You may have heard that Connor Shaw got himself in hot water when he tweeted negatively about his Under Armour shoes:
"3rd time the sole of my Under Armour shoes have completely busted. And we wonder why so many people have ‘freak’ foot injuries on the team.."
Unsurprisingly, the University went into warp-speed mode to squelch the tweet (since removed from @14Shaw) as this little exchange between Michael Roth and Connow shows:
I can sympathize with Connor. The young man is a natural winner who practices, works-out and studies football with as much intensity as I've ever seen from a Gamecock signal-caller. Since he demands so much of himself, it makes perfect sense he'd be upset by a repeat shoe failure. He also knows the score - better than we do, certainly - on what injuries can mean to a team.
And it's also a fact that UA has been dogged by complaints about its cleets and running shoes for a long time (as these two examples show). I'm pretty sure that I've heard about USC players who disliked Under Armour shoes going on for years. I definitely seem to recall some Gamecocks wearing Nike or Adidas in the recent past - Ed. at least you think you do! - and with the way guys tape up their shoes, it may be more than a few. By the same token, if you look at pictures of Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery, Jadeveon Clowney and Melvin Ingram over the last couple of seasons - as applicable - you see them all wearing Under Armour cleets with the distinctive UA logo near the toe.
So was Shaw right to kvetch about Under Armour shoes? Like I said - I don't blame him one bit. But I feel that the University did the right thing, too, by asking him to remove the Tweet, as I will explain after The Jump.
No South Carolina fan was happier than me when USC and Under Armour agreed to a partnership deal back in 2007. For the better part of twelve years, I had watched as a steadily increasing percentage of our gridiron rivals arrived at Williams-Brice Stadium tricked out in Nike uniforms, shoes and associated swag - while our kids soldiered on in their thoroughly old-school - and completely passé - Russell Athletic duds.
While in 2012 Nike-wear has become so ubiquitous that is has lost some - but not much - of its former cachet, you have to remember that back in the 1990s it was a signal honor to be chosen to get Nike unis; if you didn't have a Nike deal, you didn't get the swoosh on your jersey - and, for a number of years, Phil Knight was pretty selective in who received the the accolade. Michigan was the first to sign a big-time Nike contract in 2004; in our region, programs like Florida, Florida State, Georgia and Clemson all followed not long thereafter. It had the feel of an exclusive club. Heck, for years it was an exclusive club, and I recall some Tiger friends making that point on more than one occasion.
Not all Nike deals were created equal in terms of money, of course. And by 2000, more and more schools and coaches made arrangements with the behemoth of Beaverton - or its main collegiate rival Adidas (who sponsors UT). Still, there was definitely a feeling that your university was losing ground in the battle of the haves vs. the have-nots if you were relegated to Russell. Auburn was the only perennial, nationally-ranked power that clung to the RA brand, with Georgia Tech and South Carolina - both dogged by inconsistent seasons - as the two other major D1 programs in the South which sported Russell uniforms.
By the turn of the millenium, the Cocks looked like they had been left behind at the endorsement station. Clearly we were getting more from Russell (reportedly in the $250,000 to $300,000, or $450,000 range depending on your source) than Nike or Adidas was willing to pay. But in the ensuing years when squads like Vandy, Ole Miss and NCSU started showing up at W-B outfitted in Nike or Adidas, it truly felt like there was something wrong. Were we getting snubbed? Were we unworthy?
Worse - did the "sponsorship gap" place us at a real recruiting disadvantage? I thought so and continue to think so. You might think its over-blown, but it's the sort of small edge that can have a real effect in recruiting - especially for a program like ours that has struggled for decades for respect, and battling richer schools for the attention of status-conscious teens. Who knows it it gave schools like Clemson, Florida and Georgia and unspoken advantage? How could it not? Perception is a very real form of reality - in any endeavor.
So when Under Armour was willing to ink us to a 10 year deal - for $600,000 cash and $1.2 million in product per annum - it was not only a financial no-brainer, but it also elevated us back up to a level playing field with our peers - a coolness bump, if you will, which had been sorely lacking for a lengthy recruiting cycle. The "Yeah, this is the Head Ball Coach" Under Armour commercial with Steve Spurrier - released in 2007 - showed that we were big-time again after the humiliation of 1999-2000 and the uneven Lou Holtz years that followed. It was recognition that things were really different at Carolina.
You could say that the tri-fecta of Spurrier, Hyman and Under Armour are responsible for turning around the fortunes of Garnet and Black football in five years where countless others had previously tried and failed.
Well, Eric Hyman is leaving us. Steve Spurrier will retire sooner or later. But I sincerely hope we keep our contract with Under Armour for years to come - not merely for the money, but for the fact that we're still one of a relatively small number of major CFB programs that get to wear the proud UA brand. Wearing UnderArmour on Saturdays is an honor the way it used to be for Nike in the 1990s. Plus someone has got to be a counter-weight to Nike; all things being equal, I'm happier we're paired with Kevin Plank than with Phil Knight - and I don't think I'm the only one of us that feels that way. Ask yourself - is there a set of more loyal Under Armour fans anywhere than at USC? How many Gamecock fans in your circle eschew the swoosh for the UA logo - even without the Block C and Gamecock emblazoned on it? And do you even buy Garnet and Black gear made by other companies? I know a bunch - including yours truly - who won't.
Deeper even that, I'll always be grateful to Plank and his fledgling company for seeing the potential in Carolina athletics that others either missed, and openly mocked.
So all that taken into account, I understand why the University pushed Shaw to withdraw the offending tweet. In its battle to keep up with the Jonses in Oregon, cash-strapped Under Armour has been feeling the financial pinch. We certainly don't want to jeopardize a relationship that has been so good to us at a time with UA might be worried about how to pinch pennies.
But maybe Under Armour can send Connor - and the whole team - a better pair of kicks. They've certainly earned them. And there's a good chance these young Gamecocks are going to be doing great things in them for seasons to come.