Talking Generations of Greatness with the Guardian of the Jersey, Spider Caldwell

By Jarrod Prugar on October 4, 2019 at 1:43 pm
Spider Caldwell at his desk.

When Penn State lines up in the tunnel each Saturday, you already know who it is simply by looking at the uniforms. 

Basic Blues. Black Shoes. No names. All game. 

So with alternate jerseys set to be on display this Saturday, who better than Brad "Spider" Caldwell to walk us through the years of Penn State football and the iconic jerseys they bear?

Spider began his career as a student manager with the football team in 1983 and was the head equipment manager for the Nittany Lions from 2001 to his brief retirement in 2013. After a small stint as a high school administrator in Vermont, he returned to Happy Valley as the Facilities Director for Beaver Stadium in 2015, a position in which he remains. 

"I was a student manager and I’ll never forget the first day. It was pure chaos," Spider recalled. "Back then we had 135-140 report to camp and they all came at once. It was the first day to report and it was a zoo."

From that day forward, Spider would be synonymous with Penn State football. And even back then the jersey was heavily guarded with changes and even additions such as patches. 

“I loved the jersey. When I first got to Penn State, that was, to me, I just loved the iconicness of it, the plainness," Spider said. "I really got to know that and embrace that just being here for a short time how the players guarded the jerseys in the 80s and 90s."

The iconicness and plainness, of course, is by the design of late head coach Joe Paterno, who Spider worked alongside for the majority of his tenure at Penn State.

"Joe was behind a reporter and I was behind him and was asked why Penn State didn’t get into the jerseys like other teams and he went ‘Well, you noticed didn’t you? Why do I need to change? You know it’s us when we exit the tunnel.”

The jersey, all the way down to the shoes had to be perfect for Paterno and company when they took the field and it was up to Spider and those around him to make that happen, even if it meant spending Thursday nights painting shoes.

black shoes basic blues
The Penn State uniform, while not exactly identical to the original, is arguably the most recognizable uniform in the sport. (Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports) 

"Black shoes, for Joe they had to be black. Nike started getting fancy in the mid-90s and late-90s, their black shoe was half white or had weird striping on it," Spider said. "I actually had to take the new shoe when it’d come out to Joe’s office and he’d take a Sharpie and put an x on all the white spots he wanted to be painted.

Every Thursday night after practice, we would paint the shoes black every single week any white that was on them."

It wasn't until the Baltimore Ravens came along that the process to have an all-black shoe became streamlined for Nike thus helping Spider and his crew out big time. 

"Early in the mid-90s they had their set lines and they couldn’t do it, but the Baltimore Ravens were complaining as well, they liked the jet black too," Spider said. "They called our shoe the “Stealth” shoe, the all-black view."

The black shoes alone are as iconic as the jerseys themselves which over the last decade have actually gone through quite a bit of change, though largely minimal.  The exception being the most drastic addition to the jerseys ever made–names on the back. 

"That was the mutiny, that was the tough one to swallow," Spider said. "The trim was one thing, but I’ll never forget that when the sanctions went down, Coach O’Brien really, to me, did an unbelievable job to keep this team intact."

To make sure his changes would fly, Spider said, O'Brien, made two key moves. One was calling for the lettermen to come back and the other one was made after a conference call with the parents.

"Coach O’Brien had a conference call with the parents. It was the parents’ idea to do the jerseys," Spider said. "Bill O’Brien calls me the next morning and asks me how I feel about putting the names on jerseys. I told him I wasn’t real experienced in that but he said he really wanted to do it and do something special for them."

Chaos ensued. The current players were fond of the names on the back, but the former players, well they weren't nearly as happy.

"The former players there was some mutiny there but once we explained to them why we added them to honor the guys who stayed here they were okay," Caldwell said. 

The names on the back lasted only a few years which made the years in which they were worn that much more special. Those years represented a group of players who didn't give up on Penn State when times were tough and gave their all to the university when the program and fans needed them the most. 

2012 Team
The 2012 team will always occupy a special place in the history of Penn State football and fully deserved the right to wear their names on their jerseys.

"If we just left them on it wouldn’t have made those guys special," Spider said. "Now, when you watch ESPN Classic or ESPN U and you see games those three years you see the names on the jerseys, that’s the special team that stayed. Those are the guys who went through hell and were dedicated to Penn State and that’s an honor to them."

During the sanction era, O'Brien was looking for ideas to sweeten things up for his players and the idea of a throwback was tossed his way, a throwback very similar to what's now known as the Generations of Greatness jersey which Penn State will be rocking this weekend against Purdue.

"We always had an idea about doing a throwback uniform that would be simple and I thought our fans would embrace it," Spider said. "It’s just combining a couple of different eras. One being the trim, another being the stripe on the pants and the number on the helmets. People loved the 60s and early 70s; that era really got Penn State on the map."

The team, in fact, nearly pulled the jerseys out to wear against Syracuse at Metlife Stadium in 2013, but alas fans had to wait.

"He debated about doing it for the Syracuse game that was played at Metlife Stadium in 2013. I had the uniforms in," Spider said. "All we were going to do was put the numbers on the helmets and the stripe on the pants. We weren’t going to do the grey facemasks because we didn’t have the time. Then we ended up not doing it."

Fast forward to 2017 when James Franklin dropped a call to Spider to tell him they were finally going with the alternate jersey.

"Coach Franklin called me and gave me a heads up they were going to do it and asked if I would be involved, so when it was done I saw the artist’s concept," Spider said. "There were a couple of things I didn’t know about like the Lion Shrine and then the white shoes."

Wait...white shoes? 

It was the 1978 Sugar Bowl against Alabama, a Penn State loss, that the Nittany Lions actually donned white shoes.

"Technically, we did wear them one time in our history. It was the 1978 Sugar Bowl against Alabama for the National Title and we lost," Spider said. "Joe said we’d never wear white shoes again."

Of course, there's a story to go along with a Penn State team wearing white shoes for a big game. 

numbers on the helmets
The Generations of Greatness jerseys were a huge success when the team wore them in 2017. (Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports)

"What it was, and this was told to me by the former equipment manager, we weren’t used to playing indoors and Adidas gave us those shoes for the game and we wore them."

Penn State will once again wear white shoes, the third time in their history, against Purdue to go along with their Generations of Greatness set. Now, with his years of expertise in the equipment room and handling the jerseys, Spider has an objective view of the set.

“Out of the whole uniform, I like the stripe on the pants," Spider said. "That look is just iconic, the Franco Harris days, the late 60s, early 70s. I just like the stripe on the pants, I think it looks cool. The only thing they missed, and it was just an oversight, was the trim on the collar."

To get to this point with the jerseys and how they've grown into the Penn State brand was actually a complete and total accident. In fact, the original colors were pink and black. 

"It was a pink jersey with black numbers and I think because historically what happened, they said, was they washed the jersey with too hot of water," Spider said. "The pink jersey was a white jersey with pink dye. In using too hot of water through the first few weeks of the season, the pink dye bled out of the jersey and it looked white, the black pants faded and looked navy and the student body liked those colors."

Whether pink and black get added to the uniform mix will be forever a hot debate. But when current Penn State football players throw on their jerseys Saturday, they do so honoring those, like Spider, who have come before them and those who will come after.

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