Today's head coaches eschew style

Jim Harbaugh opts for "no style" with his usual khakis and black shirt, fashion guru Will Welch says. Jeff Gross/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- Jim Harbaugh, despite rumors of his imminent departure from San Francisco, remains a terrific football coach.

In nearly four seasons, he's led the 49ers to a record of 43-17-1 -- and three consecutive NFC Championship Games. His sideline apparel, however, is, well ...

"When it comes to style, I don't think Coach Harbaugh has any," observed San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis, perhaps understating the case.

Added linebacker Patrick Willis, "He's pretty much the same guy every day. Same top, same bottom, and I think very recently he switched up his shoes."

John Harbaugh, whose Ravens beat Jim's 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, defended his brother's mundane wardrobe choices.

"You guys don't like the Walmart khakis and the fleece?" he asked. "I mean, what's wrong with that?"

Just about everything, if you believe Gentlemen's Quarterly Senior Style Editor Will Welch, who isn't a big fan of what has become, for the most part, NFL head coaches' dress-down Sunday sideline look.

"Harbaugh is famous for the pleated khakis and the black top," Welch said in his New York office earlier this season. "His style ... is no style. If you want to be an iconic coach -- if you want history to be kind to you -- having a little bit of style goes a long way.

"[Coaches] don't want to be the guy wearing $6,000 suits, but at the same time, you can get an affordable pair of khakis without the giant pleats in them."

Welch, looking very much the fashion plate in a British-cut navy suit, thin tie and cool frames, is only in his mid-30s, but has a keen sense of football history. He loves the sartorial splendor of those bygone days when Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry sported proper hats, and suit and tie were mandatory.

"Those are the guys I want leading my troops," Welch said. "Whereas a guy in trouser pants and a sweatshirt? To me, that's not as inspiring. What we're seeing is this ultra-casual, borderline sloppy. Maybe we're kind bottoming out."

Last Sunday's game between the Patriots and Jets was a case in point. It featured two head coaches who, in their own way, have gone out of their way to make a sideline statement. New England's Bill Belichick's dour but devoted approach to the game is perfectly reflected by his trademark gray hoodie.

"If style is self-expression," Welch explained, "what he is saying is, 'I don't care about a jacket and tie. I'm here to beat you to a pulp.'"

For nine seasons running, including four years as the Ravens' defensive coordinator, New York's Rex Ryan wore a black sweater vest -- until the Jets lost four straight games earlier this year.

"Look, it's not going well," Ryan explained in mid-October. "I'm searching for answers."

Opting for a classic black polo shirt with a Jets logo, Ryan presided over a 31-17 loss to the Denver Broncos. Since then, the vest has made a dubious reappearance, in games against the Patriots, Bills and Vikings -- all losses, for whatever that's worth.

Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine, who spent four years as Ryan's defensive coordinator with the Jets, tells this story: "He wanted to loosen the players up before a game in the locker room. So he put the vest on with nothing else underneath it, and started walking around the locker room, trying to get guys fired up. And you should have seen the mortified look on some of the guys' faces. Others, they just burst out laughing. He wouldn't dare to ever walk out of the tunnel like that."

Paul Lukas, who writes the Uni Watch column for ESPN.com, said that like many offensive plays in today's game, coaches' apparel is largely scripted. To wit, coaches have been mandated to wear team-issued attire since 1993.

"The days when a coach could wear what he wanted are over," Lukas said. "On coordinated weeks, everyone wears the same template. Coaches are basically mannequins to sell this stuff."

Since 2010, New Era has been the official hat supplier to coaches, while Nike is responsible for everything else.

"Whatever they hang in my locker," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, "I'll wear. When you get to the stadium on game day, there's a lot of things that go through your mind, and that's probably one of the least significant, to be honest with you."

Some coaches do request modifications. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy puts his colored markers in a special loop sewn into his Packers hat. Early on, the 49ers' equipment staff used to sew 49ers logos on Jim Harbaugh's Stanford pullovers. Pettine usually opts for the standard uniform, golf shirt and khakis, but it sounds like he longs for the style of the 1960s.

"I was always a fan of the Tom Landry look," Pettine said. "I just always thought that was, that was so classy."

The advent of coaching headsets made formal headgear a difficult proposition; Landry was one of the last holdouts. When he died in 2000, the Dallas Cowboys honored him the following season with a memorial patch, a small fedora. Sid Gillman, the San Diego Chargers' coach from 1960 to '69, famously wore a bow tie. The Kansas City Chiefs' Hank Stram donned a Chiefs blazer and Chiefs tie in Super Bowl IV.

Today's casual approach can be traced directly to one man: Weeb Ewbank. As the head coach of the New York Jets from 1963 to '73, he began wearing a baseball cap with a Jets logo -- along with coat and tie. Soon, coaches like John Madden were favoring that look, with white socks, cleats and a jacket -- but no tie.

In the mid-1980s, Bears coach Mike Ditka signed a major endorsement deal with the Cliff Engle sweater company -- and sales skyrocketed. This helped lead to an apparel deal for the NFL Coaches Club in the early 1990s, when five apparel companies (for a fee) agreed to provide head coaches with sideline gear.

In 2007, the 49ers' Mike Nolan and the Jaguars' Jack Del Rio sought and received permission to wear throwback suit-and-tie outfits. But that retro trend never caught on.

Now, we are left with a lot of sweat suits -- and some dubiously coordinated outfits. In Philadelphia, Andy Reid -- a man of substance -- often wore the slimming color of black. Now in Kansas City, we're seeing red.

"There's no hiding him in that Chiefs red," Lukas said. "He might be visible from space."

And while Seattle's Pete Carroll and Pittsburgh's Tomlin usually manage to look sharp, there is one undeniable exception in this copycat league: the Cardinals' Bruce Arians.

"Oh, I'm just going to say it right now," GQ's Welch said. "Bruce is the most stylish coach in the NFL. He wears a Kangol-style red or black driving cap, old-school black plastic frames. That's swag."

His players agree. "B.A. -- he's got so much swag," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "He's the most swag coach in the league."

"He's got a broad fashion sense," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "He definitely proves that each and every Sunday."

Now, if only the rest of the NFL's coaches would follow. Welch sees that day coming.

"A lot of these coaches played in the NFL themselves, and today's players -- who like to dress well after games -- eventually will be coaching," Welch said. "A guy that wants to put on a double-breasted suit and go to a press conference, maybe he'll be bringing some of that attitude.

"Guys like Bruce Arians start coming in and say, 'I've got a little swagger, I'm a leader and I want to be iconic like Vince Lombardi.' Maybe then we'll start to see coaches with genuine style coming back."