Uni Watch: Patriots set Super Bowl record!

The stadium scene.
Jan. 27 2004 11:32 AM

Uni Watch

New England sets Super Bowl record!

Tippett and Pat Patriot, circa 1992
Tippett and Pat Patriot, circa 1992

Don't look now, but the New England Patriots are emerging as one of the top franchises in NFL history, at least as measured by Super Bowl appearances. This Sunday will mark their fourth trip to the big game, which puts them in elite company, trailing only such traditional powerhouses as the Cowboys (eight appearances), Broncos (six), and 49ers, Redskins, Raiders, Steelers, and Dolphins (five apiece). Of greater interest to Uni Watch, however, is a record the Patriots hold outright: They've worn three different uniform designs in the Super Bowl, more than any other team.

New England's first Super Sunday appearance came in 1986, when they faced the Bears in Super Bowl XX. Although they were hammered by Chicago 46-10, the game nonetheless stands as the high-water mark for the franchise's first-generation uni design, symbolized by Pat Patriot, the football-hiking minuteman figure who served as the team's first logo.

Pat Patriot's background, it turns out, is at least as storied as that of the Super Bowl itself. The character originally appeared in a 1959 editorial cartoon by Boston Globe artist Phil Bissell, after the team's original owner, Billy Sullivan, was awarded the franchise. Sullivan, a notorious tightwad, got permission to use the character for free and it became the team's logo, appearing on everything from stationery to stock certificates. Although Pat's job description didn't initially include helmet duty—the team used a colonial-era hat design during its 1960 inaugural season—he was promoted to helmet-logo status in 1961.

Uni Watch has always liked Pat, but the character has inspired a surprising amount of controversy. In an apparent spasm of parental backlash, Phil Bissell himself has been quoted saying Pat "looks like a lopsided Chinaman"—this in an essay by Sports Illustrated's Leigh Montville, who piled on by calling Pat "the worst logo anywhere." That assessment was evidently shared by Billy Sullivan's son-in-law, Michael Chamberlain, who in the late 1970s budgeted $30,000 to create a new logo, which was introduced to the team's fans during a halftime ceremony. Enlarged versions of Pat and the new design were driven around the field, with the P.A. announcer urging fans to cheer for their favorite. It was no contest: Pat got a standing ovation, while the new logo—a copy of which, alas, has eluded Uni Watch's best investigative efforts—was booed off the field, never to be seen again.

Pat withstood that challenge but was finally forced into retirement in 1993 (although he's made cameo comebacks during the 1994 throwback season and the 2002 Thanksgiving game). His replacement on the Patriots' helmets, often referred to as Flying Elvis, has none of Pat's charm and has never been a Uni Watch favorite. As Providence Journal columnist Jim Donaldson put it in 2002, "Elvis is cold. Pat looked like the sort of guy Patriots fans would want to have a beer with. In fact, Pat looked like he'd already had a couple of beers."

To be fair, if Elvis doesn't look too jovial, maybe it's because they keep changing his wardrobe—he's already been paired with four different uniform schemes during his first 12 seasons. The 1993 and 1994 designs were a bit, shall we say, confused (don't get Uni Watch started on those mismatched chest and shoulder numeral colors), but it was the 1995 design that really scaled new heights in poor design. First there was the oddly
italic numbering
with the semi-vibrating drop shadow. The masterstroke, though, was moving Elvis from the jersey sleeves, where he'd been in '93 and '94, to the shoulders, where he looked comically out of place.

This, unfortunately, is the uniform the Patriots wore in Super Bowl XXXI, and it gets Uni Watch's vote for the most unsightly outfit in Super Sunday history. Even worse, New England's opponents that day were the league's best-dressed team, the Packers. So not only did the Pats lose on the scoreboard, 35-21, but the game's aesthetic battle wasn't even a fair fight.

Happily, the Pats made amends in 2000, when they unveiled yet another uniform, which they continue to wear today. While Uni Watch could live without the vertical jersey piping, particularly on the road jersey, for the most part this design is a keeper, with tasteful detailing and Elvis back down on the sleeves where he belongs. The Pats looked sharp wearing this uniform as they beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. And barring unforeseen developments, it's what they'll be wearing again this Sunday.

Finally, Uni Watch would be remiss not to acknowledge the efforts of Patriots überfan Chris Lordan, whose invaluable research assistance made the foregoing discussion possible. Given the teal nightmare that is the Carolina Panthers, Chris can settle in on the couch this Sunday secure in the knowledge that his beloved Pats have already won the game's sartorial battle, no matter what happens on the field.

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Paul Lukas writes about food, travel, and consumer culture for a variety of publications.