Explosion of college football helmets

Coming up with new helmet designs in the college football world isn't as easy as you might think. Getty Images, USA Today Sports

It wasn't that long ago -- just five or six years -- that virtually every major college football team had only one helmet design. The main exception was Washington State, which had separate helmets for home and road (which was considered a major eccentricity at the time).

Things sure have changed. A college football team with only one or two helmets is now viewed as being somewhere between quaint and pathetic. Thanks to the explosion in helmet designs -- blackout, whiteout, gray, carbon fiber, camouflage, chrome, pride, stars and stripes, rivalry, matte-finish, throwback and more -- many programs have at least three different helmet colors that they can customize with various decals and face mask colors to create a near-endless array of designs. (As if to underscore this point, Oregon has just announced a new pink helmet.)

With the helmet explosion showing no signs of abating, many Uni Watch readers have begun asking questions: How much do these helmets cost? Who pays for them? What happens to them all, especially the ones that are used only once or twice?

And now some news from the NFL has raised more questions. The league, citing safety concerns, has enacted a new rule designed to minimize the number of players switching helmets during the season. (For further details, look here and look here.) So the NFL is limiting helmet options, while NCAA helmet designs are mushrooming. Is the NFL's new rule misguided? Is the NCAA compromising on safety?

With all this in mind, Uni Watch recently submitted a short list of questions to more than 30 college football schools that wear at least three helmet shells and asked to interview their equipment managers. Seven of those schools made their equipment managers available for phone interviews (the other schools either provided written responses to the questions that had been submitted, declined to participate or never responded). Those seven equipment managers were asked the same questions. Their responses appear below:

Question 1: How much does it cost to create a whole new set of helmets for your team?

Wendell Neal, director of equipment operations at the University of Arizona: Just ballpark, I would budget about 50 grand for a set of helmets. Now, we don't have the liquid chrome or anything like that -- those cost more. But we have four different color shells, and those would be about $50,000 for each set.

Jason Freeman, assistant equipment manager at the University of North Carolina: About $35,000. That includes a few extra helmets, just to be safe.

Lester Karlin, director of equipment services at Virginia Tech: Helmets and decals run about $300 each, and we get a set of 100 [which adds up to about $30,000].

Zane Perry, director of equipment operations at Texas Tech University: New shells for the entire team? I'd want to budget $85,000 for that, just to cover all the bases with face masks and all the extra parts.

Dan Nehlen, equipment manager at West Virginia University: I'd typically order about 125 helmets, just to be safe and have some extras, and they each cost more than $400 [which adds up to more than $50,000].

Wes Edwards, equipment manager at Oklahoma State University: I would say about $15,000.

Mitch Gudmundson, director of football equipment at Indiana University: For our basic red or white helmets, I'd say about $40,000. For our chrome helmets, that was closer to $100,000.

• • •

Question 2: Where does that money come from? Is that something you budget for in advance?

Neal (Arizona): Yes, it's in our regular budget.

Freeman (UNC): Yes, we incorporate that into our budget. When we added the black helmets this year, they gave us some more money but not enough to cover all the helmets, so that made us cut back a little in other areas.

Karlin (Virginia Tech): Our normal helmets come out of our regular budget. When we do a special helmet, like our Hokie Stone helmets, Coach Beamer has a foundation named after his late mother, and they pay for the helmets and then the money goes back to them when they auction them off afterward. When our camouflage helmets were auctioned off, some of the money went to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.

Perry (Texas Tech): When Coach came in, he said he wants to do everything possible to get some more helmets in here, because it adds excitement for the players and helps out with recruiting. So we sent our budget request in to the athletic department and it was approved. That's how it works -- if it's approved, we get new helmets. If it doesn't, we don't get new helmets.

Nehlen (WVU): That's from our basic budget.

Edwards (Oklahoma State): That's out of our regular equipment budget. As we've added more helmets, we've tried to plan ahead and allocate the funds. It hasn't affected the rest of our equipment budget.

Gudmundson (Indiana): The administration allocated the funds for our budget. It all goes back to recruiting -- they've been very proactive about that.

• • •

Question 3: How has the advent of multiple helmet sets changed your job?

Neal (Arizona): Well, not just for me, but all across the country, in the secret union of equipment managers, it's a nightmare. A storage nightmare. But then when I'm feeling sorry for myself, I think of someone like Kenny Farr at Oregon, bless his heart. Compared to him, I've got it made in the shade.

Freeman (UNC): For us, and probably for any equipment manager, storage space is always a huge concern. We have a lot, but we could always use more. Also, we wear these concussion sensors in our helmets, and there's only one of those per player. So if we're practicing in our blue helmets but saving the white ones for game day, then the athletic trainers have to switch out all the sensors from the blue set to the white set. That can be a bit of a challenge.

Karlin (Virginia Tech): It takes more time to deal with all the decals and all that. Storage isn't really a problem, because we moved into a new equipment room, so I use the old one for storage.

