Going green: The history of Notre Dame's special jerseys, from Rockne to today

These days, it seems as though every college football program has a mall department store’s inventory of alternate uniforms. Color schemes and patches and stitches, presented as tributes to days gone by, futuristic twists stolen straight from the Lucasfilm costume closet and, honestly, a whole lot of “WTH were they thinking?!”

But the roots of rotating regalia reach back, naturally, to the place where it feels like most college football ideas seem to have been immaculately conceived: South Bend, Indiana, where when it comes to alternate uniforms, OG stands for Original Green.

On Saturday, the ninth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish will defend their very green home grass (OK, it’s artificial turf) against the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes, and will do so clothed in the latest iteration of the uniform that both excites and frustrates those who spend their fall Saturdays living to wake up the echoes: their green jerseys.

“We want to see a lot of green in here,” Marcus Freeman said Monday, ahead of what is easily the biggest home game of his 19-game tenure as Irish head coach. The former Ohio State linebacker stood at the podium in a dark green jacket and light green dress shirt. “We’ve got green jerseys, and I don’t know if they’re calling it a ‘green out,’ but we want to see a lot of green. … Let’s get as much green in this stadium as we can.”

It seems like an easy assignment, right? Yet there remains a not-small contingent of Notre Dame faithful who turn a little green in the gills when it comes to the idea of wearing green. Some still regard jade jerseys as a bit of a curse, always a particularly sensitive topic when it comes to people who believe in leprechauns and kissing stones for luck. And in their defense, there does seem to be a fairly thick folder of evidence to back those claims. But there is also a deeper history behind the team’s green jerseys that even the most hard-core Johnny Lujack and Paul Hornung-loving Notre Dame fan might not be aware of.

“Green on the uniforms is just like anything else whenever you are talking about Notre Dame football,” explained Lou Holtz, who coached the Irish for 11 seasons, including their last national title in 1988. “Whenever you think you’ve gotten to the bottom of it, there’s a whole other layer of history behind it.”

Green looks good in 4K UHD

The current era of college football alternate uniform wackiness goes back roughly 25 years, when a team that has never had any issue with green started donning different kelly-covered clothing on a weekly basis. The long-lowly Oregon Ducks rose to national prominence via equal parts winning big games and trotting onto the field donned in increasingly loud game-day attire. A large chunk of the copycat college football world began to follow, ahem, suit.

However, the classic programs, the ones that had been great at football for a century or more, found themselves hung up like a loose thread caught in a zipper. How can you be next-gen cool in the eyes of teenage recruits while also appeasing those sections of gray-haired traditionalist season-ticket holders who are also the donors who pay all the bills?

“We call them the gold seats,” recalled Brian Kelly, who coached the Irish for a dozen years, from 2010 to 2021. “Every decision made at Notre Dame is made with careful attention paid to tradition, but also explaining to those who are rightfully dedicated to that tradition that it’s OK to occasionally think outside the box.”

Kelly, now at LSU, is referring to the Shamrock Series, a Notre Dame marketing plan introduced the year before his arrival. The Irish started scheduling games against brand-name opponents at neutral sites around the nation, from Yankee Stadium to Las Vegas and, yes, introducing alternate uniforms that have dipped heavily into the green. That cracked the crayon box open just enough for Kelly to employ green jerseys for Senior Day. In all, his record with lime liveries was 5-1, the only blemish being a 35-31 heartbreaker at Michigan in 2011 while his team wore green numbers on white shirts.

Speaking of green numerals …

Bettis barreling in beryl

During the years before Kelly’s arrival, the idea of mixing green in with Notre Dame navy and gold began to be viewed like the green that grows on copper pipes right before they fall apart and flood one’s basement.

When Holtz took over in 1986, charged with recharging college football’s once-proudest program, he immediately established navy blue as the team’s dominant color, harking back to the Ara Parseghian era of 1964-74, when the team racked up nearly 100 wins and earned two national titles. The lone exceptions were both bowl games in an effort to ignite a spark in his underdog roster. The first one worked — and did so famously.

“It was the [1992] Sugar Bowl against Florida, and a lot of people were saying we shouldn’t be in that game, that we were only there because we were Notre Dame and not because we were as good as them,” recalled a still-bristling Jerome Bettis. “Coach Holtz showed us an old movie, ‘Wake Up The Echoes,’ about Notre Dame football history. Then we got into the locker room and we had green numbers on the jerseys and green socks. All we had worn the whole time I was there was navy and white. Man, it was on.”

Bettis ran for 150 yards and three touchdowns, and the Irish outscored Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘n’ Gun Gators 39-28.

Unfortunately, that era’s other wearing o’ the green didn’t go so great. Holtz’s other emerald effort was a 41-24 loss to Colorado in the 1995 Fiesta Bowl. His successor, Bob Davie, selected green jerseys for the 1999 Gator Bowl … and Notre Dame lost to Georgia Tech by a touchdown.

