CHAMPAIGN -- There was no majestic bird, no rumbling buffalo, no jungle cat, no muscular woodman swinging a mighty axe.
There was no fierce creature from the forest, no gleaming flying machine.
When the creative team from Nike sat down to give University of Illinois athletic logos, marks and uniforms a new contemporary look, people like Todd Van Horne were presented with a most unique challenge.
Illinois was a school without a mascot, without a powerful symbol, without a hook on which to hang their designs.
Ever since Chief Illiniwek marched into our memory in 2007, Illinois has basically had one image on which to base its brand -- the block I.
In the grand scheme of a school’s images, it doesn’t give the creative types much to work with.
So Van Horne, vice president and creative director for Nike Football and Baseball, directed his team to dig deeper. They delved into the history books and photo archives and unearthed images of Illinois’ first sports superstar, Red Grange.
Grange, it turns out, was a cornerstone of the Nike creations. They drew inspiration from Grange’s dashing style and the vertical bars on the uniform Grange sported in the 1920s. If there’s a football god, Nike will at some point treat us to a “throwback” uniform that brings us a modern treatment of Grange’s iconic jersey.
They learned about the history of Memorial Stadium, named for the university students who died during World War I, their names etched into the 200 pillars that surround the stadium’s façade.
Through interviews with past athletes, alums, coaches, administrators and current athletes, they sought to find out what “being a Fighting Illini” actually means.
Some words kept reoccurring, and among them were, “tradition, pride, loyalty, family, honor, passion and blue collar.”
And because there needed to be more than a revised Block I, Nike has created what I believe will become the school’s most powerful image since the circular Chief Illiniwek logo. That image is the Victory Shield, which will now be seen on every University of Illinois uniform.
Perhaps lost in the PowerPoint presentation Wednesday, as Van Horne walked us through the creation of these new logos and uniforms, was a shot of military figure toting a shield draped across his back.
This, Nike was saying, is what warriors look like marching into battle and the birth of the Victory Shield is a Nike creation based on snippets of that history, on the power of Red Grange and on the belief that today’s young athletes can identify with the badge of a super hero.
Van Horne agreed that working without an existing mascot presented a unique challenge.
“It was very much different, but for us it ultimately gave us a better final expression,” he said. “Because we didn’t focus on a mascot and say, ‘Here are the attributes of this animal…,’ we had to look at the spirit of the Fighting Illini and find out what that meant.
“We think the Victory Shield is a strong representation of what it means to be a Fighting Illini.”
Those who felt underwhelmed by the uniform designs were perhaps expecting something that was never in consideration.
I’ve spoken to a few fans who wanted the university to thumb its nose at the NCAA and resurrect a stronger Chief Illiniwek image. That was never going to happen, unless you share in the belief that those “zig-zag” swoops on the side of the men’s basketball uniforms are an homage to the flowing feathers of the Chief’s headdress.
No one can admit to that, of course, but there’s something about the swoop of the design that makes it a possibility.
Of the uniforms we saw this week -- and it should be noted there are many more to come -- the single most stunning piece of work is the orange football helmet.
I have yet to see a photo that does it justice. The metallic color of the anodized orange absolutely glows, and if I’m head coach Tim Beckman, I take that helmet on every recruiting visit I make.
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Just set it on the table and say, “We believe you can be a star in this helmet.”
I love the prominent way the Victory Shield is positioned near the neck of the football jersey and wish it were the same on the basketball uniforms. Although I like the basketball uniforms, the Victory Shield seems too small and hidden at belt level.
Near the neck is a round Block I logo. I’d like to see them reversed, but it’s a small point.
We already know there is a metallic silver basketball uniform coming and additional yet-to-be-revealed designs.
And I’d like to believe there is a dark steel gray football uniform that would look sensational with that same orange helmet.
The football all-whites -- white pants, white jersey, white helmet -- would glisten when worn under the lights of a night game.
As for their impact on recruits, running back Donovonn Young donned the all-white football uniform Wednesday and said this is how it must feel to be an Oregon recruit.
Oregon is the proving ground for new Nike gear, thanks to the fact that Nike co-founder Phil Knight is a University of Oregon grad.
“Things like this give us a boost of morale and confidence,” Young said. “We can be proud of who we are.
“One of the big things Oregon has over other schools is that they have cool stuff. Kids 17 years old get excited about cool stuff.
“I look at this new uniform, and it makes me feel like a million bucks. Now our stuff is up there with Oregon’s.”