The Notre Dame Fighting Irish made a significant change to their football uniforms in 1984, forgoing the Madonna blue with stripes for a navy uniform that recalled the Ara Parseghian era.
The transformation was noted by journalists, but never explained.
Thirty-six years later, I tried to answer two seemingly basic questions: Who suggested the change? And why were those uniforms picked?
This is an accounting of my quixotic quest, which began with a simple Internet search and ended with a phone call to 84-year-old Gerry Faust, the head coach of the 1984 Irish.
IN THE BEGINNING...
Notre Dame’s official colors are blue and gold, but the exact shades of both are subject to some debate.
In 1886 — nearly 50 years after the university’s founding — a writer for The Scholastic wrote, “Prussian blue and old gold are the N.D. colors. Every student should wear them.”
The following year, the same publication offered a variation: “A correspondent has asked us ‘What are the college colors?’ Many years ago, Madonna blue and papal yellow were adopted, in honor of the patron of the University and the head of the Catholic Church.”
(“I know that you were hoping for some conclusive statement, but a lot of investigations into early ND history wind up with this kind of ambiguity,” the University Archives’ Joseph Smith wrote last week.)
“During past years we have had a vague idea that our colors were gold and blue, but the particular shades of these colors were not defined,” The Scholastic wrote in April 1897. “Now the Executive Committee has decided upon navy blue and old gold, and these alone are, therefore, our college colors. Formerly ribbons of sky blue and any shade of yellow were worn, but the caps, jerseys and sweaters had to be made of a deeper blue because of the lightness of the other. The adoption of the navy blue obviates all this.”
BLUE (BUT ALSO GREEN)
Despite the Executive Committee’s edict, Notre Dame football didn’t incorporate blue into its uniform until the 1889 season.
“The football suits ordered not long ago for the special team came this week,” the April 1889 Scholastic wrote. “They were made at Spauldings in Chicago, out of the best material that could be procured for that purpose. The letters N.D. are on the breast of the jacket, one being in old gold and the other in sky blue — the college colors.”
Green was introduced in the 1920s, with white tops serving as the away uniforms starting in the 1950s. Parseghian wore blue frocks at home exclusively from 1964 to 1974, but Dan Devine embraced the green jerseys after surprising the USC Trojans with them during a 1977 home game.
“I’m sure all of you remember your freshman year when Notre Dame first took the field in green jerseys,” wrote Devine in his December 1980 farewell address to the student body. “I think that game became symbolic of the love affair between the student body and me, along with my staff and, of course, the players themselves.”
THE BLESSED MOTHER
Because Notre Dame had switched between blue and green for nearly 50 years, Gerry Faust was naturally confused what the university’s colors actually were.
“Faust’s return to blue this year came after the new Irish coach suggested some research into the university archives to determine the history of Notre Dame’s gold and blue colors,” the 1981 media guide reports. “Those findings indicated the blue color was actually Madonna blue, a light blue shade, as opposed to the navy blue shade that has been most common in recent Notre Dame uniforms.”
“I think wearing the school colors is important,” Faust told The Courier-Journal’s Billy Reed in September 1981. “To deviate from the school colors isn’t good. There should be a loyalty toward the school. Plus, blue is the Blessed Mother’s color and the gold is really gonna match the gold in the dome. I think they’re rich. I want ’em to run into that stadium and have everyone go wild.”
While Faust chose the jersey and helmet color, The South Bend Tribune’s Bill Moor said the coach did allow his players to have their say.
“We gave them little drawings and they could fill in stripes or whatever they wanted,” Faust said in Sept. 4, 1981 article.
“The players decided they liked the pants the usual solid gold, but decided that three stripes — two gold and one white — would look nice on the jersey sleeves,” wrote Moor. “A little like Cincinnati Moeller’s uniforms? ‘A lot like Moeller’s uniforms,’ said wingback Tony Hunter, who played for Faust at that prep power.”
(Faust, reached at his Akron home this week, denies this connection. “Nothing [on the jersey] had anything to do with Moeller. It had all to do with the Blessed Mother.”)
