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Thursday, October 7, 2004
Updated: August 19, 5:11 PM ET
Clothes make the coach

By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

Four seasons ago, the Dallas Cowboys honored Tom Landry, who had died during the off-season, by wearing a jersey patch depicting the coach's signature fedora. It was a beautifully simple gesture, and earned bonus Uni Watch points for being an illustration of clothing worn on clothing.

It's safe to say that no current NFL coaches will ever be saluted in this manner, because today's coaching attire favors standardization over personal style. That's been the case since around 1990, when the league mandated that all sideline personnel between the 30-yard-lines, from the head coach to the waterboy, must wear officially licensed NFL sportswear.

Dennis Kayser, the NFL's senior director of on-field operations, says the impetus for the changeover came in the late 1980s, when several head coaches, most notably Mike Ditka, began wearing team-branded sweaters on the sidelines.

"Fans started asking how they could buy those sweaters, and we realized we could probably develop a business out of this," he explains. "At that point, you were seeing an increased level of sophistication in the NFL's TV presentation, and it made sense to increase the sophistication of the sideline apparel as well."

To understand how we got to the point where this and this could qualify as "sophistication," we need to look back to pro football's early days. Coaches back then routinely wore suits and ties, in part because many of them, like George Halas and Paul Brown, were also team owners. They viewed themselves as business executives, and dressed accordingly.

But the liberalized menswear fashions of the 1970s brought things like polyester slacks, eye-popping sportsjacket patterns, and wide-lapelled open collars to NFL sidelines. Landry's fedora seems quaint compared to some other coaches' visual trademarks during this period, such as John Madden's dangling stadium access pass and Bum Phillips's cattle rancher getup. By the time Landry was fired in 1989, he and his protégé Dan Reeves were the last of the jacket-and-tie holdouts, and NFL coaches had become virtually synonymous with bad clothing.

Today's coaching attire is generally an improvement over that era, but you've still gotta wonder about some of the gratuitous stripes (which look particularly comical on older coaches) and garish color combinations. Who dresses these guys, anyway?

Bill Parcells
Bill Parcells models his frown after the stripe on his shirt.
The designs start with the league's clothing licensee, which is currently Reebok. Each year, the company creates a basic clothing template that can be adapted for each team's colors and logos -- nine standard polo shirt designs, say, plus two windbreakers, three fleece pullovers, two parkas, a rain slicker, and so on.

"Then the teams can pick and choose what they want to wear," says Kayser. "Usually, the head coach will lay out an assortment, in conjunction with the equipment manager, a few days before game day. If the players are wearing the white jerseys, the coaches often prefer to wear a dark polo, so they'll stand out from the players. And sometimes, the offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators may wear a third color, so they stand out as they relay signals to the players on the field."

And if you see coaches all around the league wearing the same shirt or jacket on a given Sunday, it's probably not a coincidence. "There are some coordinated promotions," says Kayser. "A memo goes out to the equipment managers: 'Such-and-such week we want to see such-and-such jacket.' Occasionally, you'll have a coach who doesn't want to get on board because he's won a few games in his lucky jacket, or whatever; but that's fine -- as long as we get most of the sidelines in a particular style."

The biggest problem with using coaches to model your product, of course, is that some coaches are, shall we say, not exactly ideal sportswear models, a topic Kayser tries to address diplomatically. "We have products for coaches of all sizes and shapes, and we certainly don't encourage any horizontal stripes on polos," he says. "The coach looks in the mirror, too. And a lot of times, they get significant help from their wives."

Hmmm, maybe that explains why Bill Parcells, who's divorced, so often looks like a cross between Humpty Dumpty and a vagrant. Uni Watch will say this much for the Tuna: Whatever character flaws he's been accused of over the years -- hard-headedness, insensitivity, megalomania -- he definitely isn't vain. Fact is, he'd be a perfect project for the "Queer Eye" crew, except he'd probably refer to them all as "she."

Parcells notwithstanding, can a coach really generate apparel sales? Kayser says yes, citing the case of Joe Gibbs, who's been wearing a black cap this season -- a departure from the maroon cap he wore during his first coaching tenure. "That black cap has been available before, but now that he's wearing it, it's sold very, very well."

Mike Tice
It was either a shirt, tie and vest or looking like Grimace.
Meanwhile, it turns out that the old businessman's look isn't quite extinct, after all. Vikings coach Mike Tice wore a shirt and tie under his officially licensed sweater vest last season, which Kayser says is fine. "Pretty much you have to wear the approved licensed apparel or else more formal attire. But nobody wants to wear the formal look anymore."

That sentiment may not be limited to football. NBA coaches have long been the sports world's biggest clothes horses, but some of them have recently taken more of a casual Friday approach. In any case, they continue to look sharper than hockey coaches, who always seem just a bit frumpy -- presumably because it's hard to develop any fashion sense when you're growing up in Saskatchewan.

The most interesting situation is in baseball, where the custom of the manager wearing a uniform is just that -- a custom, rooted in the days when most managers were also active players. But there's nothing in the rule book preventing a manager from wearing civvies, as Connie Mack did for half a century. More recently, Red Sox skipper Terry Francona has loosened things up by wearing an untucked sweatshirt, but there's no reason to think he's about to start wearing blue jeans -- unless Major League Baseball strikes a licensing deal with Levi's, that is.

Special Uni Watch Announcement: The best logos and uni designs are generally the ones that look as if they were submitted by fans taking part in a design competition, instead of by a bunch of corporate marketing execs. So with the Montreal Expos moving to Washington, Uni Watch Nation needs to make itself heard before Major League Baseball comes up with some miserable design that we'll all have to look at for the next umpteen years.

All Uni Watch readers are therefore invited to submit logo and uniform designs for the new Washington team. The home uni should be white and feature the team's name (since this hasn't yet been determined, you can go with Senators, Pollsters, Lewinskys, or whatever seems most appropriate), while the road uni should be gray and feature "Washingon" or "D.C.," or at least convey some sense of place.

Entries can be created with professional graphics software, scrawled in crayon, or anything in between. E-mail your designs, formatted as JPEG or GIF files, to uniwatch@earthlink.net. The top submissions will be spotlighted in a future column and be forwarded to the folks at Major League Baseball for their consideration.

Final decisions will be made by Uni Watch's highly exclusive judging panel (hint: rhymes with "Paul Lukas"), which makes no secrets of its biases: Striped stirrups are cool; solid-colored alternate jerseys are not; separate home and road caps are OK, as long as they both make good design sense; sleeve patches are fun; team names should end in "s"; and so on. You're free to disregard any or all of these guidelines, but one stricture will be sternly enforced: Any design that includes even a hint of purple will be immediately disqualified.

Oh, and in keeping with the way most decisions are made in Washington, creative forms of lobbying (hint: rhymes with "suitcase full of cash") will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Minutiae-obsessive Paul Lukas has never been a sportswear model, although he's fairly certain he'd look better in a polo shirt than Wade Phillips or Andy Reid. Archives of his pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got a uni-related question or comment for him? Send it here.