Picture Phil Jackson in anything less than a designer suit. Now imagine Bill Parcells dressed like Phil Jackson. Inconceivable. Or Jackson in high tops and Parcells in full pads? Ridiculous. And yet Joe Torre wears a regulation Yankees uniform. Baseball managers wear the same uniforms their players wear, football coaches wear the company picnic uniform (khakis and knit shirts with logos all over them), and basketball coaches wear their Sunday best. Why? There’s more rhyme to the reason than you might think.
Location, location, location: Where do baseball managers work? In dirt holes underground. Fans never see them, so why should they bother making themselves presentable? This argument can be extended to explain the twin evils of scratching and spitting. In the private world of the dugout, men can afford to indulge their boorishness. The rule book even mandates this principle: A manager can wear any clothes he wants—Connie Mack skippered his Athletics in a suit and tie—but he can’t visit the mound unless he’s wearing a uniform. Football coaches are more visible than managers, but with all those extra-large reserves and assistant coaches milling around the sidelines, they rarely make an impression. They wear civilian garb out of deference to the tailgating crowd. What about Tom Landry, you ask? Obviously he was a basketball coach who took a wrong turn. And then there are the generals of the hardwood. Oh—the scrutiny! Only a dozen guys on the bench, all of them sitting except you. And the crowd sits right on top of you in small arenas. The slightest trace of residual frump becomes a frightening matter of public record. (The pressure is such that the women coaches of the WNBA have followed suit and are wearing power outfits.)
Setting the tone: Basketball coaches may favor suits because they project authority. Teen-age millionaires are predictably unruly, but they might still be young enough to look up to well-dressed elders. And respect is something every basketball coach needs, because the average player can beat the hell out of the average coach. You can bet P.J. Carlisimo forwent his usual DKNY that day in practice three years ago when Latrell Sprewell choked him. You might think football coaches, with their hulking and violence-prone players, would strive for the same respect, but the stakes are just too high, and they gave up long ago. Football players can kill easily, and if Rae Carruth is any indication, they do, so the suit has become a gesture of hopeless defiance. Baseball managers, meanwhile, have nothing to worry about, because their players are the weakest athletes around. Although the availability of bats complicates matters somewhat, your garden-variety manager can hold a middle infielder at bay until help arrives.
Demographics: The less stylish sports, football and baseball, are more or less for rednecks. Think Bear Bryant and his porkpie hat or Roy Hobbs from The Natural. (By my count, there are three baseball Hall of Famers named “Rube.”) But basketball is an urban game if ever there was one. You learn on the playground, not in the cornfield, and to be a decent basketball coach you’ve got to have street cred. And the easiest way to get it is by showing off your sartorial sensibility. (Note that notorious slob Bobby Knight coaches Indiana farm boys, the only hicks who’ve got game.)
Traditions die hard, but they’re born just as stubborn. If Jim Mutrie had had his way in the 1880s, the great American pastime would have a very different look. Mutrie helped found the New York Giants baseball team in 1883 and wore a top hat and tails in the dugout. But when his team slumped in 1891, he was fired, and the Giants dynasty rose with the hiring of fierce establishmentarian John McGraw, a conventional dresser if ever there was one.