Is there a meaning to Bill Belichick's fashion turn?

ESPN Illustration

HE LOOKED HANDSOME. He was behind the podium at Gillette Stadium, answering questions about a letter he wrote to the president-elect of the United States. This was back in November, the day after the election. It was a Wednesday, the most serious football day of the week, the day when the game plans are installed, the day when he sets the tone, the day that reporters know he is the most buttoned-up -- the day that, for years, he often wore his famous gray hoodie with the severed sleeves.

On this day, though, he was wearing a nice dress shirt, pressed and cut, striped aqua and purple, one button undone. Business casual, in other words. He cleaned up well. He has given thousands of news conferences in his career. He has explained Super Bowl wins and Super Bowl losses, accolades and scandals, the precious life of his grandchild and the horrific death of a man at the hands of one of his former players. But this news conference was exceptional -- not because he felt forced to explain a letter he wrote to Donald Trump, though that's what made the headlines. It was exceptional because for a man whose essence is rooted in not giving a hell about how he looks, Bill Belichick not only now did ... but he has for quite some time, even at the expense of his signature piece of clothing.

IT HAS BEEN one of the most overlooked transformations in the NFL over the past few years: Belichick wears nice dress shirts to news conferences more often than any other coach. You always hear about how head coaches are CEOs. Well, Belichick, of all people, is the only one who actually dresses the part. What has made all of this even more remarkable is that as he has tightened up his look, he has drastically scaled back his deployment of his famous gray, serrated hoodie. Yes, he wore a blue hoodie three times this year, but not once did he deploy the iconic gray one with the hacked-off sleeves. In fact, he hasn't worn that particular hoodie since January 2013. (The gray one did make an appearance during one game this season against the Jets, but the sleeves were still intact.) You can place a prop bet on which hoodie Belichick will wear on Sunday, but you might do well to bet none.

And so, a question: What causes someone who specializes in cutting the drag by eliminating his clothing choices suddenly add drag at age 64?

Belichick always insisted that he wore hoodies because they were comfortable. But that look -- standing on a sideline vaguely and proudly disheveled and emperor-like -- became a central tenet to his professional identity. Like what the black turtleneck did to Steve Jobs and what the gray tee does to Mark Zuckerberg, the hoodie spoke for Belichick in a way that he couldn't speak for himself. It prompted David Letterman to call him a "Sherpa on the sideline." Biographer David Halberstam used it to show how Belichick consciously avoided "the trappings of celebrity," similar to how Eddie Vedder lived in a self-imposed depraved state during the recording of "Vs." Columnist Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! once reported that Belichick wore the hoodie out of irritation with the NFL's $250 million deal with Reebok, which mandated that coaches wear its apparel. A man who detests distractions became a schlubby protest on the sideline, making the sloppiest apparel item available even sloppier with ragged sleeves.

But more than anything, the hoodie served as a reminder that Bill Belichick wanted to be defined as a coach. Always a coach. Only a coach. In the two-hour NFL Network documentary about Belichick during the 2009 season, he is hardly shown engaging in activities outside of football -- most notably, on a boat during the summer and at a Halloween party dressed as a pirate -- and it ends with him driving to work on a dark January morning after a playoff loss, lamenting about all of the life activities he misses due to his chosen profession as he also explains that he has a hard time imagining himself doing anything else. He then walks into the office with no game to prepare for, as much out of duty as out of habit, a train on the tracks.

Belichick is 32-9 in his classic gray cutoff hoodie, according to a chart complied by Mike Dussault of PatsPropaganda.com. Belichick wore it during his third Super Bowl win, with his late father on the sideline. He wore it during his second Super Bowl loss to the Giants. It became what the houndstooth hat was to Paul "Bear" Bryant: a signature piece, worth selling and even worth emulating -- most blatantly by Josh McDaniels when he coached the Broncos. Belichick would shorten the sleeves himself, literally cutting the drag. "Hoodie sleeves are annoying and restrict mobility, and he has short arms anyway, so one day he just said, 'F--- this,' and chopped them up," a former Patriots assistant said. According to friends, Belichick donated used hoodies to charity. But this year, he didn't wear any kind of hoodie -- blue or gray, sleeved or not -- in a game until Nov. 27 against the Jets. Meanwhile, it became routine for him to appear for weekday and even postgame news conferences looking like he had raided Brooks Brothers (or at least a Brooks Brothers outlet).

