Tarpon Springs High football coach Atif Austin sought to enliven his team’s uniform by modernizing the best of its attributes.
The maroon, the white, the trademark “T” on the helmets — they’re all still there, but reinvented for a new age. The jersey numbers are now outlined in black — but that was not the only touch of black Austin wanted to inject into the school’s color palette.
He also wanted to introduce black pants, which would be worn only during away games.
To the old-guard alumni, the style faux pas was enough to pop a button off their starched shirts, sparking a pants war with the Tarpon Springs community acting as fashion police.
Alumni created an online petition, imploring Tarpon Springs principal Clint Herbic not to change the school’s colors.
“Tarpon High has a long-standing history of being recognized by the colors maroon and white. We appeal to you to secure that tradition for all future students and alumni of Tarpon Springs Senior High School. We all can still recite our alma mater, which may we point out does not include the color black,” states the petition, which has been signed by 111 people.
But black is included in the band’s uniforms, as well as those worn by the volleyball and basketball teams.
“We never had any resistance from the school or the booster club when we changed our uniforms,” said former Tarpon Springs boys basketball coach James Margarella, who recently left to coach at Clearwater Central Catholic.
Traditionalists argue football is different. It is the sport that has the strongest fan base in this close-knit community. Players wear their jerseys on game days. Maroon and white balloons are attached to mailboxes of nearby houses before big games.
“Everyone identifies with the football team,” said Marika King, who graduated from the school in 1984 and has a daughter who will be a junior cheerleader and a freshman son. “That’s the sport where we’ve had the most success and the biggest following. The coach should know that. He graduated from this school. And he’s screwing around with tradition.”
Because uniforms are purchased through the booster club and not with school funds, Austin does not need approval from the administration to make a change.
Still, Herbic relented, e-mailing concerned parents and alumni that the school would not be adding black pants.
“I don’t care if we come out in purple,” Austin said. “I don’t want to have any controversy; I just want to coach.”
The problem faced by Tarpon Springs High, founded in 1906, is emblematic of the plight of other iconic football programs in the area: The need to overhaul an aging image doesn’t exactly mesh well with an established fan base that resists change.
St. Petersburg High, founded in 1896, went through a transformation when Joe Fabrizio was hired as coach in 2006. He revamped the look of the program by changing the uniforms from the traditional green and white to black pants and jerseys mixed with green.
“I guess I made my fashion statement when I got here,” Fabrizio said. “I didn’t necessarily want to forget about the tradition of the school, but I thought a change was needed to have a fresh start. And I don’t know of anyone that has complained about it.”
Other changes did not go so smoothly. When Kenny Crawford was hired at Pinellas Park High in 2009, fans wanted to know if he would go back to the traditional school colors.
“The first thing people did was welcome me,” Crawford said. “The second thing they did was ask if we could get rid of the black pants and go back to the traditional red, white and blue. It wasn’t about how we were going to turn around a program that had gone 5-45 before I got here. It was about the uniform.”
And adding black to a uniform could come at a coach’s peril.
Four of the six public school coaches in Pinellas County who introduced black as a primary color in the past five years have either left or been dismissed.
“Black uniforms can be a job killer,” Crawford said.