 2006. The stirring victory in the '92 Sugar Bowl against Florida remains the lone big victory while clad in green over the past twenty years.

And let’s not forget Knute Rockne lost the first time Notre Dame wore green.

In summary, time will tell when the Fighting Irish will once again sport green jerseys, but it seems like the tradition will always be to keep it a secret until game day arrives.

It is hard to envision the program ever making the exclusive switch to green uniforms while playing at home, but it is interesting to note the last name of Notre Dame's new head coach.

Brian Kelly .


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