Perry (Texas Tech): In some ways it's made things easier. Let's say I know we're wearing white helmets this week and black helmets the week after that. That means we can do our maintenance on the black helmets well in advance, instead of rushing to do it after this week's game. Rotating the helmets from week to week gives us more of a time cushion to get that maintenance done.

Nehlen (WVU): The first thing is that I had to decide where to put all the helmets, because our equipment room isn't that big. Also, if a player changes anything about his helmet, like his face mask, you've gotta change it on all three of his helmets. If he wants to wear a visor, you've gotta do it on all three. So the job has become a little more hectic. At first it was a challenge. There would be times when I'd be saying, "I don't know if I can handle all this stuff." Fortunately, my assistant kinda kept me grounded, saying, "Don't worry, we'll get it worked out." So I adapted.

Edwards (Oklahoma State): The real challenge is trying to keep up with everybody else in terms of new helmet ideas! And it's more work in terms of making sure all the pads and face masks are the same throughout all our different helmets -- that's been more time-consuming than we anticipated.

Gudmundson (Indiana): Obviously, it's more time-consuming now. We have some players who don't want us to just match the pads and interior parts from helmet to helmet -- they want literally the same parts, so we have to move them from helmet to helmet, depending on which one we're wearing, and that takes time.

• • •

Question 4: Some helmet designs are worn only once or twice. What happens to them after that? Are they discarded, donated, sold, given to the players or what?

Neal (Arizona): We re-use them. In fact, if we wanted to go to a fifth helmet as a one-time thing, we would just use one of the existing sets and get them reconditioned with a new paint job.

Freeman (UNC): Last year, we wore the chrome helmets with the Tarheel foot, and that was a one-game thing. Those didn't come out of our budget -- we had our university's marketing firm pay for the helmets. Then they auctioned 'em off after the game to get their money back. I think they sold out within two days.

Karlin (Virginia Tech): Like I said, Coach Beamer's foundation auctions those off.

Perry (Texas Tech): We haven't had a one-game helmet yet, although we might in the future. If that happens, those helmets will be auctioned off.

Nehlen (WVU): A few years back we had a "Combat" game against Pitt, and then we wore that helmet again in our bowl game, because Nike said we could do that. Those helmets were sold at what we call a "yard sale" at our next spring game -- we're not allowed to call it an auction. They all sold in about 10 minutes. Then last season we wore a gray helmet and decided not to wear it this year, so we had another yard sale this past spring. The funds went back to the athletic department.

Gudmundson (Indiana): We haven't had a one-game helmet yet. Our plan is to keep all our helmet shells. If we switch to a new color, we'll just recondition, repaint, or whatever, and keep using them.

• • •

Question 5: What process is there, if any, to break in a new set of helmets prior to game use?

Neal (Arizona): We wear 'em anywhere from three to five practices.

Freeman (UNC): We let the players wear 'em a few times before the game, usually on days when there isn't a ton of hitting, just to make sure the helmet fits correctly. You don't want the helmets to get too banged up, because you want 'em to look as good as possible on TV.

But for the chrome helmet with the foot, that was a surprise for the players -- they didn't know they'd be wearing those until right before the game. So there was no break-in for those. And the way the helmets are nowadays, they're so comfortable, I don't think the break-in is necessary. I've got spreadsheets and everything, so I know this guy wears this chinstrap, and this guy wears these jaw pads, and this guy wears a visor, and I triple- and quadruple-check all of that to make sure it's right.

Karlin (Virginia Tech): It takes about a week's worth of practice. Sometimes there's a couple of players who are more comfortable practicing in the old helmet they were already wearing, and they'll get the new helmet fitted the day before the game, with no break-in. I don't think that means they're uncomfortable with the new helmet during the game -- they just like to stick with their existing helmet as long as possible.

Perry (Texas Tech): When training camp started, we had our guys practice in 'em for about two weeks. Then we fit the guys for their white helmets and practiced in those for about two weeks. For our gray helmets, those were a surprise -- the guys didn't see those until they arrived at their lockers before the TCU game. So there was no breaking in for those, but we have a spreadsheet showing the specs for what each guy wears in his helmet, and it worked out great. I don't think the break-in is really necessary. We tell the players to come to us if they have any concerns about how the helmet fits, and they do.

Nehlen (WVU): We fit the players in all three helmets in August. In training camp, the defense wore the blue helmet and the offense wore the gold helmet. Then, after a week, we'd have them switch. For our white helmet, we had them wear that for the morning session of two-a-days, and then we had them wear 'em a little bit more during the week leading up to their first game use.

We've never done a "surprise" helmet, where the helmet hadn't been fitted or broken in prior to the game. Personally, I think you do need to fit it and break it in. It's not enough to just match the specs from another helmet. You could get it to work, but I would be more comfortable having the player wear the helmet for at least a day or two.

