Football's Wacky Uniform Numbers
Amos Alonzo Stagg was an early advocate of adding numbers to player uniforms since he believed numbers would help fans follow the game, and Ol' Lonnie planned to add them to Chicago's uniforms in 1900. However, he chose not to since he anticipated having a weak team that season. Like many coaches, Stagg saw numbering as a competitive disadvantage since opposing scouts and players could more easily identify his top players, plays, and shifts. Other coaches opposed numbering players believing it promoted individualism over team play.
The first football teams to wear jersey numbers in a game were Drake and Iowa State when they did so on Thanksgiving Day in 1905. With temporary numbers painted on canvas shields sewn on the backs of their jerseys, Drake wore numbers between 1 and 25, while Iowa State wore numbers between 26 and 50. (The first sports teams to wear uniform numbers were rugby teams in New Zealand and Australia in the late 1890s.)
As the volume of teams numbering their players added up and conferences began requiring digits, some opponents of numbering found ways to follow the imprecise letter of the law rather than its spirit. For example, the Big Ten recommended its teams wear numbers starting in 1914. Ewald Stiehm, who became Indiana's coach in 1916 after leading Nebraska to a 35-2-3 record over five years (the highest win percentage in Cornhusker history), announced the switch from striped jerseys to solid crimson togs with numbers on the back in 1917. That did not happen, however. Instead, the Hoosiers' linemen had letters on their backs rather than numbers. The left end wore an I, the left tackle sported an N, the left guard had a D, and so on until even Ohio State fans could figure out the jerseys spelled I-N-D-I-A-N-A. Well, some Ohio State fans.
Minnesota's coach, H. L. Williams, a pioneer of pre-snap shifts, sent his boys onto the gridiron numberless until 1921, when an updated conference rule required their use. But Williams had one last trick up his sleeve or, rather, a trick on the back of his players' jerseys. For their season opener against Northwestern, Williams sent his Gophers onto the field wearing four-digit numbers, making it difficult for the Wildcat players and coaches to track Minnesota's shifts.
The NCAA recommended the use of numbered jerseys in 1920, and the practice soon became nearly universal. Still, every party has a pooper, and Furman's coach, Dad Amis, claimed that title in 1929. Following in H. L. Williams' footsteps, Amis had the Paladins wear Roman numerals rather than Arabic numerals for their game against Erksine.
As we know, football coaches like structure, and some considered the numbering requirement inadequate because players could wear any number regardless of their position. But Austy Tate had a better idea for his 1930 Lehigh team, dressing his Engineers in alphanumeric combinations such as A1, B7, E2, and F7. One image from the season shows a player wearing 5C, reversing the letter-numeral order of his teammates.
The 1941 rules committee recommended the numbering of players by position. Doing so was expected to help officials identify players committing fouls, including ineligible receivers downfield. However, since teams had invested in their current stock of jerseys and some players were emotionally invested in their jersey numbers, the committee positioned the first season or two as tests during which schools could use one of several numbering systems. Of course, the fun part of the story is the alternative numbering systems devised at the time.
One approach touted by Duquesne's Buff Donelli and Arizona's Miles Casteel (the latter also proposed having the yard lines numbered from 0 to 100) called for alphanumeric combinations corresponding to each player's offensive position and string. Under this scheme, the starting left end wore E1, the second-string left end wore E3, while the starting right tackle wore T2, and his backup wore T4, and so on. Neither Duquesne nor Arizona used the alphanumeric combination, but LSU used it during the 1951 season, as did Kentucky for a few games.
UCLA picked up the alphanumeric trend in their 1952 game against Cal because Cal's coach, Pappy Waldorf, insisted UCLA wear white jerseys as the visiting team rather than the light blue the Bruins generally wore. Since UCLA had only one set of white jerseys -an alphanumeric set acquired in anticipation of the scheme's use in 1953- they wore those, and the highly-motivated Bruins whitewashed the Bears, 28-7.
The alphanumeric approach makes as much sense as any other, but the two-digit system already had wide acceptance and only needed to be tweaked to become position dependent. Some called for the second digit of a player's number to correspond to their position so centers' uniform numbers would end with a 2, guards with a 3, and so on. But a third numbering system, which became the norm, had the first digit of the player number correspond to their offensive position such that quarterback numbers started with a 1, left halfback numbers began with a 2, fullbacks with a 3, right halfbacks with a 4, and the like.
Although football ultimately settled on the first digit of the number designating the position, even that approach had variations. The All-American Football Conference (AAFC), an NFL competitor in the late 1940s, numbered centers in the 20s, guards in the 30s, tackles in the 40s, ends in the 50s, quarterbacks in the 60s, fullbacks in the 70s, and halfbacks in the 80s. The AAFC went belly up after the 1949 season, though three financially stable teams (Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers) joined the NFL. Those teams retained their AAFC numbers during their first two years in the NFL before the league mandated a consistent system in 1952.
The final example of oddball numbering involved identical twins Harry and Larry Jones, who played for Kentucky in the early 1950s. Bear Bryant, their coach, could not tell one from the other, so he assigned them alphanumerics 1A and 1B, which allowed him to keep up with the Joneses.
Both Joneses were solid players who saw regular action -Harry was Kentucky's starting quarterback- and their senior season in 1952 was the last to use unusual numbers in mainstream college or pro football.
Like many elements of football, we have become so accustomed to football's current numbering system that we forget some opposed numbering players or preferred alternatives to the system that became the norm. Still, the adopted system has seen only a few tweaks over the years -such as the NFL is implementing in 2021. The system with the first digit of the number designating a player's position has stood the test of time, even though several alternatives might have taken its place.
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