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Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
David Gale places a BYU sticker on the back window of the car he and friends drove to California to watch a BYU-USC football game last year. Many fans prefer the navy blue color the school adopted in 1999.

Stalwart men and true, wear the white and blue ...

We'll raise our colors high in the blue,

And cheer our Cougars of BYU.

— "Cougar Fight Song"

PROVO — Clyde Sandgren didn't specify which shade of blue when he penned those verses more than 70 years ago.

Then again, how could Sandgren have foreseen something as innocent as the color blue generating so much — dare we say? — red-hot controversy among fans of the LDS school.

A decade after Sandgren's death in 1989, BYU radically altered the image of its athletic teams by switching uniform colors from royal blue to dark blue, or what former BYU President Merrill J. Bateman termed "the darkest shade of royal blue."

The school also introduced tan as an accent color and unveiled a new family of logos.

Debate over the color switch has subsided a bit in the five years since the change.

But has BYU's new look produced the desired effect?

Have Cougar fans embraced the new True Blue?

Absolutely, says BYU Athletic Director Val Hale.

"The gauge we look at is the number of fans who are wearing the new colors," Hale says. "From all indications, it's been a huge success. People are wearing the dark blue not only at games, but also around town. The problem before was, we couldn't get people to wear royal blue."

Another indicator: ringing cash registers. Sales royalties of the dark blue Cougar merchandise are giving BYU administrators reason to cheer.

Despite the football team's back-to-back losing seasons, BYU sold more Cougar-related paraphernalia in 2003 than in any other year in school history, according to Brett Eden, BYU licensing and trademark specialist.

And in each of the past three years, he said, sales figures were greater than the year before.

Sales of BYU-related items in 2003 were 40 percent higher than they were in 1998, the last full year that royal blue apparel was sold, Eden said.

Not surprisingly, officials at the private school are guarded when asked how much money entered school coffers from merchandise sales.

"Licensing revenue at BYU will never be a big strategic piece of the financial puzzle," says John Lewis, BYU associate advancement vice president of alumni and external relations. "That's not nearly as big here as it is at some other schools. We just want to offer products that are appealing to our fans."

It's worth noting, however, that BYU was ranked among the top 50 of the nation's universities in merchandise revenue earned from July 2002 to June 2003, as tracked by the Collegiate Licensing Co.

Immediate impact

Lewis attributes the dramatic sales growth to the new colors and logos.

"They've made a big difference," he says. "I saw the sales go up immediately after the release of these new colors in the first quarter. It rose from there. It's jumped to a new level and it has never dropped back. The correlation is very strong."

"There's been a huge difference between navy blue and royal blue. It's been a positive change in terms of sales," says BYU Bookstore director Roger Reynolds.

BYU officials can't explain exactly why 2003 sales in particular were so high. Eden points to the ability to offer consumers a wider array of fashionable clothing and the increasing number of stores that peddle BYU products.

Another factor may be the emergence of specialty items such as "retro" Danny Ainge and Steve Young jerseys, which, by the way, are royal blue.

Cougar fan Dennis Nuckles, who purchases and wears dark blue BYU apparel, says he prefers the new colors to the old ones.

"It's more stylish. It matches more of my other clothes," he says. "I think the new blue looks better on BYU's teams on the field and on the court. It looks more intimidating."

Not all BYU fans share in that enthusiasm, however. There's a vocal minority that's still royally ticked at BYU for dumping royal blue. While celebrating the 20th anniversary of the national championship in football and mourning the program's current decline, some dissidents pine for the kicked-to-the-curb lighter shade of blue.

Perhaps the most outspoken fan is Salem attorney Bruce Murdock. He was opposed to the change from the start. Time has not eased his feelings on the subject.

"Not even. They're stronger than ever," says Murdock, who continues to wage an unofficial crusade to persuade the school's administration to return to the former colors. As recently as last fall, he wrote a letter to new BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson to plead his case.

"It all has to do with the way the football team has performed in recent years," says Murdock.

Bad Luck Blue?

The way Murdock sees it, the new color should be dubbed Bad Luck Blue.

The Cougar football squad has posted a mediocre 35-27 record (.564 winning percentage) in the five seasons since BYU changed colors in 1999. In the previous five years, from 1994-98, the royal blue Cougars rolled up a 46-18 mark (.718).

On the other hand, since 1999, the BYU basketball program has captured conference championships and has now earned three NCAA Tournament berths since 2001.

