What are the stickers on college football helmets? A decades-long tradition in NCAA football, coaches award players with helmet stickers to recognize achievements and motivate players to keep up the good work.
The practice has an interesting history, and each university has a unique sticker system. So, the answer to a crucial question—“What do the stickers mean on college football helmets?”—is different for every school. And, not all NCAA football teams use them.
Let’s break down the history of college football helmet stickers, describe a few different kinds and explore six schools’ sticker strategies.
What Are the Stickers on College Football Helmets?
Why do college football players have stickers on their helmets? They’re a reward for excellent plays, team wins or individual accomplishments on the field. Earning and displaying a helmet sticker is a rite of passage for players, and the practice can motivate them to improve.
The practice began in 1968 when a long-time Ohio State trainer suggested the idea to then-head coach Woody Hayes, who adopted the buckeye sticker reward system.
Many universities followed suit, offering players rewards for accomplishments that weren’t included in statistics or would otherwise go unnoticed.
You may not think of stickers as a powerful motivation tool for adults, but a 2011 study determined otherwise. When male study participants were offered a tangible, visible “trophy” for an accomplishment, they adjusted their approaches, sacrificing their individual best interests for team success more frequently.
Types of Stickers
So, why are stickers awarded? The answer depends upon the university, but stickers can honor the following types of accomplishments:
- Yardage gains
- Touchdown runs
- Game wins
- Victories against rival teams
But, some schools—like the University of Georgia—don’t have a scientific system, awarding stickers when they feel players have earned them.
While some schools only offer one type of sticker, some offer a few different varieties. Brigham Young, for instance, used to award gold stickers for individual accomplishments and blue stickers for whole-team merits. Their sticker system has been discontinued and reinstituted many times throughout history.
College Teams that Use Stickers
We’ve explored what the stickers on college football helmets mean—let’s break down a few specific examples in more detail.
Ohio State University
Any list of college football teams using a sticker system would be incomplete without Ohio State University.
College football history aficionados generally believe that Ohio introduced the practice. But there is a faction that attributes stickering to Dewey King of Rutgers University in 1960, who awarded stickers for interceptions.
In the present, Ohio’s stickering system remains mostly mysterious for outsiders, but two accomplishments are known to be sticker-worthy:
- The defense accumulating at least five three-and-outs
- The offense gaining twelve or more yards in at least ten plays
Ohio State buckeye leaf stickers are easily recognizable, featuring the highly toxic fruit of Ohio’s state tree standing out against a stark white background.
University of Georgia
The University of Georgia Bulldogs began awarding stickers as far back as 1971, but the program was quickly discontinued a few seasons later. However, the stickers reemerged in 2001 under head coach Mark Richt.
Georgia players can earn one of two types of stickers:
- Black bone stickers signify a win in the classroom—a B or higher on a project or exam
- White bone stickers are awarded for individual or team accomplishments on the field
According to former Dawgs linebacker Christian Robinson, players can earn white bones for:
- Critical third downs
- Tackles for loss
But, once you earn a bone, keeping it isn’t a guarantee—coaches can award bones and repossess them as punishment for mistakes on the field.
Stanford University’s axe stickers are steeped in symbolism and history. Roll the highlight reel:
- The first football game against Stanford’s rival UC Berkeley took place in 1892 and has continued annually ever since (except for breaks during wartime).
- Stanford fans premiered the Axe Yell chant in 1896, but fans of both teams adopted it during games.
- In 1899, students introduced a prop—a woodcutter’s axe. After it was stolen by Cal students only two days following its debut, a heroic recovery by Stanford students in 1930 inevitably led to a ceasefire.
- In 1933, the Axe became the trophy awarded to the winner of the Big Game each year, a tradition that continues to this day.
While coaches reward players with axe stickers if they defeat UC Berkeley at the Big Game, they also present stickers throughout the season for merits on the field.
Clemson University’s iconic paw print logo wasn’t introduced until 1970. And before its introduction, football coaching staff awarded players skull and crossbones stickers to recognize excellent play.
But, in an effort to integrate the school’s new logo, the football team adopted the paw print for its stickering system, which continues to this day.
Clemson’s sticker system, like Ohio State’s, is mostly confidential—fans generally aren’t sure which accomplishments merit recognition. Clemson head coaches have awarded them with varying frequency throughout the school’s history.
University of Michigan
During his first season as head coach of the Wolverines in 2015, Jim Harbaugh introduced helmet stickers. The decals featured a wolverine in blue, and coaching staff awarded them for numerous in-game achievements.
But, in 2021, Michigan introduced a new slate of helmet stickers, awarded to players for:
- Overall game wins
- Wins in rivalry games
- Academic honors
- All-Big Ten honors
Captains will wear a sticker bearing a C.
At the beginning of the 2021 season, every player received a sticker featuring the area code where they’re from. According to coaching staff, the expanded sticker system was introduced to offer more recognition to players for individual performance.
Florida State University
Florida State University awards football players tomahawk stickers for both athletic and academic achievements.
But, like the University of Georgia, earning a sticker doesn’t guarantee you’ll get to keep it. Stickers can be revoked for mistakes on and off the field.
They’re not awarded at every game, either. For example, at the beginning of the 2020 season, Seminoles coach Mike Norvell didn’t award any stickers to players until they secured their first win of the season.
Since FSU’s minimalist helmet design offers ample free space, players are free to put their tomahawks wherever they please. They’re not restricted to only the back or the top of their helmets, unlike other teams.
Ready for the NCAA Season?
Whether they’re symbolic, motivational or a recognition of hard work, stickers on college football helmets are a decades-long, storied tradition. While some schools closely guard the specifics of their sticker systems, others are more forthcoming. But some coaches enforce high stakes—stickers given can also be taken away.
The helmet is a universal symbol for the sport, and many memorabilia enthusiasts consider them a crown jewel of a good collection. So whether you’re looking to pick up a helmet for yourself or a fellow NCAA football fanatic, Collectible Supplies has you covered.
In addition to college football merch, we offer collectible toys, sporting goods, wearables and so much more—if you need it, we’ve got it.