Every time Oregon unveils a new football uniform, Phil Knight is normally the first person given credit.
Which makes sense. Nike’s co-founder and chairman is a highly visible booster for his alma mater, and it was under his stewardship that the Swoosh became the world’s leading supplier of athletic shoes and sports apparel.
While Knight is an important figure in this regard, he’s not the head cook in Nike’s “Innovation Kitchen.” That distinction belongs to another native Oregonian who, like Knight, is a former member of the Ducks’ famed track and field program.
He’s responsible for many of Nike’s most famous sneaker designs. His bold choices in designing uniforms for Oregon’s football team has created a seemingly unstoppable style revolution in college football that has led programs as prestigious as Notre Dame to chuck tradition to the side for uniforms like these.
It’s almost too perfect that this creative visionary goes by the name of “Tinker.”
Hatfield’s father was a well-regarded coach at Central Linn High School, in their hometown of Halsey. Hatfield was named the 1970 Oregon high school athlete of the year at Central Linn and later ran college track for legendary coach (and Nike co-founder) Bill Bowerman. At one time he held the school record in the pole vault, becoming the first Duck to clear 17 feet.
There was also a creative side to Hatfield. He graduated from Oregon’s School of Architecture. It gave him a vision of what Nike could (literally) look like when he joined the company in 1981.
First came the shoes. His “Air Max 1” running shoe, released in 1987, was the world’s first “cross training” sneaker. He has also designed 16 of the 23 Air Jordan basketball sneakers released, including all Air Jordans III through XV. Several of Nike’s corporate offices are his handiwork (it was what Nike originally hired him to do in 1981), as is the forest design on the basketball court at Matthew Knight Arena.
Hatfield’s legacy within Nike is firmly secure. It’s his legacy within the college football landscape that’s continuing to grow.
It all started with a straightforward question from Knight to Hatfield back in 1996: “How can we help the University of Oregon attract better students and better student athletes?”
“We wanted to be out there, to be purposely controversial,” Hatfield told SportsBusiness Journal last August. “And what’s a more visible way to turn up the heat and create a personality than through the football uniforms? So many millions see them on TV that uniforms become your biggest branding tool.”
Hatfield points out in the same article that Knight never asked how to “rebrand” Oregon. But it happened anyway. Almost by accident, they stumbled upon a viral concept before the idea of things “going viral” was a matter of importance.
First came Oregon ditching their old yellow helmets with an interlocking “UO” logo in 1999 for sleek uniforms and a new “O” logo based upon Autzen Stadium for the exterior of the “O” and Hayward Field for the interior. As the Ducks continued to pile up wins, show off futuristic new uniforms and create tremendous football facilities on Knight’s dime to lure recruits, the program turned into a Pac-12 power alongside USC that culminated with a trip to the 2011 BCS National Championship Game.
And the uniforms kept up with the program’s exponential improvement. The Ducks now have 300 different combinations they can choose from and never seem to go into a big game without a new look, like the liquid metal helmets from January’s Rose Bowl.
Branding and an out-there approach to design made Eugene a much more prominent part of the college football landscape. Other apparel companies – namely, adidas and Under Armour – and football programs have taken notice.
Brad Bishop, the co-founder of a Dallas company that works with schools on their branding strategies and logos, said in the aforementioned SBJ story that there is an “industry-wide acknowledgement of the importance of brand development. You didn’t hear athletic directors five, six years ago talking about their brand like you do now.”
Hence the Maryland horror show we all witnessed last September. Not to mention the bevy of teams, both contenders and pretenders, who have spent this offseason drumming up enthusiasm for 2012 with uniform changes left and right. It’s gotten to the point where we lose sight of reality, accepting the latest uniform design even if better judgment tells us it’s a farce.
Tinker Hatfield didn’t set out to change college football. Yet by turning Oregon’s football uniforms into a branding tool, that’s exactly what he’s done.