There he was the other day, standing in front of another microphone, going on, with his usual humor, candor, and teeth, about being named the most overrated coach in the NFL by a Sporting News poll, about how it's not Mark Sanchez's fault that things aren't going well for the Jets, about the migraine-inducing prospect of playing the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field (they were clobbered again), about how things were not a disaster.
But that last one wasn't entirely true.
Whenever Rex Ryan is going on (or off) in front of the media in a baseball cap and a sweatshirt or a sweater vest over a white crew neck, it's a kind of disaster. The sweatshirt is at least a size too big. The crew neck merely accentuates the bathroom-tile gleam of his dental work. The vest? That's a case for Holmes and Watson, since even on a mildly nippy afternoon it seems like a mockery of warmth. What, one wonders, is he up to? To be reasonable about the other day, it was the middle of the week. To be more reasonable, he's not Doc Rivers. To be most reasonable, he's a coach in the modern NFL. What else would he wear?
The only reason to bring any of this up — and trust me, as the son of a coach, I have no trouble resisting the temptation — is that Rex Ryan doesn't have to look this way. This summer, Ryan told Men's Health that one consequence of having lost all of this weight is that he's had to throw out his clothes. He missed some. The vest, the crew neck, the khakis with a thousand pleats: This would have been the moment to say good-bye to all that. This would have been the opportunity to rethink how he'd like to look as a coach. But in football now, there's pretty much one way: like you don't know or care, like the only thing that matters is the game.
With Ryan, you don't quite believe that. Andy Reid is a coach who looks he just doesn't care. Reid's not as round as he once was, either, and some might speculate that diet and exercise have derailed his coaching. With Ryan, it's as if he's going for something and just doesn't know what, that he might be open to other possibilities, which is a shame given the notorious leg tattoo and those unfortunate disclosures about his openness to some of life's more libertine pursuits.
Anyway, you're now free to notice, as you are with Reid and Reid's rusty walrus mustache, that he isn't bad-looking (just trust me about that, too). He's 50 pounds away from a pre-retirement John Elway. Of course, as with baseball, dressing this way forges the impression of athletic solidarity with the players. These are clothes that bespeak a function (exercise, activity, fitness), and on some coaches that function appears to be vestigial. Losing weight, for Ryan, Reid, and Ryan's brother Rob, would seem to be an acknowledgement of that contradiction.
No one's asking for Monty Williams's wool plaids and staggering grasp of suiting as a seasonal concept. That's the NBA, where coaches continue to take pride in snazziness. The NFL is a league with different priorities. The owners sit way up in the stadiums. They could look snazzy — instead, they just look rich. It's just a lot of power ties. And that's part of the problem. Aggressively serious clothing risks making you look like Robert Kraft or Jerry Jones, like you embrace what looking like those two might signify: that you own a lot of very large people. In the NFL, coaches don't look like they own anything, especially the number of a good tailor.1
The changes in men's attitudes toward clothes in the last two decades are evident in Ryan, Reid, Mike Tomlin, the Harbaugh brothers, Sean Payton (God rest his season), and most men paid to pace sidelines: Athleticwear promotes the impression of a blue-collar masculinity of looseness and relaxation. These clothes foster the sense that American males are more comfortable with being guys than being men. In the way some grown women refer to themselves as girls and have become culturally indistinct from their daughters, so, too, have modern fathers become culturally indistinguishable with their sons.
That generational dovetailing risks ceding the aura of authority. Clothes can no longer be relied upon to tell us who runs the show. There are weeks during Sunday games where I can't see the head coach for the Gatorade squirter. We're light years removed from the era in which a coach didn't simply get dressed for game day. He got dressed up. Tom Landry wore ties, perfectly cut sport jackets, trench coats, and what we'd now laughingly call slacks. He wore fedoras. My friend Mark calls Landry's style JCPenney on parade. He's right. But JCPenney is only as bad as the man who doesn't know what to do with it. Landry knew.
The bronze statue that stands outside Cowboys Stadium enshrines Landry in those clothes posing with his arms folded and one hand gripping a playbook. It's an iconic image of masculine authority and confidence. He looks like a newsman, like a salesman, like everyman.
Until the late second half of the 20th century, no great confidence was needed to put on those clothes, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s. If you were a man, that's more or less what you wore. At the end of the '60s, great political upheaval and conflict pitted one generation against the children it produced. For a long time, no child wanted to resemble a parent. Men stopped dressing like Landry and Vince Lombardi partially because that meant dressing like their fathers. (In the case of the Ryans, it's a rejection of cultural coaching forefathers rather than their biological one. On the field, Buddy Ryan was never a paragon of style.)
Eventually, that anti-paternalism, the corporate domination of professional sports (most athleticwear is branded in some way), the influx of warmer synthetic fabrics, and the prevalence of class discomfort, particularly in a wintry, seemingly blue-collar sport like football, began to converge, making it easy for a new, relaxed dress code to flourish. Coaches were increasingly free to dress like fans.
With the unifying ubiquity of Internet culture and without the random obligation of a war draft or roiling, sweeping sociopolitical movements to put generations at odds, children who disdained their parents for reasons of politics and who were bound up in social concerns produced generations wary of their parents for reasons of vanity. They placed a premium on maintaining an air of adolescence. They didn't want to resemble their parents even once they were parents. They wanted to resemble their children. A suit doesn't make you look young, per se. Gym clothes do.
We might be more comfortable with that generational rejection, with that subsequent embrace of youth and the illusion of egalitarianism it fosters. But when no one wants to look like the grown-up, what's chipped away at is a crucial air of respect.
That Sporting News poll of the most overrated coaches included 103 players from 27 teams, and it's telling that the top three vote-getters — Ryan, Bill Belichick, and Reid — are the three most egregiously attired. The polls didn't elaborate on what "overrated" entails, and there's no obvious correlation between being overrated and underdressed. But if someone who knew nothing about football were to spend a whole game watching, say, Belichick, he might salute Patriots ownership for letting a homeless person coach the team.
Belichick is the apotheosis of head coach schlubbiness. He's made it a notorious matter of grim professional style: Those hooded sweatshirts cut off at the elbow. They're baggy enough to inspire wonder about who else is under there. When he began his coaching career, as a special-teams coach with the New York Giants in the 1980s, then as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s, Belichick was unafraid to adorn his rugged looks and strong build with brightly colored polos that fit perfectly. He even tucked them into a pair of high-waisted khakis that appeared to have been taken to the tailor. He looked casual yet like a man in charge. He also seemed to be fit then.
In a sense, some of this change is also a matter of weight and body image. Belichick is thicker now, and the trademark hoodie, which looks at least two sizes too big, seems like an attempt to compensate for his size. It is feared, loathed, and derided. But what you notice about him wearing it is his misery. He doesn't look fired up, the way Ryan does, or utterly impassive, like Reid. Belichick looks like the saddest person alive, like he's always coaching the Browns. On some Sundays, you want to hug him, but that would mean touching that hoodie, and that hoodie is too hideous to hug.
Looking at the attire of Belichick, Ryan, and their peers, it's also hard not to think about the cocky daring of Mike Ditka, who coached in suits and a tie and chic sunglasses. He epitomized 1980s masculinity. He wore a trimmed mustache and kept his hair in a swept-back crew cut that made him look a brunette bald eagle. He was the coach who dressed like a detective. Sometimes he wore a Bears sweater or sweater vest beneath his blazer. That appeared to be his only concession to sport. It also gave him a squarely tacky flourish of fun.
If a coach sets the tone for a team, the clothes are a barometer of leadership. 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.