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At This N.C.A.A. Tournament, Orange Is the New Bracket

The color orange has developed a utilitarian reputation in the United States — except in college sports, where it makes a statement.

INDIANAPOLIS — This year’s N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament is a metaphorical color wheel. Green for the hundreds of millions of dollars it will reap, even without fans. Red for the anger that some players are expressing over being cut out of the profits they generate. And blue for the isolation others are feeling while marooned in a hotel at the start of 68-team, three-week game of survivor.

Chromatically speaking, however, those pale in comparison to the Midwest bracket, where there is — in very living color — a pigment that is not often a primary one in the world of sports: orange.

And there is lots of it.

There is Illinois orange. There is Oklahoma State orange. There is Clemson orange, which is very orange. And there are the Syracuse Orange, who are also orange. And when Tennessee plays Oregon State in a first-round game on Friday, there will be a veritable orange crush, a spectacle muted only by limits on the number of (in this case, orange-clad) fans allowed to attend the tournament.

There is only one other team in the tournament that wears orange as a dominant color. That is Texas — although burnt orange may be considered the redheaded stepchild of oranges, which perhaps explains why the Longhorns were sloughed off to the East region. (Virginia and Virginia Tech have orange, but as an accent color.)

Syracuse and Clemson faced off earlier this season.
Ken Ruinard/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Orange may be the color of a Buddhist monk’s robe or a California sunset, but there is a reason college teams or sports franchises hew toward more conventional hues — crimsons and garnets, royal blue and navy — and prefer only splashes of orange.

“It’s a statement color. It’s a strong color,” said Todd Radom, an author and graphic designer who creates logos for professional sports teams, including the Los Angeles Angels, who play their games in, um, Orange County. “Orange is a very polarizing color. You either love it or hate it.”

To make it clear where he stands on the divide, Radom, a New York native, was speaking on an orange iPhone and had a pair of electric orange Chuck Taylor high tops in his closet. And for those who might question his taste, he notes that orange was the favorite color of an indisputable arbiter of style, Frank Sinatra, who called it the happiest color.

Orange, of course, does not wear well on everybody. When Dee Andros, the barrel-chested former Oregon State football coach, paced the sideline wearing an orange windbreaker in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a sports columnist christened him “the Great Pumpkin.”

Orange is rare as a dominant color in professional sports. The Denver Broncos and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the N.F.L. wore orange jerseys in their formative years before uniform redesigns. The Oklahoma City Thunder of the N.B.A. occasionally wear orange uniforms, and the Baltimore Orioles and the San Francisco Giants of Major League Baseball have orange alternate jerseys. The Houston Astros had an infamous dalliance with orange in their tequila sunrise uniforms.

Saul Martinez for The New York Times

Hockey’s Philadelphia Flyers are the rare team that has regularly worn orange uniforms.

That so many New York teams incorporate orange into their color scheme — the Knicks, Islanders and Mets (who took their orange from the Giants after that team left for San Francisco and paired it with Dodger blue after the Brooklyn club departed for Los Angeles) all wear it as an accent color — is not a coincidence. It can be traced back, Radom said, to the city’s Dutch colonial roots, and the House of Orange-Nassau, as much as Stuyvesant, Harlem, Nassau County and the surname Knickerbocker.

Colleges, though, are more likely to incorporate orange as a dominant color.

This is owed largely to tradition, Radom said. In the late 1800s, Syracuse wore light pink with sea green, and then turned to blue as an accent color before students rebelled to demand something bold. Clemson copied Auburn’s purple and orange (along with the nickname Tigers), but switched to orange as the primary color. And Oklahoma State chose orange and black as homage to Princeton — or an attempt to stamp itself as the Ivy Leaguer of the prairie.

“The aesthetics of college sports are different from the pros,” Radom said, noting that when Red Grange matriculated from Illinois to the Chicago Bears, the young franchise borrowed the college power’s colors, orange and blue. “It’s easier to tear down tradition if you’re a professional franchise. There’s not much reason for colleges to break away from these traditional colors.”

Dawson Powers/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Those traditions often predate a modern understanding of color, which was transformed by the “Interaction of Color,” a 1963 book by the Bauhaus-bred art theorist Josef Albers, who veered away from color theory to methodically explain how color speaks to the soul, according to Ann Field, who leads the undergraduate illustration department at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. (The school’s longtime logo is an orange dot.)

In the world of design, orange, which has deeper roots in Asia, has been embraced more in Europe (particularly Italy) in recent decades than it has in the United States, where it is viewed more as a utilitarian color. Think traffic cones, Home Depot stores and the Golden Gate Bridge, which is painted International Orange. And an airplane’s black box is not black at all — it is painted orange.

“When I think about orange, it hasn’t had the sort of good ride that pink has had,” Field said. “We say, ‘Think pink.’ In Europe, orange is almost elegant. In the U.S., it’s practical.”

Somewhere between elegance and utility, Field added, orange conveys eternal joy and positive buoyancy. (This checks out as it applies to Dutch soccer fans.) The color can also be a trigger to awaken the spirit, she added. (This may explain the feistiness of Dabo Swinney, the two-time national champion football coach at “Little Ol’ Clemson.”)

Of course, not all oranges are created equal.

John Locher/Associated Press

Illinois orange, cut with blue, speaks of tradition. Oregon State orange, shared with black, screams rebellious. Tennessee’s ubiquitous orange says soft.

“Like sorbet,” Radom said.

If, as he suggests, orange is truly a polarizing color, then there is at least one person who has made peace with the divide — Rick Barnes. He is in his sixth season coaching at Tennessee. Before that, he spent 17 seasons at Texas. Before that, he spent four years at Clemson.

“The fact is orange is a good color,” Barnes said. “I like it. And the one I’m wearing now is my favorite.”

His closet, though, does not run the orange spectrum of sport coats and ties, from cantaloupe to carrot to coral. He received an orange jacket at Clemson that he no longer wears. He got a burnt orange one at Texas that also sits idle. And at Tennessee, he has never had one — shrugging off a tradition of Volunteers coaches wearing orange for rivalry games. (Nor did he make like Bruce Pearl, the former Tennessee coach now at Auburn, and paint his chest orange and sit in the student section for a women’s game.)

It’s not that deep down he is weary of the color. It’s just that, Barnes said, he doesn’t like drawing attention to himself. He’d rather people keep their eyes glued to the court. In this distinctive bracket, in which Tennessee could potentially see nothing but orange until the Final Four, it may be hard to look away.

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