The San Bernardino County Sun’s Mike Davis said Faust “left the impression that the Irish would wear blue as long as he was there.”
Imagine, then, journalists’ surprise when the Irish revived the green jerseys for a 1983 home game against the Trojans.
“I didn’t lie,” Faust told Davis and the other journalists after the game. “What I actually said was that our jerseys would always have been in them, and today they had a little bit of blue in between the two gold stripes on the sleeves. To tell the truth, they’re about the ugliest jerseys I’ve ever seen.”
Ugly, but effective. The Irish beat the Trojans, 27-6, to snap a five-game losing streak to their intersectional rival.
SWITCH TO NAVY
The return to Parseghian-era navy was finalized sometime in the spring of 1984, as noted by The South Bend Tribune’s John Fineran.
“[Junior Mike Perrino] and quick guard Tim Scannell were also modeling what might be Notre Dame’s new look in the fall — navy-blue jerseys with large white numbers and without stripes,” he wrote in the Tribune’s April 5 edition.
Despite numerous outlets covering Faust’s switch the Madonna blue in 1981, the transition to navy togs barely registered in media. Perhaps it was exhaustion from Faust’s 18-15-1 start.
Michael Harvey, the head student manager for the 1984 team, said this week there is “no perfect golden answer.”
“I think there was this notion of cleansing,” said Harvey, who now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Let’s get back to the roots of ND football. One of Faust’s bad decisions was going to Madonna blue; let’s put that in the past.”
Harvey, who likened his role as manager to being “Faust’s butler,” said he guessed the return to navy was player-led.
The tri-captains of the 1984 team were Mike Golic, Larry Williams and Joe Johnson.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know the answer [to why the switch was made],” Golic, now a radio personality for ESPN, tweeted this week.
Johnson told me via email Thursday: “I have no clue as to why we changed uniforms. However, I am quite certain that it wasn’t player driven. Given that Mike, Larry and I were team captains, we would have taken the request to Coach Faust on behalf of the team.”
Williams, now the Akron Zips athletic director, said he hadn’t considered the question until it was broached this week.
“My recollection was that it was an attempt to reconnect with the history and the power of the program,” he wrote in an email Wednesday. “Mark Bavaro sure embodied that whenever I see pictures from that era.”
Lou Somogyi, a 1984 graduate and writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated, said he also lacked a concrete explanation “other than maybe Faust and others thought it was time for a change after going a disappointing 5-6, 6-4-1 and 7-5 his first three seasons.”
John Heisler, who worked for Notre Dame in its sports information department from 1979 to 2019, was more succinct in his response to my inquiry: “Suggest you contact Gerry Faust.”
FAUST ANSWERS THE CALL
Gerry Faust was gamely multi-tasking when I called him Thursday to ask about a three-decades-old sartorial decision.
The octogenarian was finishing up an errand run and driving when I phoned. When Faust returned the call, I first asked him about the switch to navy in 1984.
“People always ask me about when we played Southern Cal back at home. We came out right before the game in blue jerseys,” he recalled, beginning to spin a familiar tale he’s told countless times in the decades since the game. (If you’d like to hear it yourself, Dos Leprechauns captured the story during a November 2018 interview.)
But what of the move to navy garb, I politely pressed?
“To be honest with you, I can’t remember,” said Faust.
It was a bittersweet end.
Faust was patient with all my questions and apologetic for not being more helpful. It was a genuine pleasure to talk to him for 15 minutes, as it had been to talk to all the people who answered an email or a phone call from a writer searching — in vain, for now — for his ending.
Besides those quoted in the story, I want to thank Tim Bourret ‘77 ‘78, John Walters ‘88, Tim O’Malley ‘96, Todd Burlage and Kevin Sinclair for their guidance and leads; Michael Kennelly ‘85, the student equipment manager for the 1984 season; Christopher Johns ‘82 and Eddie Fullmer ‘84, who were student managers for Faust’s first season; Michael Scholl, associate director for athletic communications at Notre Dame; Alan Wasielewski, associate athletics communications director at Notre Dame; and Paul Lukas at Uni-Watch.com.