Davie’s heir, Tyrone Willingham, had his 2002 team sitting 8-0 and ranked fourth in the nation amid cries of “The Irish are back!” Then it lost 14-7 to unranked Boston College while wearing green jerseys. Notre Dame dropped eight of its next 12 games, and by the end of the next season, Willingham was out.

The soul-crushing Bush Push loss to USC in 2005 … yep, green jerseys. Just two years later, coach Charlie Weis pulled them out again against USC … and the Irish lost 38-0. Why did they keep insisting on wearing their verde versions against the Trojans? Because of the game that many still mistakenly believe was the day the Irish first went with the full-on sage smocks.

‘A Green Machine?! Look at the jerseys!’

Keith Jackson could barely contain himself. The greatest voice in the history of the game cracked as he spotted Notre Dame walking out of the tunnel behind a massive Trojan horse, the 11th-ranked Irish taking the field to face No. 5 USC. It was Oct. 22, 1977. Jackson’s heightened sense of excitement was nothing compared to that of the 59,075 in attendance at Notre Dame Stadium, many of whom instinctively jumped the stone wall that separated the student section from the field and ran out to form an impromptu tunnel extension for quarterback Joe Montana and his teammates to stride through.

“We actually warmed up for that game in our regular blue jerseys, like normal, but when we got dressed, we had green socks, and that wasn’t normal, so a lot of the guys were wondering what was up with that,” Montana said. “When we came back in from warmups, there were green jerseys with gold numbers, and man, a lot of our guys went crazy over that.”

Coach Dan Devine had cooked up the scheme with basketball coach Digger Phelps and called his captains into his office earlier in the week to pitch the idea. They loved it. (Again, young people, right? That hasn’t changed.) The Irish won the game in a rout, 49-19, and went on to win the national championship via another lopsided victory, over Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

“I think people forget this now, but that became the uniform,” Montana reminded us. He’s right. Devine’s teams wore green unis for the remainder of his tenure, fully green at home and green numbers on the road, all the way through 1980. His record in green? 31-9-1.

What’s more, it wasn’t the first time they’d done that.

Frank Leahy, true Irishman

In 1941, Frank Leahy was named the head football coach at Notre Dame. He was Nebraska-born, was the son of Irish parents, had played tackle at Notre Dame and had coached at Boston College. The man was only slightly less Irish-Catholic than Saint Patrick. So when he took over the program, he draped his footballers in green, first using them as alternate uniforms before going green full time at the onset of World War II. He never went back.

Leahy’s teams posted an overall record of 87-11-9, and after switching to green for good, they had a run of 39 games without a loss (37-0-2). The most famous of Leahy’s players was 1947 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack, who made the cover of Life magazine on Sept. 29, 1947, in his sparkling technicolor green jersey.

“I have signed so many copies of that magazine cover over the last 70 years,” Lujack said in 2017, sitting in a booth in a sports bar adjacent to Notre Dame Stadium, pointing to a framed copy of that very cover hanging on the wall. Lujack died earlier this year at age 98. “I think that green has gotten brighter over the years. Almost as bright as the jerseys they wear now from time to time.”

After Leahy retired in 1953 with four (many argue it should be five) national titles, the Notre Dame program slid into hard times before Parseghian’s arrival a decade later. All those losses gave the green jerseys an unfair reputation as being a jinx. That long malachite malaise also altered the story of where the OG Original Greens had first been stitched together.

The creator couldn’t have been … wait … could it?

Do you see what the Rock is sewing?!

Knute Rockne has been dead for 92 years, killed in a plane crash in 1931. But even now, he might be the most famous college football coach who ever stalked a sideline. He still owns the highest winning percentage of any modern-era coach (.881). He introduced defensive and offensive tactics that still have shadows in today’s hyperspeed game, most famously popularizing and modernizing the forward pass.

And that’s why he introduced green jerseys.

The idea of lucky laundry was to help his quarterbacks better spot their passing targets downfield against opponents who wore similar uniform colors as his team did. Back then, that was pretty much everyone. It was a sea of grays, whites and navy blues. Not even gold or yellow helmets helped amid a schedule packed with the likes of Army, Navy, Purdue and Iowa.

Green immediately stood out. Notre Dame historians have long claimed that it was a game against the Hawkeyes in 1921 when Rockne first pulled green shirts off the rack. Oddly enough, that was also the only game the Irish lost that season, 10-7. There is also zero photographic evidence that this actually happened. Hey, it was the 1920s. Everything was in black and white!

We do know for certain that Notre Dame sported green five years later against a navy-and-white-clad opponent in Penn State. The Irish won that contest 28-0. Multiple newspaper stories tell tales of an emerald Irish look in other games, all against other similarly dark-and-drab-dressed foes. Rockne’s predecessors also used green selectively, until his former player Leahy went evergreen years later.

So on Saturday night, as we all watch the Irish run into the stadium that Rockne designed, let’s take a moment to pause and think of the All-American himself, perpetually stuck in black and white, watching from the Great Green Beyond as Notre Dame sparkles in viridian splendor, in all its 4K UHD glory.

The Rock will no doubt be green with envy.

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