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When Football Coaches Wore Football Pants
Baseball managers and coaches have long dressed like their players, while basketball and hockey coaches wear suits or other street clothes rather than the shorts or pads and sweaters of their respective sports. So, why did football coaches often wear football gear in the past and then transition to street or team gear?
To answer that question, we need to return to football's beginning in America's colleges and universities when the teams did not have coaches for philosophical and practical reasons. Philosophically, the teams were student-run organizations that elected captains to organize practices and determine who played in games. The student orientation carried over into rules prohibiting coaching from the sideline that, among other things, ensured that quarterbacks called the plays until the elimination of those rules in the 1960s.
Practically, football was a new game in the 1880s, and the people who knew it best were the current and recently graduated players. There were no elders able to impart knowledge, so a tradition began that recent graduates would return to campus to impart their knowledge to the current players. This system worked well for Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, which had played the game since its start, but not so well for Kansas State, California, or Stanford. They did not have alums with playing experience, so they hired recent Big Three alums to instruct them on the game.
American sports then borrowed a British term to describe these instructors. As in America, the British used "coach" to describe horse-drawn vehicles that carried people from one place to another. University of Oxford students in the 1830s used "coach" as slang for a tutor that carried a student through his classes. The term carried over to sports instructors and then crossed the water. "Football coach" first appeared in an American newspaper in 1889, one year after "baseball coach" made its premiere.
Returning to the gear worn by football coaches, teams in football's early days had rosters comprised of players like Pop Warner, who arrived on Cornell's campus having never played football. Many trying out for the football team had never seen a game, so the alumni coaches spent their time on the basics, teaching the rudiments of stances, tackling, and the like to the new players. Of course, they could not teach these techniques using film -Harvard did not create the first football training film until 1905- so they donned their football gear and joined the players in the trenches.
Football was also a more straightforward game, relying on individual talents and techniques than schemes. The game's simplicity allowed other recent alums to join the alumni coaches for early-season varsity versus alumni games, which continued in some locations until after WWI.
As long as coaches joined the fray in practice, there was a rational basis for some to wear football gear at practice. The image below shows the 1924 Southern Cal coaching staff. They went 9-2 under 35-year-old Gus Henderson, who wears street clothes, but his three assistants were geared up, including helmets, and it was not because they planned to ride their motorcycles after practice.
As coaching became increasingly professionalized and those in the profession got longer in the tooth, one might think coaches would put away their childhood games and wear adult clothes, and that is what happened, but it took a while.
Many football staffs in the 1920s wore football pants -with pads- at practice, mainly because they continued getting in the dirt with the boys.
By the end of the 1930s, coaches still wore football pants and jerseys, but they did not insert the pads before heading out on the field.
Over the next few decades, football staffs continued wearing football pants without pads, and it was not uncommon to wear baseball pants at football practice.
Some coaches still wore football pants for practice in the late 1950s. However, by then, sporting goods manufacturers also sold coaches' pants that were a cross between football pans and sweatpants. By then, cutting-edge coaches sported shorts, a look that reached its height with the polyester Bike coaching shorts of the 1970s.
Of course, times have changed, and athletic gear has become part of mainstream fashion, so today's coaches have many clothing options for practice. Since few coaches pad up anymore -even those that like to mix it up a bit- we are unlikely to see coaches wearing football pants at practice any time soon. Of course, if players' pants continue their above-the-knee trajectory, all bets are off.
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