During a season in which Belichick forever assaulted the myth that he needs Tom Brady to win, he also assaulted the myth of himself.

HE STILL INDULGES his inner slob, of course. He still wears pullovers. He still wears those Patriots-branded mock turtlenecks. He still wears sweatshirts with the sleeves awkwardly cut at the biceps, showing off his guns, looking a little like his pal Jon Bon Jovi during the New Jersey tour. Inside the Patriots' building, Belichick was never known for his hoodies. He was known for his socks.

Yes, socks.

There was a moment during game-planning meetings that staffers always dreaded, according to those who have worked with Belichick. It was after practice, early evening, when the day began in earnest for the coaches. Belichick and his staff would review practice. He'd spend two hours that seemed like 12 on defense and special teams. He'd call a five-minute break, during which all the coaches would hustle to the cafeteria, only to see there wasn't much food left. After they reconvened for film, Belichick would notice that, say, a receiver messed up a read.

"Why the f--- doesn't he know what to do? Didn't anyone tell him?" he'd say.

The coaches replied that the receiver was told what to do and that they'd reiterate it the next day, hoping Belichick wouldn't belabor the point. But Belichick always belabors. That's his genius. He'd rub his face and say, "Have we ever coached a down of football?"

The coaches would be moderately horrified at what sometimes happened next: Belichick would remove his sneakers and put his feet on the table. The room was hot. His feet smelled. There was neither an end nor an escape in sight. There was essentially no daylight between the guy in those meetings and the guy we saw on the sideline -- until lately. It was obvious on Monday at Super Bowl Opening Night, which is another term for media day. Belichick was the only Patriot behind a podium who not only wore a nice shirt, not only wore a tie, but also wore a suit. He smiled a lot. He looked dignified. It became news, his fashion statement more interesting than his football statements. "Where's the hoodie?" someone asked.

"I'll have one by the end of the week," he said. "So maybe you'll recognize me."

IT'S HIS GIRLFRIEND, people suspect.

On the surface, that's the only rationale that makes sense. Belichick didn't change clothes out of superstition; he is proudly indifferent to superstition. A few close to him theorize he might have gotten angry that the hoodie became marketed and sold, and so he switched up his wardrobe like a game plan, resolute in avoiding tendencies. But theory fails to account for the fact that his charity foundation sells gray hoodies. It's how he chooses to sell himself.

Unlike some coaches who created their own iconic styles, Belichick never wore the hoodie out of insecurity. Bear Bryant, for instance, was always nervous about his fashion sense. According to biographer Allen Barra, Bear so envied the handsome and dapper Bud Wilkinson that before the 1963 Orange Bowl against Wilkinson's Oklahoma Sooners, Bear asked his wife, Mary Harmon, to look at pictures of Bud and buy him some clothes to match. She bought him a nice three-piece suit. Sadly, neither of them took into account the South Florida heat. Bud arrived for the game in short sleeves. Bear wore the suit and almost fainted. (Alabama won anyway, 17-0.)

When Bear discovered his famous houndstooth hat after Jets owner Sonny Werblin gave it to him after the team signed Joe Namath, Bear discovered himself -- or, more specifically, what he wanted to be. Belichick's hoodie also seemed to be a vessel for self-actualization. He was always a strange combination of precocious and a late-bloomer, a coach who got his first head job as a hot, young assistant before waiting five years for a second chance. More than anyone, Belichick internalized the thin line between winning and losing. It was deeply personal, as if his own self-worth were at stake. After Belichick became the first coach to win three Super Bowls in four years, he sought to tamp down the "genius" talk. The hoodie helped. He might have pulled some ninja moves on a football field -- remember when he took an intentional safety against the Broncos in 2003? -- but he would damn sure not look highfalutin in doing so.

