On Monday the Detroit Lions unveiled their “new” logo and uniform changes, as part of their branding campaign to improve the team’s image. (and of course to produce greater merchandise sales.)
Although the “Leaping Lion” helmet looks a bit fiercer with an added eye and a flowing mane, everyone knows the team’s real image will not change until it producers a winner on the field.
Six years ago during the Steve Mariucci era, the Lions introduced a bolder look to their legendary Honolulu Blue and Silver uniform by adding a black trim to the Leaping Lion helmet logo, numbers, jersey sleeves and pants. The facemasks were also changed from blue to black.
We all know those changes didn’t improve the results on the gridiron.
The following is a brief history of the evolution of the Lions’ uniform from an article I wrote in 2003.
When WJR owner G.A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans in 1934 and moved the team to Detroit, the newly renamed Lions unveiled a striking uniform consisting of a blue jersey, silver pants, blue socks, and a silver helmet.
According to a 1950 Lion media guide, “the blue, a distinctive shade was especially developed for G.A. Richards.” According to team lore, their first owner came up with the color after admiring the hue of the Pacific Ocean on a trip to Hawaii and the shade was named “Honolulu blue.”
In 1999, Glenn Presnell, the then lone surviving member of the first Lion’s team and the league’ oldest alumnus, described his role in selecting the first uniform in an interview with me.
“When we met with Mr. Richards, my wife and I also helped select the Lions’ colors, “ Presnell said. “He had asked us to look at the different jerseys in the next room. There were all different colors, orange and black, red and white, you name it. We saw that Honolulu blue and silver and said we liked it best. So Richards chose that.”
After a syndicate of Detroit businessman bought the team in 1948 and installed former Indiana University head coach Alvin “Bo” McMillin to lead the Lions, the uniform changed dramatically for a short period of time.
Although the team retained Honolulu Blue and Silver as the official team colors, McMillin in one of his first moves as general manager and coach, threw out the blue and silver uniform in favor of colors resembling his Hoosier teams.
The new Lions’ jersey was scarlet with white numbers matched with white pants highlighted by a thin black stripe between two thin scarlet stripes down the side of the leg. The team used black leather helmets that year because plastic helmets were banned, although the restriction was lifted the following season.
McMillin also utilized a second all black uniform that allowed for four different combinations: scarlet/white, black/black, scarlet/black and black/black.
While at Indiana McMillin saved an all black uniform for games he particularly wished to win. His record using the black version was 6-0 so the superstitious coach was hoping that his good luck charm would work for his 1-5 Lions. It didn’t. When Detroit wore the all black uniform for the first time, they were annihilated 56-20 at the hands of the Chicago Cardinals on their way to a 2-10 season.
The next year, the blue and silver uniform was back by popular demand, though only for home games. In 1950, McMillin’s last year with the Lions, they were used for every game.
McMillin’s jersey experiment and game plan ultimately failed. He was fired after compiling a 12-24 record over three years.
In 1949 and 1950 the Lions often wore a blue helmet but returned to silver in 1951. Through the 1955 season, because a white football was used in night games, the NFL prohibited the Lions from using a silver helmet since it resembled the ball. Equipment manager Roy “Friday” Macklem painted the helmets blue for night games.
In a 1954 contest in San Francisco, the Lions for the first time wore a white jersey with blue racing stripes on the sleeves. Three years later the white jersey was used in all road games, a tradition that continues today. By 1956, the Lions added numerals to their jersey sleeves, a move not welcomed by left offensive tackle Lou Creekmur. Years later, the Hall of Famer says he was unhappy about it because it made it more difficult to get away with holding.
The most significant change prior to this year’s alteration occurred in 1961, the same year that 36 year old William Clay Ford was named team president and just three seasons before he acquired the club.
In 1961 the NFL signed its first exclusive contract with CBS to televise regular season games on network television. In an effort to enhance its image to a growing audience, the league required the teams to spruce up their uniforms including placing team logos on their helmets. The Browns were the only team given an exemption.
For 1961, the Lions added a blue leaping Lion logo to their helmet along with two vertical blue stripes running from the back to the front of the headgear. Silver racing stripes were added to the blue home jersey and the pants received two blue vertical stripes. That same season, in a break from tradition, the Lion’s for the first and only time wore their white road jersey in the annual Thanksgiving Day game at Tiger Stadium for good luck. The Lions had not lost a road game in their white jerseys in a year, but on that day, they lost the battle to the green shirted Packers 17-9.
In 1968 a white stripe was placed in the middle of the helmets’ two blue stripes. Two years later players’ last names were placed on back of the jerseys and the Lion logo was outlined in white. In 1976 players’ numbers were added to the back of the helmet and in 1983 the facemask changed from gray to blue.
For 1980 and 1981 the team spruced up their look again when they wore glittered numbers. “It was like sparkles that kids use in their school artwork,” said former Lion equipment manager Dan Jaroshewich. “The problem was that when our opponents looked at game film, they had trouble reading our numbers with the glare of the sun and light. They complained so we had to get rid of them,” he says.
In a tribute to their history, the Lions occasionally donned throwback uniforms representing the team’s look from the 1930s through the 50s. The “throwbacks”, consisting of silver helmets without logos, blue jerseys with silver numbers, solid silver pants, solid blue socks, and black shoes were first worn in 1994 in celebration of the NFL’s 75 Anniversary. They have also been worn by the Lions in recent Thanksgiving Day games.
But since the early 70s, there have been only minor alterations to one of the NFL’s most famous and distinctive uniforms.