University of Texas Traditions: Burnt Orange and White
Jim Nicar, The Texas Exes
"Light the Tower orange!" was the cry heard on the radio as the University of Texas baseball team claimed its fifth national title on a sunny afternoon June, 2002. Just after sunset that evening, proudly brandishing a "1" in window lights on each side, the UT Tower was floodlit orange in front of several hundred applauding Texas faithful who had already assembled on the South Mall. As the sky darkened to an azure blue, the orange Tower seemed to take charge of the night, posing like a Hollywood celebrity for an endless stream of flash photographs. The whole scene was strangely appropriate, not just because the baseball team had won, but that the very color of the Tower's victory lights were due to the first "Texas Nine."
Baseball, not football, was the sport of choice for UT students in the 1880s. In the spring of 1885, when the University was not yet two years old, a student enrolled who claimed to have the only curve ball pitch in the state. The curve ball was a new addition to the game, welcomed by baseball progressives, and hated by the sport's purists. Nevertheless, University students formed a team "that rated high in brain power, low in brute force," and challenged any college in Texas to a game. Southwestern University, thirty miles north in Georgetown, answered the call and invited UT to a picnic and baseball contest. The University accepted, and students arranged to make the trip to Georgetown on a chartered train.
On a Saturday morning in April 1885, the first UT baseball team, along with most of the student body, arrived at the downtown Austin train station at 3rd Street and Congress Avenue, and boarded the passenger cars bound for Georgetown. Everything was on schedule until the final whistle sounded. Just as the train was ready to leave, two coeds announced the need for some ribbon to identify them as University of Texas supporters.
Today's college fans arrive at stadiums clad in t-shirts and caps. But in the 1880s, colored ribbons were worn on lapels to show team loyalty. The more enterprising male students sported longer ribbons, so they would have extra to share with a pretty girl who had none. The truly ingenious (or just plain desperate) wore ribbons almost down to their knees.
The dates of the two Texas coeds, Venable Proctor and Clarence Miller, ever eager to impress the ladies, jumped off the train and sprinted a block north along Congress Avenue to the nearest general store. Between gasps for breath, they managed to ask the shopkeeper for three bolts of two colors of ribbon. "What colors?" the shopkeeper asked. "Anything," was the response. After all, the train was leaving the station, and there was no time to be particular.
The shopkeeper gave them the colors he had the most in stock: white ribbon, which was popular for weddings and parties and was always in demand, and bright orange ribbon, because no one bought the color, and the store had plenty to spare.
Loaded with their supplies, Proctor and Miller ran back and boarded the moving train as it left for Georgetown. Along the way, the ribbon was evenly divided and distributed to everyone except for a law student named Yancey Lewis, "who had evolved a barbaric scheme of individual adornment by utilizing the remnants."
Unfortunately, it rained that Saturday afternoon, the curve ball curved not, and Texas outfielders ran weary miles in a lost cause. According to one witness, the University's colors were "christened on a dire and stricken field."
Or were they? Even though the first baseball team had sported orange and white, the colors were by no means official, and subject to the whims of future UT students.
After a decade of starts and stops, the University of Texas fielded its first "permanent" football team in 1893. The first recorded game was actually ten years earlier, during UT's very first fall term, though it was a rather embarrassing two-goals-to-none loss against a group of high school students at the Bickler School in downtown Austin. Football, the newfangled sport that could draw 50,000 spectators to a Princeton-Yale game in the 1880s, required a little more time to be accepted in the Lone Star State.
The UT football team of 1893 played four games, a pair in the fall and two more in the spring. The first was against the Dallas Foot Ball Club that claimed to be the best in the state. Held at the Dallas Fair Grounds, the game attracted a record 1200 onlookers. It was a tough and spirited match, but when the dust had settled, the "University Eleven" had pulled off an 18 - 16 upset. "Our name is pants, and our glory has departed," growled the Dallas Daily News. The UT club would go on to a spotless record and earn the undisputed boast of "best in Texas."
The University team, though, didn't wear orange. Their striped uniforms were gold and white.
In the 1890s, the forty-acre UT campus consisted of a still-unfinished Victorian-Gothic Main Building, a chemical lab building to its northwest, and a plain-looking men's dorm, known as Brackenridge Hall, or "B." Hall, nestled down the hill to the east. All were fashioned from pale yellow Austin pressed brick, and trimmed with cream-colored limestone quarried in nearby Cedar Park. (The Gebauer Building, built in 1904 for engineering, is today the home for College of Liberal Arts, and is the last survivor of this early UT architecture.) Students identified themselves with their surroundings on the campus, and several University teams donned gold and white uniforms.
Of course, gold and white weren't official, either, and only lasted a couple of years. Members of the student-run UT Athletic Association wanted a more "masculine" color, and in 1895 orange was paired with white once more. White uniforms, though, were difficult to clean after a hard-fought victory on the football field. In 1897, to save cleaning costs, the Athletic Association opted for a darker color that wouldn't show dirt as easily: maroon.
For the next three years, UT football, baseball, and track uniforms, along with letter sweaters, were orange and maroon. This created more than a little controversy, especially among the alumni. Adding to the confusion was the Cactus Yearbook, at the time published by the Athletic Association, which listed the University colors as either gold or orange and white. The appearance of the 1899 Cactus made matters worse. It suddenly declared the University colors to be "Gold and Maroon," which just happened to be the same hues used for the yearbook's cover. And all the while, students the University's medical branch in Galveston wanted to throw out the double-colors in favor of a single one: royal blue. Attending a football game in 1899, a UT fan would have found his compatriots sporting all shades of yellows, oranges, whites, reds, maroons, and a few in blue.
After considerable discussion, the Board of Regents decided to hold an election to settle the matter. Students, faculty, staff and alumni were all invited to send in their ballots. Out of the 1,111 votes cast, 562 were for orange and white, a majority by just seven votes. Orange and maroon receive 310, royal blue 203, crimson 10, royal blue and crimson 11, and few other colors scattered among the remaining 15 votes.
For almost thirty years, UT athletic teams wore bright orange on their uniforms, which usually faded to a yellow by the end of the season after having been washed a few times. By the 1920s, other college teams sometimes called the Longhorn squads "yellow bellies," a term that didn't sit well with the athletic department. In 1928, UT football coach Clyde Littlefield ordered uniforms in a darker shade of orange that wouldn't fade, and would later become known as "burnt orange" or "Texas orange." The dark-orange color remained in use until part-way though the Great Depression in the 1930s, when the dye became too expensive. UT uniforms were bright orange for another two decades, until coach Darrell Royal revised the burnt orange color in the early 1960s
Jim Nicar is on staff with the Texas Exes, where he's Director of the UT Heritage Society. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Texas Exes connects its members to each other and to the past, present, and future of The University of Texas.