"In a year in which Belichick forever assaulted the myth that he needs Tom Brady to win, he also assaulted the myth of himself."

So what changed? Was it his longtime girlfriend, Linda Holliday? Belichick is often dolled up when he's photographed with her, but he doesn't look pretentious. He looks happy. The two of them pop up in the Boston Herald's Inside Track gossip column, usually in the offseason, usually at a charity event and usually, that's the only time he smiles in front of a camera unless he's with his kids or holding the Lombardi trophy. Is it fair to assume that Holliday is the one who nudged Belichick toward allowing the world to see the version of him that she sees?

"No," a longtime friend said. "He is his own stylist."

Maybe the clearest explanation arrived not when Belichick was wearing a nice shirt but when he was wearing a gray sweatshirt before the 49ers game in November. It wasn't a hoodie. In fact, it was unlike anything he had ever worn before. Belichick walked onto the field in a sweatshirt with "VI Rings" embroidered on it -- a not-so-subtle reference to his six Super Bowl wins as a coach.

Now, that was a fashion statement -- before a game, no less. It was pure bravado, and it flew in the face of everything he has stood for. Assistant coaches used to notice how bereft the Patriots' office was of any sign of accomplishment. "I think you'd expect something like a Donald Trump office, with all kinds of things advertising and promoting the ego of the coach," former Patriots assistant coach Dean Pees once said. "But not here. ... That's all Bill. He doesn't want the trappings of the past, doesn't need them. He knows they lead to complacency. He does not allow complacency."

Belichick has embraced the trappings. The inevitability of time is a powerful motivator. He has been coaching professional football for 42 years. He has been singular in his pursuit of greatness -- at a cost. He has missed many of his kids' special moments. He has endured fallouts with players and coaches and opponents. He presided over a team that twice in eight years has been levied with historic penalties for cheating. Our image of him is complicated, but it continues to evolve. That's why the "VI Rings" sweatshirt was a tiny glimpse into his mind. The image he wanted us to have isn't the one we thought we knew, and he didn't care.

Until, of course, he put on his game clothes.

ON MONDAY MORNING, the Patriots held a rally before flying to Houston. It was extra-charged because of Deflategate, and so it felt a little like a political rally -- rage against an institution. Belichick took the microphone to a loud and sustained applause. He was dressed in a gray suit with a purple shirt and striped tie, the best-dressed of the group of Patriots on stage. It was the same outfit he wore to his news conference that night. He is often tight during the regular season but loose during Super Bowl week, aware of his place in history.

Nobody knows how much longer Belichick will coach. Well, that's not totally true. People close to him know. Or have a vague notion. The end isn't this year or next, but it's coming, maybe when his two sons, Steve and Brian, who work with the Patriots as the safeties coach and as a scouting assistant, respectively, are firmly established in their NFL careers. That idea of him not coaching, an idea that even he has struggled with, brings a palpable sadness to those who spend a lot of time with him. They worry for his happiness without the weekly rhythm that has attended his entire adult life. He has been as close to a one-man operation as a coach can be in the salary-cap era, winning regardless of staff and roster. But the idea of him truly alone, without a team for the first time -- few can say what that looks like. He wants to remember these moments during Super Bowls and to be remembered by them.

At the rally, the crowd roared. "Thank you," Belichick said. "Thank you."

He tried to talk, but the noise wouldn't let up. He finally spoke over the crowd, and he droned on for a few moments about being "excited for the opportunity" and how the team has "worked extremely hard" and how they "will have to be at our best." He gave the crowd a thumbs-up. He faded into the background but stood out as the only one on stage in a tie, still looking for all the world like a coach.