Uni Watch's Friday Flashback: Why 49ers' 1991 helmet redesign was a historic failure

Friday Flashback: The 49ers' failed logo (3:26)

Paul Lukas of Uni Watch discusses the logo experiment in San Francisco that lasted less than one week. (3:26)

There have been lots of uniform unveilings over the years that have been greeted with howls of outrage, near-universal disdain, and choruses of "What were they thinking?" (Looking at you, Jacksonville Jaguars.) In most cases, though, the teams in question have weathered the storm and stayed the course with their new uniforms, and the fans have either warmed up to the new designs or learned to live with them.

Except once.

That was 25 years ago this month, when the San Francisco 49ers unveiled a helmet design that was so bad, and triggered such overwhelmingly negative fan response, that the team scrapped the whole idea less than a week later and said, "Never mind." It remains one of the great uniform stories of the past generation, a cautionary tale for teams thinking about tinkering with their classic looks and an intriguing measure of the ways in which the sports world and the uni-verse have changed over the past quarter century.

One of the biggest changes involves how little emphasis teams put on uniform changes 25 years ago. Nowadays, uniform unveilings are high-profile showcases that garner lots of media attention. But when the 49ers held a news conference on Feb. 13, 1991, the primary items on the agenda involved the ascension of Carmen Policy to team president and the contractual status of defensive back Ronnie Lott. Once those were dealt with, team owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. unveiled the team's new helmet. And just in case people couldn't tell just how bad the new design was compared to the old one, the 49ers helpfully provided a before-and-after display.

Woof! Even after 25 years, that logo is still hard to fathom. Here, let's take a closer look.

It looks like the logo for an arena league team. Or a radio station. Or a bag of chips. Or a Saturday morning cartoon show. Or any number of other things that should never be confused with an NFL franchise.

Longtime NFL reporter Bill Williamson was covering that news conference for the now-defunct Peninsula Times Tribune, and he remembers his reaction upon seeing the new helmet.

"I thought it was ugly," he said. "It was pretty unanimous in the room that it was hideous, it was USFL. I remember thinking, 'What are they doing?' I mean, these were the 49ers -- they were the kings of the Bay Area."

But when Williamson wrote his story about the news conference, he led with the news about Policy and Lott before getting around to the new helmet. "And my boss was like, 'I think you kinda blew it. You should've led with the helmet,'" he said. "And of course he was right, because the helmet story blew up."

But news stories "blew up" very differently in 1991 than they do now. If the 49ers unveiled a stinker of a logo today, we all know what would happen: Twitter and Facebook would explode, fan blogs would go berserk, a dozen logo-related Internet memes would go viral, and the team would be bombarded with emails. But none of those avenues existed in 1991, so fans did the only thing they could do back then: Once they started seeing the new helmet on the evening news and in the next day's newspaper, they phoned the 49ers' offices, where the switchboard was flooded with hundreds of angry calls (many of them from fans convinced that the removal of the "SF" from the team's helmet foreshadowed a franchise relocation). The Bay Area media gleefully piled on by running stories about the budding controversy.

As this story has been told and retold over the years, certain details have blurred. For example, it has often been reported -- including sometimes by a certain ESPN uniform columnist -- that the 49ers were so chastened by the negative response that they scrapped the logo the very next day. But it was actually six days later, on Feb. 19, that DeBartolo reversed course and announced that the team would be sticking with the classic "SF" logo after all. A 49ers spokesman said that out of all the fans who had contacted the team about the logo, only one had been in favor of it.

Like so many aspects of this story, the 49ers' response to the fan outcry is something that probably couldn't happen today. Uniform redesigns are now planned so far in advance and have so many ripple effects in terms of licensed merchandise in the retail pipeline that it's essentially impossible to turn back once the toothpaste is out of the tube. Much like the big Wall Street banks, pro sports teams' branding programs have become too big to fail.

Meanwhile, who designed that disastrous 49ers logo? It was the work of a graphic artist named Stevens Wright, who designed the Buffalo Bills' "charging buffalo" helmet logo in 1974 and had also done work for the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, and Minnesota Vikings. (You can learn more about his work for the NFL here.)

Wright died in 2013, but his daughter, Beverly Wright Woo, spoke with Uni Watch shortly after his death and said he didn't mind the fans' response to his design. "He was disappointed, sure, but he had a good sense of humor about it all," she said. "He didn't take it personally, because he just gave the 49ers what they had asked for."

A memo from Wright's files suggests that the logo design process was a rocky one. It was sent to Wright by NFL Properties executive David Boss, who had hired Wright and oversaw the project. Unfortunately it's undated, so we can't be sure exactly which stage of the process it's referring to, but it clearly describes a project that isn't going well:

In case you can't decipher that, here's a transcription.


The [black-and-white] stat represents the design the 49ers ownership approved for the helmet. Now that they realize it cannot work, they are panicked.

Please look at this, and all the variations we submitted that were ignored or rejected, and see if you have a solution.

The point is ... DeBartolo wants to emphasize 49ers, not SF. It's the Bay Area team. I'll send along a [purchase order] on Monday.

Thanks, Dave

Judging from that memo, the logo unveiled at the Feb. 13 news conference may have been a rush job, a hodgepodge of elements from previous stages of the project or both. No wonder it turned out so badly.

Although the logo had a lifespan of only one week, it lives on in the form of a few rare promotional items that were too far along to be stopped or changed. For example, Duncan Hines put out a football-shaped cake mix packaged with NFL team logo icons -- including the 49ers' rejected mark.

In addition, the 1991 edition of the official NFL Style Guide, which shows the approved team colors and specs for NFL licensees, not only included the 49ers' phantom helmet design but also came with a cover memo alerting everyone to the new logo (although a follow-up memo was presumably issued after the logo was pulled.

And Wright, the logo's designer, held onto a helmet and a water bottle featuring his creation, which are now kept by his family.

Time has a way of recontextualizing things. The awful becomes comical, and the unthinkable becomes plausible. So after a quarter century of ridicule, here's a thought: Maybe it's time for the 49ers' 1991 logo to make its very belated on-field debut. Wouldn't it be great as a one-off "What might have been?" promotion? The feeling here is that the 49ers should make this happen, as a way of acknowledging this unusual chapter in their history. And hey, it couldn't possibly look worse than the team's black alternates.

Would you like to nominate a uniform to be showcased in a future Friday Flashback installment? Send your suggestions here.

Paul Lukas, a lifelong 49ers fan, wishes the team would finally do something about those annoying truncated sleeve stripes. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, 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.