TOP DESIGNERS KEEP COACHES IN STITCHES : WIN, LOSE OR DRAW, IT PAYS TO BE WELL-DRESSED.
With professional sports teams looking more like major corporations, it's no wonder the coaches are dressing like CEOs.
The NBA's Pat Riley and Larry Brown might as well carry briefcases as they prowl the sidelines in their tailored suits and designer ties. The days of the disheveled coach barking orders at courtside are nearing an end.
``It's very much a part of the game,'' said clothing designer Alexander Julian. ``It's an equal advantage for a coach in professional sports as anyone else getting up in the morning to look good. The better you look the better others are going to see you.''
Sports is big business, with corporations like Walt Disney Co. buying into franchises and making profits a priority. Coaches, faced with greater exposure from lucrative television contracts, are turning to clothing designers like Hugo Boss, Donna Karan and Tommy Hilfiger to upgrade their images.
``Because they're on television all the time, they're in the spotlight. They're quite conscious of how they look,'' Hilfiger said. ``Pat Riley, I think, started it.''
When he oversaw the Los Angeles Lakers, Riley's moussed hair and sleek Giorgio Armani suits got as much attention off the court as actor Jack Nicholson. Now he's almost always mentioned as the NBA's best-dressed coach.
``I don't think about it. I never put a piece of clothing on other than to wear it,'' said Riley, now coach of the Miami Heat, who said he was more concerned about making the playoffs than his wardrobe.
Another coach who scores style points is Brown, the Indiana Pacers coach who often sports Donna Karan suits. Cleveland coach Mike Fratello wears Hugo Boss suits paired with bold ties.
Even old-school NBA veterans like Mavericks coach Dick Motta and Clippers coach Bill Fitch - never known for their fashion sense - have gussied up their appearances with promotional deals for clothing from designers or retailers.
Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, a Baltimore-based apparel manufacturer and retailer, realized the publicity potential in dressing high-profile coaches and signed up several.
It all started a few years back with Charlotte Hornets coach Allan Bristow, said Jos. A. Bank chief executive Tim Finley.
``He happens to be color blind, so we numbered all his clothing so he wouldn't turn out with a green tie and a red shirt,'' Finley said. ``Then he went to the National Basketball Coaches Association and the next thing we knew we were dressing coaches from all over the league.''
Barry Melrose, hockey analyst for ESPN, said basketball isn't the only sport where coaches have caught the style bug. ``People on television want to look good,'' he said.
Melrose pointed to Mike Keenan of the NHL's St. Louis Blues, who tends toward crisp double-breasted suits and dark colors.
``I've never given it much thought,'' Keenan said about his neat attire. ``Maybe it's because of my school days when I had to wear a tie and jacket.''
Clothes don't necessarily make the man in pro football, where coaches usually wear team warm-up suits on the sidelines.
An exception is Dan Reeves of the New York Giants, whose tweedy sport jackets and preppy ties give him the look of a college professor. He was recently named one of the best-dressed men in sports by Esquire Gentleman magazine.
``I always thought coach (Tom) Landry showed a lot of class on the sideline. So when I started coaching I wore a coat and tie,'' Reeves said. ``I enjoy wearing a coat and tie. It makes you you stand out, and it's comfortable for me.''
But no matter how good you look, the bottom line is still winning. Don Nelson proved that.
While coaching the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1980s, Nelson was known for his raggedy sneakers and polyester fish ties. Nelson cleaned up his act a bit when he worked for the Golden State Warriors, but then he was hired by the New York Knicks - and drastic measures were taken.
Hilfiger, known for his red-white-and-blue casual wear, stepped forward to give Nelson an immediate fashion makeover. From that point on, the 6-foot-6 former Celtic never appeared in public in anything but Hilfiger clothes.
Hilfiger even provided the underwear.
The clothier was pleased with the results - Nelson's new look captured him a spread in GQ magazine.
``When the Knicks beat Miami with Riley on the sidelines a lot of people said Nelson looked better,'' he said.
There was one problem. Nelson's transformation couldn't help him keep his job. He was fired by the Knicks last month.
Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, one of the few coaches in the NBA without a clothing deal, is the fashion antithesis of Riley and the remade Nelson. Style is the least of his concerns.
``My coach at the Knicks for 10 years, Red Holzman, used to buy three suits at Brooks Brothers - a brown, a gray and a blue. That's the way I feel about it,'' Jackson said. ``It's not a style statement, it's a work suit.''
Terry Murray, the coach of hockey's Philadelphia Flyers, takes much the same approach.
``I don't pay attention to that kind of stuff,'' he said. ``I've got all I can do coaching the team.''
Photo: Former Lakers coach Pat Riley, now at Miami, gets cr edit for being the best-dressed coach in sports.
Daily News File Photo