ANN ARBOR — James Ross III insists he won’t be fazed by the prospect of going through his pregame routine inside of a rosy locker room.
Hayden Fry might call Ross a liar. Ignorance wasn’t the intention of the legendary Iowa football coach when he decided nearly 30 years ago to paint the walls of the visitor’s dressing room at Kinnick Stadium an unlikely color. Mind games were.
When the Michigan football team sets foot in the visitor’s locker room Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Ross and the Wolverines (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) will be greeted by all of the locker room staples in various shades of pink. UM hasn’t won at Iowa since 2005.
“I heard about the so-called pink locker rooms,” said Ross, a sophomore linebacker who will make his first visit to Kinnick Stadium. “That’s stuff we’re not worried about. I felt it was irrelevant. We’re not worried about that.”
While Ross shrugged off any thought of gamesmanship, Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan complimented Iowa’s digs.
“Its soothing, and its nice,” said Lewan. “It keeps it mellow. It’s like a light pink, it’s not like a dark pink, or anything like that. Every away team or away locker room you go to has it’s little quirks. Michigan State has a little smiley face when you walk down to it, and Iowa has pink locker rooms.”
Iowa, he said, has its other charms — beginning with a less-than-hospitable crowd.
“They definitely let you know about being in Iowa City,” Lewan said, tongue-in-cheek. “They’re pretty educated. They know my name, they know my parents’ names, they know my brothers name. It’s always nice to get a little chirp here or there from the fans. Honestly, I enjoy it. It’s fun to be yelled at, I guess.”
Fry, Iowa’s legendary coach, holds a degree in psychology from Baylor and believed pink was a pacifying color. It’s a color linked more towards beauty queens and homecoming-dance corsages than towards football players. Think about it: how many major college athletic programs incorporate shades called carnation, cerise or mauve into their uniform color schemes?
"I have capitalized on that just from a psychological standpoint," Fry told the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette in 1989. "There's not anything wrong with the color of the walls whatsoever. It's just completely amazing and mind-boggling that any coach or player would even notice the color of the wall.”
Fry also told the Gazette that, yes, he was the one who began the tradition of painting the visitors locker room pink — everything from the urinals to pink towels, even pink tile flooring in the showers. To build a competitive advantage, he incorporated various rosy shades into the space.
“ If they want to get more concerned about the color of a dressing room than the ballgame they’re about to play, that gives us an advantage,” Fry said.
The locker room has even become a target. In April, a former Iowa professor and the founder of Gender Justice claimed that the locker rooms were degrading.
“I think every institution that is using pink or gender as a shaming joke reinforce that idea across the entire culture, and that is why it is so harmful,” Jill Gaulding said in April during a workshop at the Iowa Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ Youth.
Iowa governor Terry Branstad declined to get involved in the flap.
“So I’m going to go down and try to tell the football coach what color he’s going to paint the locker room?” Branstad said. “The governor should not be doing those things.”
Around the Big Ten, the changing area hasn’t come under as harsh of criticism, but one legendary Big Ten coach despised it.
Bo Schembechler ordered his equipment staff to cover the locker rooms. Don’t expect Michigan coach Brady Hoke to do the same.
“It’s like playing at altitude,” Hoke said. “The more you make of it, the more it gets in your mind.”
Lewan, Michigan’s left tackle, makes an obvious point about Saturday’s game at Kinnick Stadium: clearly, it will not be played inside a locker room.
“But if it was,” Lewan said, “it’d be a very calm, and soothing game.”