After all these years, Mick Cronin was going to the Final Four and something didn’t feel right.
The black pullover. The gray golf slacks. The sneakers.
It wasn’t the materials, it was the message.
Basketball had been the UCLA coach’s first love and it deserved better than this. Yeah, he agreed it made no sense to walk into a nearly empty arena in one of his bespoke Italian suits, but this was the culmination of his life’s work, the college game’s biggest stage.
“I looked down at what I was wearing and I said to myself,” Cronin recalled recently, “this is the last time I’m dressing like this when this is over.”
His clothes call resulted in his reaching back into the closet for his best threads.
The suits of finest wool. The crisp pocket squares. The shoes that scuffed instead of squeaked.
It all felt so right. It also added a sense of normalcy amid a ceaseless pandemic.
When Cronin walks into the Galen Center for the No. 12 Bruins’ game against No. 21 USC on Saturday evening, his snazzy attire will present a sartorial contrast as stark as blue and yellow versus cardinal and gold. Down the far sideline, Trojans coach Andy Enfield will model a golf pullover adorned with the school’s logo along with golf slacks and sneakers.
Taking their cue from NBA coaches who adopted the casual approach upon their return from the COVID-19 layoff and then stuck with that look, Enfield and his staff opted to get and remain comfortable.
“We decided to kind of follow the NBA lead again and stay casual,” Enfield said.
It’s the new equivalent of shirts versus skins, coaches on one end of the court dressed in suits going up against far more informal counterparts. Styles can vary on each side. For instance, you’ll rarely — if ever — see Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley with a suit jacket on. Arizona’s Tommy Lloyd and Stanford’s Jerod Haase favor polo shirts instead of pullovers.
Unlike some conferences that decided to stay casual across the board, the Pac-12 allowed each coach to decide whether to look like he’s headed for church or childcare drop-off. It’s resulted in an almost even split — six coaches have gone back to suits, five have remained casual and one has vacillated.
After canvassing his coaching brethren at Pac-12 media day, Utah’s Craig Smith decided his staff would wear suits at home and go casual on the road.
“I don’t have a strong conviction one way or the other,” Smith said, “but there’s a part of me that likes the tradition of going to the game, wearing a suit for the game and kind of the pomp and circumstance of everything that goes with the game.”
Smith made one unpopular exception. During Coaches vs. Cancer Suits and Sneakers Week, he decided his staff would wear suits for a road game because he believed they made the sneakers pop more on television. Assistants who normally responded to Smith’s text-message reminders about packing casual wear for the road with a thumbs-up emoji offered a different reply this time.
UCLA’s staff also went casual for the occasion, though coaches donned custom pullovers with special messaging across the chest so that the point of the endeavor wouldn’t be lost on television viewers.
“They mention it once on the broadcast and then never talk about it again and people are like, ‘What are you wearing gym shoes for?’ ” Cronin said. “Like, they don’t even know. So I said we should get pullovers that say ‘Coaches vs. Cancer’ and that way we can be a billboard during the games.”
Going casual provides additional travel benefits for coaches who don’t have to pack all that clunky stuff. For each two-game conference trip before the pandemic, Enfield said he would bring multiple suits, shirts, ties, belts and shoes.
“I never wore the same outfit two games in a row on the road,” Enfield said, “so I had to bring completely separate outfits and when you start throwing dress shoes in there with suits and ties and shirts, your travel bag becomes quite heavy, so it certainly is a lot lighter now.”
While Cronin’s luggage has remained cumbersome, the 20 pounds he dropped over the summer meant that his wardrobe needed additional tailoring. He was happy to do it, understanding that coaches are the faces of their universities and football coaches often wear suits just to enter stadiums.
There was also a tradition to uphold as the son of a legendary Cincinnati high school coach who wore suits and competed against others who did the same, even if some had the misfortune of donning leisure suits in the 1970s.
A leisurely look has never suited Cronin.
“I just don’t want to look like I’m coaching a summer game,” Cronin said with a laugh of his reasoning for going formal. “I just think it’s the professional thing to do, and I get what other guys are doing [but] I look at it differently; I will never dress casual. Here I am getting to coach at UCLA, literally blocks from Hollywood and miles from where Pat Riley walked the Forum sidelines in Armani suits, obviously coach [John] Wooden, the most professional coach and teacher ever, but I don’t do it just because I sit in coach Wooden’s seat.”
As the virus has commenced its latest retreat, COVID-19 pauses becoming a rarity and the NCAA tournament set to resume a multi-city format, one wonders whether suits will become a lasting casualty of the pandemic.
“I don’t know about that,” Enfield said when posed the question. “I think we’re open to a hybrid, wearing suits at certain times, but for right now we’re going with the golf pullovers with the SC logo on it.”
That could lead Trojans coaches to adopt a new motto when it comes to what they’re pulling over their heads.