Coaching attire makes no fashion sense

How times have changed when it comes to the attire of NFL coaches. That's Vince Lombardi of the Packers in 1967in tie, overcoat, and fedora. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, on the other hand, sported Nike in a game last month. As coaches' salaries have increased, their standard of sideline dress has declined.
How times have changed when it comes to the attire of NFL coaches. That's Vince Lombardi of the Packers in 1967in tie, overcoat, and fedora. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, on the other hand, sported Nike in a game last month. As coaches' salaries have increased, their standard of sideline dress has declined. (Associated Press / Photo illustration)
Posted: January 06, 2014

 Saturday night, two men who earn a combined $14.5 million annually and are charged with the fate of billion-dollar enterprises, two familiar figures at the heart of a nationwide TV broadcast, were dressed like Mark Cuban.  

In the Lincoln Financial Field cold, Eagles coach Chip Kelly and New Orleans' Sean Payton were virtually indistinguishable from the bundled-up fans, most of whom were virtually indistinguishable from your average Forman Mills shopper.  

How the NFL, a button-down league otherwise obsessed with meaningless minutia like wrist bands, end-zone dances, and fantasy football can countenance such sideline slovenliness is a mystery.

Have you seen Bill Belichik lately? Keener fashion sense is regularly on display in Boston's homeless shelters.

Through more than a century of American professional sports, we've never settled on an acceptable mode of dress for coaches and managers.

Consequently, in 2013, their style standards range from Mizrahi to Modell's.

Basketball and hockey coaches wear expensive, finely tailored suits. Football coaches dress like fans in the cheap seats. And though their only aerobic activity is filling out a lineup card, baseball managers continue to don uniforms.

The histories of these professions are filled with unique fashion choices.

Connie Mack famously managed in three-piece suits that he undoubtedly bought at a South Street discount clothier. Behind the Montreal Canadiens' bench, Toe Blake wore a fedora indoors. Kevin Loughery's and Doug Moe's NBA wardrobes in the 1970s came from Studio 54.

At one point, the head coaches of Texas' two NFL teams were polar opposites - Dallas' Tom Landry liked sports coats, ties, and felt hats, while Houston's Bum Phillips preferred jeans, Stetsons, and cowboy boots.

So why don't all managers and coaches wear suits?

It's a question that perhaps only those who understand the NBA's salary cap or Charlie Manuel's syntax can answer.

The only sport with an official dress code for these team leaders is the one in which they dress the worst - football.

And, not surprising for the evermore rapacious NFL, money is at the heart of this story, too.

Once football coaches dressed like adults. Many, like Landry, Mike Ditka, and Hank Stram, were resplendent on Sundays. Those whose tastes weren't so formal, men like Tom Flores and Chuck Noll, typically wore well-fitting, matching sweaters and shirts.

Even in 1967's Ice Bowl, when the windchill in Green Bay hit minus-50, Packers coach Vince Lombardi had on a suit and tie, his famous camel-hair overcoat, and a stylish fur cap.

Their orderly and stylish fashion sense meshed with the image of the NFL, a league that liked to exhibit a military precision.

Then, in 2002 the NFL signed a lucrative, 10-year merchandising deal with Reebok. Coaches were forced to wear that company's casual gear for all football-related activities. (The deal was renewed last year with Nike.)

The result hasn't been the neat conformity that was envisioned. Instead, we've gotten Belichik's cutoff sweatshirts and Andy Reid's wrinkled jogging suits.

When Mike Nolan and Jack Del Rio staged brief protests, coaching in suits, the NFL decided that Reebok's casual suits were acceptable for home games. But in the end, dollars and dishevelment won out.

So let's sum up the style situation in the NFL, where, by the way, a quarter of the coaches earn more than $6 million a year:

As coaches' salaries increase, their standard of dress declines.

In baseball, meanwhile, traditions are sacrosanct. So the odds that we'll soon see Mike Scioscia in Armani are long.

Baseball does have a rule that addresses the issue. It requires anyone on the field during games to be in uniform. But since managers appear only when time is out, it's not applicable to them.

Asked by CNN recently why managers persist in wearing uniforms anyway, Paul Lukas, who blogs on the subject of sports attire, offered this cogent assessment:

"I don't want to say that it's just one of those things," Lukas said, "but it's just one of those things."

In other words, it's silly and anachronistic but, hey, so is the seventh-inning stretch.

There are, though, in the national pastime, slight opportunities for managerial self-expression.

When he managed the Phillies, for example, Jim Fregosi preferred a team jacket or pullover to the standard uniform top.

Though I covered those teams, I never asked him about his fashion statement, not even when I implied in print that he looked fat and we had another of our semi-regular closed-door chats.

Perhaps Fregosi found the loose-fitting clothing more comfortable. Or maybe it was merely baseball superstition. More likely, given that his nickname was "Frego the Ego," it was because the jacket and pullover better concealed his paunch.

As sports become more corporate, more global, shouldn't the attire of its front men do the same?

If I'm CBS and I've paid a couple of billion for the rights to NFL football, I'm not going to be pleased when Belichik shows up to work looking as if he's ready to shovel the parking lot.

Belichik, interestingly enough, is the son of a former Naval Academy assistant. He grew up around that program, which emphasized more than any other the importance of appearance.

Wesley Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic who now writes for the long-form journalism website Grantland, recently wrote about the relationship between success and style.

"If a coach sets the tone for a team, the clothes are a barometer of leadership," he wrote. "Would a coach in a suit be more successful than one in a dingy-looking hoodie? Is that a distinction that would amount to anything during a game? Should a football coach really be dressed like the world's soccer coaches, like a businessman at a late dinner? I don't know. He just shouldn't be dressed like a slob."

But things aren't likely to change.

As even the best-dressed sports fans must admit, it's all about wins and losses.

Not ties.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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