Edwards (Oklahoma State): We'll wear 'em once in practice, maybe twice, before we wear 'em in a game. I wouldn't really be comfortable with doing one of those "surprise helmet" games, where the players have never worn the helmets before. We want them to wear that helmet before game day.

Gudmundson (Indiana): We like to wear them a minimum of about a week during preseason camp. And then we'll wear them during the week of practice leading up to game day.

• • •

Question 6: Are you aware of the new NFL rule banning alternate helmets? If so, what did you think when you heard about it?

Neal (Arizona): I thought, "Wow, common sense has popped up." That's not to say I think our situation here is unsafe -- today's helmets are fantastic. I know they're all properly fit and worn. But I do have concerns about all these helmets -- when does it stop? To me, we're going 100 miles an hour with this thing, and a rule like the NFL came up with, I see that as slowing it down. That's why I see it as common sense. I do understand the importance of recruiting, and I think that's 95 percent of the whole deal with all these helmets, but at some point it's like an arms race.

I'm old enough to remember the old tear-away jerseys, where you'd go through seven or eight jerseys per player. And one reason the NCAA eliminated those was that it wasn't fair to everyone, because not every school could afford that. It was a cost issue. And I have to wonder about that same thing with these helmets and uniforms, because it takes ridiculous amounts of money. I'd rather see us go back to one helmet, home and away jerseys, home and away pants, and leave it at that.

Freeman (UNC): There's differing opinions [on using one helmet as opposed to using multiple helmets]. Until the NCAA steps in and says something or provides some research or a study, it's hard to say which way to go. Like I said, we use those concussion sensors in our helmets, and we're involved with all the concussion research they do here at UNC, so that's something we take very seriously. I think the NFL is doing what it thinks is in the best interests of its players. But until I see something that tells me otherwise, I feel comfortable with what we're doing. If I didn't, I'd voice my concern. Same goes for our athletic trainer.

Karlin (Virginia Tech): Any safety rule they come out with is a good rule. But I don't see a problem with wearing a different helmet, as long as it's fitted properly. If a player has a problem with his helmet, he's gonna come and tell ya -- it's too loose, too tight, can I have more air, whatever. It adds a little bit to our job, but that is our job.

Perry (Texas Tech): I kind of expected the NFL to do something like that, with all the [concussion] lawsuits going on, so I wasn't that surprised. They're just being cautious, to save their behinds. But I don't think that kind of rule is necessary. As long as you have a good equipment staff making sure the helmets fit properly, there's no reason you can't wear more than one. I think we do a real good job of that.

Nehlen (WVU): I hadn't heard about that. I think it's a good rule, but they're probably being a little cautious because of all the talk about concussions. Even though we have three different helmets, I'm not concerned, because I know we fit each one to the player, and they've worn them during practice to break them in.

Now, some teams will have a game helmet and a practice helmet, because they don't want the game helmets to get scuffed up during practice. I don't like that. When a kid puts his helmet on, whether for a game or for practice, I like for it to be the helmet he's used to wearing.

Edwards (Oklahoma State): I was surprised when I heard about it. I can understand what they're trying to do there. But personally, if a player has worn a new helmet in practice, and he's comfortable with it, I think it's fine. I'm all for safety, but I don't think that rule is necessary. Honestly, if we went back to having just one helmet, with budgets and everything, that'd be great! It would make my life easier. But I don't think it's needed from a safety standpoint.

Gudmundson (Indiana): When we heard about that rule, we sat down and talked about it with our medical staff, our doctors and our administration, just to review our policy. And we determined that we don't feel wearing the multiple helmets is problematic. Everyone here was very proactive about it -- our head coach, our athletic director. We're all on the same page, and we're all very comfortable with our approach.

• • •

Interesting stuff, right? As you can see, the biggest point of differentiation among the equipment managers is whether a helmet needs to be worn and broken in before game use -- some think it's necessary, others don't.

Who's right? I put that question to Thad Ide, senior vice president for research and product development at Riddell, the leading helmet manufacturer.

"Modern football helmets don't require an extensive physical break-in period, or any break-in period at all, for that matter," Ide said. "What we recommend is that the players, coaches and equipment staff familiarize themselves with the equipment, especially if you're changing helmet models or changing accessories."

And what about a "surprise" helmet situation? "Our only position is about properly fitting the athlete," Ide said. "Colleges have high-quality equipment staffs that can make sure the helmet fits properly. As long as that's the case, we wouldn't have any issue with that at all."

As for the NFL's new rule, Ide was diplomatic: "It's a cautious rule, but each league or governing body needs to determine what's best for its own athletes. We're fully supportive of whatever decision they make to that end."

One thing everyone agrees on is that we haven't yet reached a saturation point on helmet designs. As Mitch Gudmundson, the Indiana equipment manager told me, "There's definitely more to come. I don't see this ending anytime soon."

Paul Lukas wore one helmet on his Pop Warner team in the 1970s. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch website, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.