MEN’S BASKETBALL: Suit up or dress down? James Jones sticks with his coat and tie
Amid a widespread casual trend among men’s college basketball coaches, Yale’s James Jones is sticking with his suits, his routine and what makes him feel comfortable
Lukas Flippo, Senior Photographer
Just before the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, Yale men’s basketball head coach James Jones made the short trip to Enson’s Menswear on Chapel Street in downtown New Haven, met with owner Jim Civitello and bought three custom-made suits.
Civitello, who has owned Enson’s since 1986, said the suits fit Jones perfectly. The only issue was the impending pandemic, which prevented the longtime owner from seeing his work on display when he and Jones intended; Yale’s postseason and March Madness itself were abruptly canceled.
As the new suits hung unused in Jones’ closet and the Ivy League took a yearlong hiatus from athletics, the pandemic inspired a sport-wide dressing down that has stuck around. Coaches traded their suits and ties for school-branded polos, quarter-zips and khakis when contests were played in empty gyms with few or no fans last winter.
Even in this more usual season, casual attire has remained the norm, including for seven of the eight Ivy League men’s basketball coaches who last coached games in March 2020. Jones and his coaching staff, who have consistently rocked suits on the Yale sideline, are the rare exception. He has no plans to ditch them.
“For me, I have a routine. I’m a creature of habit. I don’t like change much,” Jones said after Yale’s game over the University of Massachusetts last month, a win during which he said he wore one of his new Enson’s suits for the first time. “I enjoy my routine of getting ready for a game, showering before, going in the locker room, putting stuff on the board and putting on a suit and feeling good about myself.
“I do what makes myself feel comfortable, and wearing a suit every game makes me feel comfortable,” he added in an interview with the News last week.
In some ways, formal dress accompanied the creation of college basketball. James Naismith, who invented the sport in 1891 and founded the University of Kansas basketball program, allegedly wore a wool suit and vest as the Jayhawks’ first coach. Legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith later required his coaching staff to wear jackets and ties into the office, according to a piece on the changing attire norms by The Athletic’s Seth Davis.
Blazers have also been associated with some of the sport’s iconic coaching moments, like former Georgetown coach John Thompson opening his jacket before a game against St. John’s to reveal a sweater nearly identical to opposing head coach Lou Carnesecca’s. Other coaching habits, such as Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim’s exasperated jacket toss, are also intricately tied to formal game attire. But there have also been a few coaches who proudly adopt a different sideline look. Bob Huggins, the current West Virginia head coach formerly with Cincinnati and Kansas State, has long worn a sweatsuit pullover for games against almost every suit-clad coach he faces.
For many, dressing up so nicely feels at odds with the hot, intense, competitive environments that college basketball games are typically set in. The COVID-19 casual push publicly exposed that sentiment.
“If a coach wants to put on a suit during a college basketball game, a high school, pro [game] what have you, if they choose that of their free mind, have at it,” former Princeton head coach Sydney Johnson said on the Ivy League Hoops Hour podcast he hosts with Lawrence Schuler late last month. He added that he himself would choose to dress casually. “Getting in a suit and tie and getting all sweaty … makes no sense to me whatsoever … What I don’t like frankly is folks telling me what I need to be doing [and] how I need to be dressing.”
Jones, whose 338 career wins at Yale rank him the second all-time winningest coach in the Ivy League, said he told his coaching staff they did not have to dress formally for games, but all four assistants — associate head coach Matthew Kingsley, assistant coach Justin Simon ’04, assistant coach Alington Paul and Director of Basketball Operations Matt Elkin — have literally followed suit.
The sharp dress extends down the Yale bench to head manager RJ Kranz ’22. Kranz rotates through combinations of six blazers, including a full floral suit he wore when Yale played at UNC in December 2019, with three turtlenecks and necklaces.
“Some of the fancier ones, the more out there colors, I’ll save those for more fun games like Harvard,” Kranz said. He only had a standard blue and black blazer when he started at Yale, but said that “the managers going all out was just part of the culture here, and when I was back home I could find suit jackets for cheap at Macy’s so I just started getting the ones I liked.”
Yale coaches did dress down for the Thanksgiving week tournament the Bulldogs played in Fort Myers, Florida — in a habit that existed before the pandemic, coaches often wear more casual attire for nonconference multi-team events, which often occur in warmer or tropical climates. Jones wore beige khakis and a navy quarter-zip with a Yale “Y” on the chest for one game.
Though he became the Yale head coach in 1999, Jones has not always gotten his suits from Enson’s on Chapel Street. He called the navy suit he wore last week against Lehigh “an oldie but a goodie” and said he bought it off a rack in Australia. He acquired the three-piece suit he wore during a 2020 win over Johnson & Wales in China, where the Bulldogs played their season opener in 2018.
Jones has shown a knack for style in the past. When Yale played at Brown in January 2020 during Coaches vs. Cancer Suits and Sneakers week, a sport-wide fundraising event where coaches pair their suits with sneakers, Jones said he intentionally matched a pair of all-white Under Armour HOVRs with his white dress shirt. Although the cause meant a lot to him after losing his mother to cancer, he said after the game that he did not like wearing sneakers with his suit and was “much more comfortable wearing what [he] normally wear[s].”
Against UMass last month, he paired the blue plaid Enson’s suit with a pocket square and patterned pink tie.
“He’s considered one of the best-dressed coaches in NCAA basketball, so I was pretty happy to be able to dress him,” Civitello, who has attended Yale basketball games in the past but not yet this season, said.
Just a couple seasons ago, nearly every team Yale played featured coaches dressed in suits or at least blazers and collared shirts on the sideline. But the Bulldogs, though not fully alone in their fashion decisions, have little company this year. Almost all of the coaches on the 10 teams Yale has played this season have gone casual and wore either polos or quarter-zips in their games against the Elis.
Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard and Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello were two exceptions.
“I’ll be honest with you, I think I’m gonna flip flop depending on my dry cleaners,” Willard told the media after his Pirates’ win over Yale. “I don’t fit into a lot of suits I fit into two years ago … If you see us casual, it’s probably because I didn’t get the suit I’m wearing right now back in time.”
Before the season, Willard and the 10 other Big East head coaches held an hour-long Zoom call with the league’s commissioner, Val Ackerman, and associate commissioner, Stu Jackson, to discuss dress code, according to NJ.com. Even Villanova head coach Jay Wright, whom Barack Obama has called the “best-dressed man in college basketball,” supported going casual, and the consensus was simply that coaches could make a personal choice about what to wear this season. In the ACC, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said the conference’s coaches unanimously voted on an August Zoom call to wear slacks, quarter-zips and polos this season.
“I think it’s the way of the world,” Enson’s owner Civitello said of college basketball’s casual movement. “But obviously guys like coach Jones stand out.”
As of last month, Jones said that there have been no such group discussions among Ivy League coaches. As far as he knows, he and his staff will be the only coaches in the league suited up for Ancient Eight games this year.
“There was no conversation between the league to try to figure out what they wanted to do,” Jones said. “And whatever they decided, I wouldn’t have cared anyway because again, I’m gonna do what makes me feel good about me.”