Sportstorialist: What the NFL’s Leaders Wore on Picture Day

Look, I wasn’t there. But I’ve seen the photograph, and that’s probably enough. It’s enough to deduce that these class photos are unfair and should not be used as a springboard for a discussion about anything more profound than, say, the state of the class photo. Sometimes you get a group of colleagues together for a picture and wind up with the cover of Vanity Fair’s Hollywood Issue. (Sex! Pizzazz! Teeth!) Sometimes you wind up with what happened earlier this week, when the NFL invited its head coaches to Orlando for an annual summit and took a commemorative photo.

Again, these things are unfair.

Someone’s going to get caught looking skeptical — at least if you’re the Colts’ Chuck Pagano, that seems to be the case. Someone’s going to be caught looking distracted (the Texans’ Bill O’Brien). And someone’s going to look like he just arrived from a killing spree and is currently hearing sirens. That would be Jim Harbaugh, who stands at the rear in a baggy 49ers sweatshirt.

It’s true that Harbaugh often looks like a homicidal maniac, and that, if there’s anything “fair” about this type of photo, it’s that it seems to capture something essential about the persona of each subject. Even the face of the Buccaneers’ Lovie Smith makes you feel as if you’ve just spilled red wine on his wife and he finds that the teeny-tiniest bit amusing. Meanwhile, the Jets’ Rex Ryan really does believe his most flattering attribute is his 100-watt dental work, while O’Brien appears to be parodying his attraction to near-military solemnity. And the Saints’ Sean Payton, who remains a perversely pubescent-looking 50, stares into the camera with a familiar look of party, poise, and porn.

This is all accurate, and yet it’s unfortunate that Harbaugh was captured looking so extremely like his public self. His brother John, who coaches the Ravens, is seated down in the front row. John looks sane, handsome, and trim in a polo shirt, sand-colored pants, and loafers. The split between their public personalities feels biblical — if that part of the Bible had been written by Jonathan Franzen.

I look at an image like this and try to find a silver lining. If there is one, it’s made of golf shirts. Nine of the 31 pictured coaches chose what’s best described as golfwear: polo shirt, tucked (one hopes) into khakis. Nine wore either a suit or blazer and slacks. Mike Zimmer wore a short-sleeve Vikings warm-up over what appeared to be a purple polo shirt with boot-cut jeans and loafers. There’s no category for this combination of clothes. The wide leg of the jeans is wrong for the loafers (though his are far from the worst you can find), but some men think a more tapered leg is either “hipster” or “gay.” Zimmer is only man visible in this genre of getup, but he’s not alone. You’ve seen this look before, and sometimes it’s next to your table at Tony Roma’s.

Elsewhere, four men opted for long-sleeve dress shirts, and the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis, seated down front, went for an untucked powder-blue guayabera-esque shirt with loafers and a pair of wide-leg khakis. Standing in the center back was Ron Rivera in a less tropical variation (there’s a Panthers logo on the chest, and the pants have pleats). The Browns’ brand-new coach, Mike Pettine, is still dressing like the defensive coordinator that, until very recently, he was. But you can’t fault anyone for anything. Some of the journalists who attended the summit remarked that the atmosphere was relaxed, and so were many of the coaches. They dressed for comfort. Bruce Arians wore a busy blue check shirt and his usual Cardinals-red newsboy cap. Under these circumstances, that counts as something.

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We’re past the point of hoping for electrifying style statements in professional coaching. It’s gone. You just hope the clothes fit and flatter. You hope for Today’s Man, and even that might be too much. I fear that a lot of guys look at Payton, who wore a smart, deep blue suit, dark socks, brownish–ox blood shoes, and a light-colored dress shirt, and think he overdid it; but a few of them will look at the expensive-looking Hawaiian shirt on the Chiefs’ Andy Reid and think, Man, he seems so free.

No one wore a tie — or at least no one was photographed in one. That would really be overdoing it. I’ve written before about the cultural class hierarchy inside American sports. I don’t think coaches want to look like owners. They want to dress somewhere between the players and the fans. It’s understandable. Working for the Patriots’ Bob Kraft would certainly make me dress like a homeless boxing trainer during games, because Bob Kraft dresses as if he owns everything. He dresses for power, for maximality. The modern coach projects a contrasting relatable averageness — it’s how you temper the politics of the power dynamic. Amazingly, the homeless guy, Bill Belichick, was in Orlando but didn’t make the photo. He should have been subpoenaed.

These are men largely in their late forties and early fifties. (The Giants’ Tom Coughlin is 67, and the Raiders’ Dennis Allen is 41.) Mike McCarthy, of the Packers, is also 50, and looks half Payton’s age. In any case, youth appears to have come naturally to many of these men, and you can’t blame them for trying to dress as young as they presumably feel. But when you’re looking at the class photo, I thought, as I often do, about the women with whom many of these coaches share their lives. I thought, particularly, about Sarah Harbaugh.

Sarah Harbaugh is Jim’s wife. She has complained to Bay Area sports radio that she hates her husband’s ill-fitting pants so much that she has put them in the garbage. “I’ve asked him, ‘Please, pleats are gone. Wear the flat front.’ He has a flattering body.” This means they aren’t even suitable for charity or Belichick. Her rant was funny, but there was very little comedy in her frustration. “I threw them out and when he went to the combine, he found a Walmart. They were $8. Eight dollars!”

We laughed when news of her comments surfaced in January. Not much later, the menswear company Bonobos offered Jim 10 pairs of new pants and a $10,000 charitable donation. But it’s Mrs. Harbaugh who breaks your heart, since her exasperation is that of women with far less money to spend on their husbands’ wardrobes. Also — and this isn’t insignificant — she lives in the Bay Area, where even tech nerds know how to dress. You don’t want the world to look at your man and think, She lets him leave the house like that?! You’re in a couple, and you want to convey to people that, as a couple, you make sense. And many Sundays, setting aside his coaching acumen, Jim doesn’t make sense.

This class photo should be giving the Sarah Harbaughs of the world some ideas. Their concern is real and timeless. (Jim’s expression in that picture alone leaves Sarah holding the bag yet again.) “Wear the flat front” isn’t just a call-in complaint. Under the circumstances, it’s the seed of a political campaign.

Filed Under: NFL, Sportstorialist

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris