The Denim Blues
Truth be told, the Kentucky Wildcats 88-73 victory over Arkansas on February 11, 1996, was secondary.
It was true then.
And it remains true today more than a quarter-century later.
That Sunday afternoon in Rupp Arena, after all, is known less for the Wildcats beatdown of a conference rival in a national championship season and more for how the Wildcats looked doing it – and the angst that followed.
Before “jorts” became a word in the American lexicon, Kentucky incorporated denim into its on- court look with a denim blue-on-white uniform complemented by matching Converse (CONS) Blue React sneakers.
Bringing denim to the hardwood
Months before Kentucky made fashion headlines against Arkansas, Converse, the Cats’ footwear and apparel sponsor, approached UK Athletics leadership about designing a new uniform kit for the 1995-1996 season. Converse urged something bold, daring, and fashion forward, and teased a denim-inspired look as a compelling option.
After drafting multiple designs, constructing different prototypes, and testing numerous iterations in high-octane workouts, Converse and Kentucky landed on a home white uniform featuring real denim accents and an away “blue” uniform embracing a pseudo-denim mesh material, but only after using real denim proved impractical.
Converse national manager Martin Newton – coincidentally, the son of UK athletics director C.M. Newton – billed the new uniform as something that set Converse and Kentucky apart from the rest of the college basketball crowd, as if a loaded roster featuring six high school All- Americans wasn’t enough. Plus, Newton added, “denim is fun and hot on the fashion scene.”
Unable to produce the uniforms in time for the season opener, Converse planned to launch the denim look alongside a new national advertising campaign when Arkansas, a fellow Converse school coming off two consecutive national title game appearances, visited Rupp Arena in February for a nationally televised afternoon game. The new look would be the sixth uniform style for the Wildcats in three seasons, including the memorable “cat scratch” psychedelic pattern worn during the 1994-1995 campaign.
In a pre-game function longtime UK hoops beat writer Jerry Tipton termed “part pre-game news conference and part flea market,” Converse and the Cats debuted the new head-to-toe CONS Blue look publicly – the home and road kit, new warmups, and the $75 white-based Converse React sneakers featuring blue denim inserts and the Converse shooting star logo.
The immediate reaction was, let’s call it, subdued.
Kentucky guard Derek Anderson politely called the new uniforms “cute,” though clearly distanced himself from the look.
“I’ve got nothing to do with this,” Anderson said. “I just have to wear it two hours. If I got to keep it and wear it out, it’d be different.”
Big man Mark Pope insisted the game mattered most to him, not the uniform.
“If they want us to go out there naked or with snowshoes on, it wouldn’t matter to me,” Pope said. “I’m just excited to play.”
Pitino, though, swore the new look would “meet everybody’s approval.”
A day later, the Hall of Fame coach would be proven wrong.
‘Are we going to start saying, ‘Go Big Denim?’
While the Cats pounded the Razorbacks on the hardwood – Arkansas, it’s worth noting, introduced its own new look that day called “Arkansas Muscle” characterized by a bold swirl design – UK fans largely pounded the Cats’ new look, stirred, in part, by CBS commentator Billy Packer’s charge that the denim color looked more like UNC’s powder blue than Kentucky’s traditional royal blue.
Following the Cats’ 15-point win, callers to the “Wildcats Sports Line” hosted by Dick Gabriel and Tom Leach wanted to talk less about the Wildcats’ victory and more about the team’s on- court appearance. And the reaction was nearly unanimous.
Co-host Dick Gabriel said one called liked the new digs, two were undecided, and “the rest were negative to overwhelmingly negative.” One fan wondered if the color on his TV had gone out while another questioned if Adolph Rupp was turning over in his grave.
“‘It’s all right’ was about as good as it got,” Leach recounted to a local newspaper. “It ranged from that to almost ready to physically abuse whoever designed the uniforms."
To be fair, there were some who-the-hell-cares comments. One fan said he didn’t mind if the Cats wore pink so long as they won the national championship.
For days and days, the Cats’ CONS Blue look remained a topic of debate. Louisville radio station WHAS received protest calls as did UK’s Athletics Department.
“We’ve had some negative calls,” athletics director C.M. Newton acknowledged. “They’re just saying, ‘It’s not traditional Kentucky blue.’ And I agree. It’s not the traditional look. It’s a little different look. We think it’s a classy look.”
Kentucky state senator Charlie Borders said he feared capitalism was overruling tradition – Imagine that in college athletics? – and said UK’s royal blue was as traditional as apple pie.
Editorial writers at the Lexington Herald-Leader decried the new unis in an opinion piece titled “Big Blue Boo.”
“Here you have the team and its assistants draped in drab cloth popularized by laborers, but the coach (Rick Pitino) is decked out in Italy’s finest,” the editors opined.
Meanwhile, a class of eight graders from Anderson Middle School in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, penned handwritten letters to Pitino voicing their criticisms.
“The Kentucky Wildcats are a clean-cut, decent group of young guys that deserve to be dressed in more suitable attire,” student Nikki Pinkston wrote. “The residents of Kentucky are referred to, by people outside of Kentucky, as ‘rednecks,’ ‘hicks’ & other ‘hillbilly’ slangs as it is. We sure don’t need our famous Wildcats dressing the part.”
Pitino, presumably taken aback by the uproar, heard so much criticism of the denim uniforms during his weekly “Big Blue Line” radio call-in show that he demanded fans stop the “nonsense.”
Longtime UK equipment manager Bill Keightley, affectionately known as “Big Smooth,” injected some perspective into the dustup about the new uniforms.
“The team must be doing pretty well if [the fans] have got nothing else to complain about,” Keightley said.
And ultimately, the criticisms did subside as the Cats steamrolled their way to the program’s sixth national title wearing the much-maligned denim look.
More than a quarter-century later, UK and devoted college basketball fans remember the Cats’ CONS Blue look – for better or worse.
And maybe that’s the point, after all.