Cougar hoopsters suffered three straight losing seasons prior to the color change.

For Murdock, though, it's football that matters most.

"The new colors have very little to do with the legacy and tradition of the previous 30 years," he says. "The program has lost its attitude and winning edge. I still go to the games and I want BYU to win. If they were winning like they used to, nobody would care about the colors. The program's taken a dive. The greatest football moments happened when wearing royal blue. I hope things change. I talk to other fans who feel the same way I do."

Muses another longtime BYU fan, Gordon Snow: "The lighter blue was my favorite, but I wonder if that isn't associated with when we were good in football. Now, I see the dark navy blue and feel like we are going to lose."

Murdock refuses to wear the dark blue colors out of protest. He regards BYU's new blue color a rip-off of the navy blue worn by in-state rival Utah State.

"I can't bring myself to wear what I consider to be Aggie blue to games," he says. "To me, BYU is royal blue and white. They don't resemble the BYU I know. It's pretty sad."

BYU officials understand the strong emotions tied to the royal blue colors and the "golden years" of BYU sports. The decision to move to a darker blue was not entered into lightly, says Lewis, who was heavily involved in the research related to the change of colors. Over a 24-month process, the school conducted numerous surveys and focus groups. BYU also retained the services of a New York City-based firm, Sean Michael Edwards Design, to facilitate the transition.

Hale says when former Major League Baseball star Dale Murphy moved to Utah in the mid-1990s, he was excited to attend a BYU game with his family.

"He bought his family shirts and hats with the royal blue colors and showed up at the game, looked around and noticed nobody else was wearing BYU stuff," Hale says. "He and his family felt self-conscious about it. That's when we realized we needed to look at this issue."

Because royal blue apparently wasn't popular to wear, fans tended to wear a rainbow of colors to games. Hale hopes someday all Cougar fans will buy into the new color scheme.

"We want a sea of blue at LaVell Edwards Stadium and the Marriott Center," Hale says.

Shifting shades

The blue BYU wore in the late 1950s and early 1960s was a dark shade, says associate athletic director Duff Tittle. During the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, BYU uniform colors went through a chameleon-like phase, ranging from dark blue to baby blue. Tittle says color changes at BYU have been part of a cycle.

"I'm sure there are people who would love for us to go back to the old blue," he says. "Maybe someday we will."

Some say going to dark blue is merely a return to BYU's roots.

"Technically speaking," says Eden, "we're back to our old colors."

By the mid-1990s, says Lewis, "there was a desire to be more consistent in our teams' uniform colors. We were getting pressure from players and fans to go to a darker shade. We wanted to do a better job of selling blue to our fans, so they'd wear blue and blanket the stadium."

Another factor in the change: vendors who told BYU officials it was becoming more difficult, and more expensive, to procure royal blue material to manufacture Cougar products.

Once the decision to move to dark blue was made, weeks and months of speculation followed among Cougar fans. The color change issue was shrouded in mystery. Rumors abounded about what the new football uniforms would look like. Administrators offered few answers.

Finally, on Aug. 16, 1999, during a news conference that evolved into a fashion show complete with a catwalk, then-head football coach LaVell Edwards and a handful of his players modeled the new look of Cougar athletics. It included dark blue football helmets, a family of new logos with a more ferocious-looking Cougar and, of course, the much-maligned football uniform "bibs," which — mercifully for many BYU fans — lasted only one season.

Certainly, the move to the dark blue was bold, attention-grabbing and controversial. BYU boosters who donate money to the athletic department voiced their opinions, too.

"When it first happened, a few people were up in arms," says Mike Middleton, executive director of the Cougar Club, which boasts close to 6,000 members. "After cheering for so many years for a team wearing royal blue, I know some people felt it was a major issue. At the games you still see royal blue in the stands; in some cases these are loyal fans who've had those jackets for 20 or 30 years. Why wouldn't they want to keep wearing something associated with so many wins and great memories?

"For the most part, BYU fans have been very accepting and excited about the change. Our campus and athletic buildings have changed over the years, and like those changes, this color change has been good for BYU. Most BYU fans like the darker blue and the tan accent color; it's obvious to me that more Cougar fans are wearing BYU's colors than ever before."

Hale wishes more fans would wear the dark blue colors more often.

"It's nowhere close to where we need to be," he says. "It's frustrating that people don't wear our colors more. At other places I go to, it seems everyone is wearing their team's school colors. It's a powerful sight, an incredible show of support."

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com