Who needs helmet stickers? Sideline swag has become all the rage in college football
They call him the “King of Bling” for a reason.
Working from a shop in South Florida, Anthony John Machado has made custom jewelry — the really big, really shiny kind — for scores of professional athletes including LeBron James and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
So when the University of Miami football program called him this summer, looking for something distinctive, Machado knew just what the Hurricanes needed.
Five-and-a-half pounds of thick, gold, Cuban-link chain and a giant “U” festooned with hundreds of tiny orange and green sapphire stones.
“They wanted to bring a little of that swag back,” Machado said by telephone from his AJ’s Jewelry store in Cutler Bay, south of Miami. “It’s a fashion statement.”
This season, any defensive player who recovers a fumble or intercepts a pass is presented with the “turnover chain” to wear proudly on the bench until the next time the defense takes the field.
“Miami, we’re all kind of flashy,” linebacker Shaquille Quarterman told reporters. “It’s just another incentive.”
Forget the sticker on the helmet after the game. Sideline swag has become all the rage in college football as coaches — like kindergarten teachers handing out gold stars — offer instant affirmation to players who snag loose balls or make acrobatic catches.
At Mississippi, receivers get an old-school wrestling championship belt. Texas A&M players are handed a drum major’s mace to celebrate big plays.
“We’re trying to motivate,” Miami coach Mark Richt said. “It’s crazy what motivates.”
In the 1990s, Virginia Tech gave a battered lunch pail to its most valuable defensive player each week. A few seasons back, top-ranked Alabama started bestowing a massive championship belt for defensive plays.
With the Crimson Tide scoring so often on turnovers — making non-offensive touchdowns, or NOTs, part of the football lexicon — the “Ball Out Belt” got a lot of television airtime.
A version of the belt has shown up on other sidelines, including those of Boise State, Memphis and Colorado State.
The Georgia coaching staff is trying something more outlandish.
During each game this fall, defensive players compete for a set of golden shoulder pads that come straight out of “Mad Max,” with long, black spikes and the word “Savage” inscribed across the back.
Linebacker Davin Bellamy showed them off on national television after the Bulldogs’ 20-19 victory at Notre Dame last month, doing his postgame interview in full “Spike Squad” regalia.
“We got a turnover,” Bellamy told an NBC sideline reporter, “and our coach, he strapped them onto me.”
While young athletes seem to like the idea of sideline swag — a little positive reinforcement never hurts — the fad backfired at one school.
Tennessee’s “turnover garbage can” works like this: When the defense takes the field, a staff member on the sideline holds a plastic trash can over his head. If the Volunteers manage a turnover, the responsible player carries the ball to the sideline and slam dunks it.
But with the team stumbling to a 3-2 start and slipping out of the Associated Press media poll, the prop has become in internet meme. And not the good kind.
Disgruntled yet creative fans have posted altered photographs of Coach Butch Jones’ head sticking out of the can. His coaching acumen has been compared to rubbish. There have been “Oscar the Grouch” jokes.
Jones recently faced questions about the gimmick.
“It’s just something that, you know, a heightened awareness of turnovers and having some fun with it,” he told reporters. “And our kids enjoy that.”
Though swag appears to be a primarily defensive phenomenon, offenses have also been getting into the act.
Texas A&M players showed off their mace — an oversize baton used to lead a marching band — amid a string of early touchdowns against UCLA. However, it remained tucked away as the Aggies squandered a 34-point lead and lost in the final seconds.
Alabama receivers have been spotted brandishing an ax with the word “Assassins” on the handle. At Mississippi, receivers coach Jacob Peeler introduced that vintage champion’s belt from the “nWo” pro wrestling era.
“I did a PowerPoint presentation to explain our tenacity,” Peeler said. “It’s a mind-set. Just kind of the way you carry yourself.”
Touchdowns aren’t the only things that earn an award. Players also win by doing well on a test or competing against each other in video games during the week.
“We make it fun,” Peeler said. “It just depends on what I’m feeling that week and I just kind of throw it at them and they have no idea till they walk in.”
In Florida, Machado has discovered that fans can get just as excited.
In Tallahassee last week to watch Miami play rival Florida State, he saw “turnover chain” T-shirts as well as knockoffs of the necklace he designed for the Hurricanes. People yelled his name because they had seen stories about him on television and in newspapers.
With the rush of sideline swag in college football these days, it takes a lot to stand out from the crowd.
Machado got some help from Vince Wilfork, a former Miami and NFL star, who was sitting in Machado’s office when the Hurricanes called. Wilfork encouraged the jeweler to go all out.
“I just wanted to do something a little different,” Machado said. “The rest is history.”
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