No suits, no tie — no problem

The pandemic has led to college basketball coaches relaxing their dress code, a decision that is a relief for some and a break in tradition for others

First-year Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes has welcomed the relaxed dress code for coaches during the pandemic. (Robert Franklin / AP Photo)

Back in 2018, when he was still at East Tennessee State, Steve Forbes was selected by fan vote as one of the 10 sexiest coaches in mid-major college basketball.

It’s an honor for which he openly campaigned on social media, not out of vanity but rather for comic relief.

One look at Forbes’ bald dome and somewhat rotund physique explains why.

Let’s just say the first-year Wake Forest coach isn’t likely to appear on the cover of GQ magazine anytime soon, which is why he may have been the happiest man on the conference call this summer when his ACC counterparts decided to switch to a more casual look on the sidelines this season in the absence of fans in the stands.

“Do I look like a person who would miss wearing suits?” Forbes said during a recent Zoom conference in which he was wearing a Deacons hoodie. “I mean, come on, man. I’ve got the Belichick look going on today. I always thought it was kind of ridiculous we had to do it.

“A baseball coach wears his uniform. A football coach is wearing this, except for maybe Tom Landry. I’m not coaching any different. I’m just more comfortable.”

There are no actual guidelines to coaching attire in college basketball, a fact most famously embodied by West Virginia’s Bob Huggins and his assortment of half-sleeve pullovers and wrinkled windbreakers.

Even the most buttoned-down of the bunch, a list that includes Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, will shed their coats and ties for a loud Hawaiian shirt or polo when leading their teams at early-season tournaments such as the Maui Invitational or Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.

Wearing suits on the sideline is simply a tradition coaches have been carrying on for decades. The vote to leave them hanging in the closet this season because of the coronavirus pandemic is the basketball equivalent to wearing pajama bottoms on a Zoom meeting with co-workers.

It’s a matter of convenience — with a practical twist since polo shirts and khakis can be washed at home rather than sending them out for others to handle at a dry cleaner.

Like Forbes, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey is a happy proponent of the more casual look.

UNC coach Roy Williams, left, and NC State coach Kevin Keatts, usually two of the best-dressed coaches in the ACC, have dressed down for games this year during the pandemic. (Robert Willett / The News & Observer via AP)

On Jan. 2, Brey — who rarely wears a tie even under normal circumstances — showed up for his team’s game at North Carolina’s Smith Center wearing shorts. But not everyone in the ACC’s coaching fraternity is as comfortable with the new relaxed fashion trend.

“Coach (Dean) Smith always said if you want to be respected like a businessman or a professional, you should dress like one,” said UNC’s Roy Williams, who has followed that advice by amassing a trademark collection of Alexander Julian-designed suits and sports coats.

“Before he passed away, I never asked him if I could change. Every game that’s counted on the record, except Maui or Nassau, I’ve worn a coat and tie. Every game. Never failed.”

Needless to say, Williams wasn’t keen on the idea of dressing down.

“I tried to figure out how to call Coach Smith and ask him what he thought,” he joked. “But I couldn’t figure that out either.”

In the end, Williams reluctantly went along with the majority. But that hasn’t stopped him from making a unique fashion statement.

The Hall of Fame coach has donned a different style of sneaker from Tar Heel legend Michael Jordan’s Nike line for every game his team has played this season.

“I didn’t do it for anything other than how loyal I wanted to be to Jordan Brand,” Williams said. “I didn’t know it was going to get any hits or whatever it is they call it, but it’s gotten an incredible amount of attention.”

Like Williams, NC State’s Kevin Keatts has a strong shoe game — highlighted by a pair of Gucci loafers with the Wolfpack logo stitched onto them.

He’s also arguably the best-dressed coach in the ACC.

But that’s not why he’s considering breaking ranks with his fellow coaches and pulling out one of his custom Peter Millar suits to wear at an upcoming game.

“Do I miss it? I don’t know that,” Keatts said. “I miss my lucky suit. I’ve got a suit that I’ve never lost in before, so I may even put that on.”

When it comes to going back to wearing suits regularly once the pandemic has passed, Keatts said he’d be comfortable either way.

“You think about all of those years that we invested in buying suits, and now we don’t wear them,” he said. “I’m not saying that we should go back to it. It is a different feeling.”

And a good feeling for at least one ACC coach.

“Some of these guys that look like GQ models, it probably doesn’t affect them as much as it does me,” Wake Forest’s Forbes said. “I’d rather have more arm room when I’m out coaching, so I’ve actually enjoyed it.”