Equipped for success: Dressing USC is serious - and fun

USC equipment department assembles impressive collection of helmets

dcloninger@thestate.comNovember 7, 2013 

The uniforms looked so pristine, the helmets so shiny, the wristbands turned just so. When the South Carolina Gamecocks stormed out of their tunnel, through the smoke to the dying strains of “2001,” the throat lumps got larger as the applause got louder.

And then Ryan Fischer saw that out of 100 some-odd jerseys, one had gotten through with a flub. Elliott Fry’s jersey said “Carolin” across the chest. Somehow, the second “A” had fallen off or had not been stitched on.

In an age of instant embarrassment on social media and knowing that the game was being viewed by millions as the first of the college football season, Fischer knew that it was going to be a long day and long week.

“Nobody notices the equipment man until something goes wrong, then everybody knows who he is,” Fischer sighed.

It wasn’t fun then, but Fischer could laugh about it a few weeks later. In the equipment room at Williams-Brice Stadium as the No. 13 Gamecocks entered their second bye week, Fischer could talk about the fun aspects of the job.

Surrounded by helmets from many of USC’s opponents over the years, including two shelves featuring SEC helmets, Fischer spoke about the daily grind of being in charge of every facet of the uniform for more than 100 players. The assistant director to equipment lifer Chris Matlock, Fischer has been around for a while — he helped USC’s baseball team during its national championship years before Matlock persuaded him to try football, first as a graduate assistant and then full-time.

It didn’t take long for Fischer to become known in the business. In the preseason, helmet company Schutt sent a sample helmet. It was chrome with a garnet facemask, and Fischer thought it would be fun to stick a Block C logo on it. It looked great, so he snapped a quick picture and posted it on Twitter.

About an hour later, he wondered what he’d gotten himself into. USC fans — and national media outlets — quickly picked up the picture and either assumed or declared that the Gamecocks were going to wear the chrome helmets for a game this year. That was never the case. Like Fry’s missing “A,” Fischer found himself answering for a supposed glitch.

“Ten minutes later, it’s on Deadspin and every media outlet you can dream of,” Fischer said. “I called coach (Ray) Tanner and let him know, and he just said, ‘What helmets are we wearing this year?’ ”

It is a popular topic. As Adidas and Nike have drawn much derision for constantly cycling out one-game uniforms for teams across the nation — and often looking like a Jackson Pollack painting come to life — the Gamecocks mostly have steered clear of the “specialty” uniforms. They have helped out the Wounded Warrior organization for two games, and they donned a “Battle Grey” uniform for last year’s game at LSU.

Otherwise, coach Steve Spurrier likes to keep it simple. The white helmets will stay, and the uniforms will be some mix of garnet and white. The all-garnet uniforms, or “Big Game Garnet” as Fischer termed it, might be lumped into the “occasional” pile from here on.

But it is cool to see how passionate USC fans are, even about such tiny parts of the program.

“I think it’s awesome that we have fans who care that much about the little things,” Fischer said. “If we can ever get the fans to actually not bite on things we’re going to wear, I would gladly put some more pictures out there.”

All in good fun, which is why Fischer also played around with some other designs and then posted them on the Gamecock Equipment Twitter account. He ordered a custom-made logo like USC wore in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the Gamecock holding a banner reading “Scholarship - Leadership” in its talons, and put that on a spare helmet. He also made a replica of the helmet that George Rogers made famous, with stars on either side of the stripe, just above the facemask.

Fischer also has a replica of the black helmets that Lou Holtz ordered for his final year at USC, in 2004, although he tricked it out a bit with a garnet stripe, and different versions of the Block C logo (one contained in a white circle, as USC wore during its garnet helmet phase, and one the regular logo). Those helmets also made it onto Twitter as a nod to the past.

USC will stick with its regular white helmet for the foreseeable future, and it’s not as simple a process to get those helmets looking right as one might think. The garnet color has to be specially mixed and then put into the stripe, and the black stripe has a small amount of glitter thrown in.

“Our decals are completely custom-made by hand,” Fischer said. “Most teams, you can find them at any decal company. Ours are almost next to impossible to get the right one.”

Fischer has played around with more designs — one prototype has a black helmet, with the tailfeathers of the Gamecock enlarged and placed on each side, like they’re erupting from the edges of the facemask. Between that and making sure every helmet is kept in game form — re-striping, replacing the logos, buffing out scratches — it’s a busy, but pleasing, profession.

And then there’s building the collection. USC tries to trade helmets with every team it plays, and has a few from teams it hasn’t played. It started with a Tennessee-Chattanooga helmet that Matlock brought with him from his days as a student manager, and now they stretch across a wall in the equipment room.

“I never wanted to do anything else,” Matlock said of his longtime stint, working with the Indianapolis Colts before joining Holtz at Notre Dame, and then following him to Columbia. “My goal is to not to.”

Part of that is building the collection. A Michigan helmet — not the one that Jadeveon Clowney launched into the stratosphere — sits on one shelf and is flanked by SMU, Clemson, Michigan State, The Citadel, Louisiana-Lafayette, even Jacksonville State, an FCS team that also uses the Gamecocks nickname.

“Most teams, most conference teams, will trade helmets,” Fischer said. “We’ve got a good working relationship within the conference. If they don’t want to trade, that’s completely fine with me. We’ll get a Coastal Carolina helmet this year.”

Perhaps Schutt, Riddell or Rawlings will send more sample helmets for experimentation. Fischer will be careful about posting pictures of them online.

“We’ll stick with our traditional helmet,” he said. “We’ve got a good run going right now, and we want to establish as much tradition as we can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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