Arizona Wildcats football players weren't the only team involved in paying tribute to the USS Arizona.
Another University of Arizona team worked behind the scenes for well over a year to conceive and help design the custom uniforms worn by the Wildcats for their game Saturday night against the University of Hawaii.
As the 74th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor approached last year, James Francis, the UA's senior associate director of athletics, took the idea of a special tribute in conjunction with the Hawaii game to UA President Ann Weaver Hart.
"It was never intended to be an athletics-only initiative," Francis said, "but we could provide a stage for it."
The thinking was that the UA's Sept. 17 recognition of the USS Arizona, whose bell is housed in the Student Union Memorial Center, would be far enough in advance of many 75th anniversary events later in 2016. And it would focus on the 25-year life of the battleship, whose sinking under a surprise Japanese air raid resulted in the loss of 1,177 American sailors and Marines.
The goal "was to help tell the story of the University's unique relationship to the ship," Francis said.
Last year, Francis shared various USS Arizona-related photos with Nike, the UA's athletic apparel manufacturer, with the idea of creating the uniform for the occasion. Colors representing the keel (red), hull (gray) and upper mast (white) were chosen. As a mock-up, Nike submitted a gray jersey with a Mediterranean blue "USS Arizona" across the front and numerals in the same shade of blue on the front and back.
From Francis' visit to University Libraries' Special Collections and Trent Purdy, curator of its extensive USS Arizona exhibit, came several significant additions to the uniform out of an initial pool of about 50 options:
- BB-39, the ship's hull number, on the jersey's back nameplate ("The most inclusive way to honor everyone who served on the ship," Francis said)
- The 48-star American flag on a patch on the left shoulder
- A custom Block A on the side of the helmet, inspired by the jersey worn by the ship's football team
- At 'Em Arizona, the rallying cry of the ship, on the back of the helmet
- A decal of the bell on the back of the helmet
- The date 12-7-41 on the front of the helmet
- A patch representing a medallion worn at the ship's christening and launch, on the jersey's front collar
- A right-shoulder patch representing the 47th Pursuit Squadron, based at Tucson's Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and credited with shooting down eight Japanese aircraft
Francis said that while looking into the possibility of a P-40 Warhawk flyover by Davis-Monthan, he discovered that the 47th was stationed there. The plane wasn't available for the flyover, but the connection led to the patch.
NCAA approval of the uniform was relatively easy to secure, Francis said, and Hawaii's athletic department also was supportive.
"This was a fascinating journey of learning for me," Francis said of the project.
Purdy estimates that curation of the exhibit, "The Life and Legacy of the USS Arizona" — which runs through Dec. 23 — took more than 1,000 hours. Athletics did its homework on the ship, and he was impressed.
"It was a collaborative effort," Purdy said of the uniform's design. "Athletics took great pains to make sure the information they were putting out was accurate."
Media coverage of the UA's salute to the ship was extensive — and, without exception, positive — leading up to the game and afterward. But Francis said the best reaction came from Lauren Bruner, one of only six living survivors of the USS Arizona. Bruner, who will turn 96 on Nov. 4, was recognized at the game and at various campus events beforehand.
"To see his smile was tremendous," Francis said.
T-shirt replicas of the jersey were sold by a UA licensee at the game, with all of the profits going to an organization that helps send USS Arizona survivors and their families to Hawaii. And three actual No. 75 jerseys, three helmets and three jersey-helmet combinations were auctioned by Athletics, with more than $22,000 going to the USS Arizona Mall Memorial currently under construction and expected to be dedicated on Dec. 4.