September 18. 1994
Welcome Home, ‘BENGALS’ Helmets
By Jack Clary
Today is "Throwback’s Day".
This is a part of the National Football League’s 75th Anniversary Celebration in which every team will wear a replica of one of its old uniforms. The Bengals are the league’s third youngest team (sounds hard to believe, doesn’t it?) so this is really no big deal because they have had only two uniform designs in their history.
Except for the very young, or those new to the area, the Bengals today will be welcoming an old friend--the black jersey with three white and orange stripes on the sleeve, and the orange helmet with BENGALS on the side; black socks with orange and white stripes; and white pants trimmed in orange.
The last active players to have worn the uniform were tackle Anthony Munoz and kicker Jim Breech, both of whom joined the team In 1980, the last season the uniform was worn, and they played through the 1992 season. Gone for a game at least are the black striped helmets, the jersey with the Bengal stripes at the shoulders and the pants with the Bengal stripe running from top to bottom.
Those matters are the domain of equipment manager Tom Gray, who had to strip the Bengal-striped helmets after last week‘s game in San Diego--each of those stripes is a separate decal-then clean the helmet and attach the BENGAL logo. After today‘s game, he will strip the helmet again, and them painstakingly reattach the stripes, all in time for the team’s next workout (every workout, even those in t-shirts and shorts, is conducted with the players wearing their helmets, "just in case…").
The history of the Bengals nickname and uniforms rest in Paul Brown‘s legacy since he designed both versions, the first coming after the name "Bengals" was selected by a three-man committee consisting of himself, team president John Sawyer and David Gamble, another owner. It was an outgrowth, PB always maintained, of Sawyer‘s and Gamble‘s alma mater, Princeton, whose nickname is "Tigers." "Tigers is kind of common, so why not make it a Bengal tiger or Bengals?" they said.
Of course, nothing that PB did was that pat because his great high school teams at Massillon were the Tigers, too, and their colors were black and orange. In 1968, more than a quarter century after leaving there, his heart still beats to a Massillon Tigers rhythm just as it did when he first designed the Cleveland Browns uniforms, using the orange from Massillon, and adding the white and seal brown to cover the team‘s nickname, which by no coincidence was also his own.
Here is his version of the original Bengals nickname and uniform that will be worn today, as set down in his autobiography, PB:
"That (Bengals) was a name that could be animated and also one that pick up a thread of tradition that went back nearly thirty years to when the city had had a professional football team named the Cincinnati Bengals. We had received many suggestions for "Buckeyes," but I didn’t want anyone confusing us with Ohio State’s team, and besides, our following would be spread throughout four states Instead of just one, and I didn’t want to limit us.
"I was also involved in designing our uniforms as I had done at Cleveland. My one key principle was "nothing too flashy" because nothing is worse than a bad team with a crazy-looking uniform. The old Denver Broncos’ vertical-striped stockings had made them a laughingstock in the early sixties, and I was determined to avoid anything that might bring ridicule while we struggled to become respectable. I know that many people have said I patterned the Bengals’ uniform and colors after the Browns, but that is not so. In addition to our helmets being different, our orange, black and white colors are representative of our symbol, the Bengal tiger while the Browns’ colors are orange, brown and white."
Technically, perhaps, PB was correct when he said the Bengals uniforms were not "patterned" after the Browns. But it was so close that for years, it was a source of great consternation in the offices in Tower B at Cleveland Stadium, with repeated phone calls to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle beseeching him to use his influence with Brown to have the Bengals make a more definitive change.
"Paul knew exactly what he wanted when he sat down to design the Bengals uniforms, and it was to make the colors come as close as possible without duplicating them," noted Gray, who worked for PB when he was coach and general manager of the Browns and knew intimately just what was involved in this thorny issue. "The real difference was substituting the black in our uniforms for Cleveland’s seal brown.
"He also wanted our helmet to be distinctive instead of the plain helmet with the brown and white stripe that the Browns used. Bit it was the same color of orange at that time. The Browns later lightened their orange color."
"We had about twenty-five different uniform designs submitted for his consideration," recalls John Murdough, who was the team’s business manager at the beginning and now works as a consultant. "NFL Properties was not involved in those things as they are today because the league’s marketing and merchandising had not reached the proportions of today where everything is design-tested for marketability.
"We told everyone what we wanted-nothing flashy: the colors would be orange, black and white; and they had to look neat. But when we got some of those designs, PB would just shake his head. "We’d look like a softball team if we wore those’ he said after a couple of them came in. He really didn’t have much use for most of them and wound up designing it himself."
When it came to designing the helmet, a professor of fashion design at the University of Cincinnati offered to help solve the problem as part of a class project, and that became even crazier.
"We got forty or fifty different designs, including a couple that came pretty close to the stripes that we adopted after the 1980 season," Murdough recalled. "We also got a couple that were close to the ones the Seattle Seahawks adopted a few years later when they came into the league.
"But we also got a lot that were just off the wall. There were tigers everywhere… helmets with little tigers on the front, tigers on the side, jumping tigers, one with a big open tiger mouth. We got one that was totally black with the work "Bengals" written on the side. We had another with "Bengals" written on the front. There was one covered with little footballs and another with a jumping tiger carrying a football in his mouth.
"We even got one that had written on the side: ‘Get your season tickets now’ and another that said ‘For Bengals information call 621-3550," he recalled with a laugh. "I guess part of the deal with this professor’s class was to not only be creative but also to be outrageous.
"But in the end, PB designed the helmet he wanted just as he designed the new one with the stripes in 1981."
Tom Gray recalled that scenario, as well.
"We came down to the stadium to practice late in the 1980 season and he asked me to come up to his office," he recalled. "When I walked In, he had several new uniform and helmet sketches set up and said to me: ‘Which one do you like?’
"Now I knew PB well enough to know that he probably had already made up his mind so I said, "Well, which one do you like?’ and he pointed to the one with stripes.
"That’s the one I like, too.’ I told him, and it was, too, because it really was distinctive from the rest." NFL Properties had become involved in team logo and uniform designs by that time and they had submitted the sketches. But Brown had already done the heavy work, thanks in part to a tiger skin, with head, that sat on his office rug alongside his desk. The head of the ex-tiger had the contoured stripes running across it.
"I kept looking at that head and it looked so much like the top of a helmet," he once recalled. "So when we began considering a uniform change, I decided I’d like to have something that incorporated those stripes into our helmet, and that’s what it became. We just added the stripes on the uniform to complement our pants and jerseys."
When the Bengals unveiled their new uniform for the 1981 season, PB had done it again: He pioneered a new look for the NFL-something far more creative than the league had ever had before -- just as his football creativity had helped to change the face of professional football that made it the nation’s top sports entertainment attraction.
And best of all, In 1981, he didn’t have to worry about the new uniforms making the team a "laughingstock" because the Bengals wore them that season in their first trip to the Super Bowl.
Their rallying cry: "Yipes, Stripes!"
(Jack Clary is a regular contributor to Bengals programs and helped Paul Brown write his autobiography, "PB: The Paul Brown Story." He also is author of SUPER STARS OF AUTUMN, a commemorative book on the NFL’s 75th Anniversary.)