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Puutting on Their Sunday Best

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Super Bowl XXXIII gets underway Sunday in Miami, all football-frenzied eyes will be on the Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos.

But before that momentous kickoff, those eyes will be focused somewhere else: on the four men who make up “Fox NFL Sunday”: James Brown, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Cris Collinsworth. Sure, their commentary is insightful. And their camaraderie has that guys-in-a-locker-room punch. But bottom line--these guys dress really well.

We’re talking natty double-breasted, peak-lapel pinstripe suits; pocket squares; cuff links; pops of color showing up in monochromatic shirt-tie combos; and mock turtlenecks worn with impeccably tailored sport coats. Not exactly the boring blue-blazer-and-white-shirt uniforms viewers are used to seeing on other sportscasters.

The well-turned-out lineup of broadcasters is part of Fox’s strategy to set itself apart from the competition. There’s precious little room for mediocrity when ESPN and the networks are crowding the block.

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“I think clothing is just another one of the things we’ve helped change,” says the Fox show’s coordinating producer, Scott Ackerson, giving the network credit for setting the bar a little higher. “I think people now spend more time in terms of what their talent in the pregame show is going to wear. This isn’t radio. Television is a visual medium, and why not be visually pleasing if you can?”

Using a distinctly non-football analogy, Ackerson adds: “This is the meringue of the show. If you have bad meringue, it doesn’t matter if the lemon part is good, the whole pie’s not going to be good. These are the elements that most people don’t think about, but we do think about them. I don’t know if it gets ratings points, but it can’t hurt.”

The show, in its fifth season, is certainly getting noticed. Former Pittsburgh Steeler Bradshaw, ex-Los Angeles and Oakland Raider Long, and Collinsworth, late of the Cincinnati Bengals, are, after all, true sports heroes. So their fans notice what they wear. The show has turned the broadcasters into somewhat astonished trendsetters.

“It really shocked me,” says Long, whose turtlenecks and knit polos have now become a trademark. “I had no idea that it would have as big an effect. I started noticing it with other broadcasters; they’d be showing up in a mock turtleneck. I’ll be in an airport, and I’ll get guys coming up to me asking me who does my clothes and saying, ‘Yeah, I wear turtlenecks now. I really don’t like ties.’ ”

But the hoi polloi aren’t the only ones nipping at Long’s heels: “Now Terry wants to wear nothing but mock turtlenecks and three-button shirts,” he says. “This is a guy who thought ‘monochromatic’ was something you got penicillin for.”

Coordinating the Look

As good as they look, style like this doesn’t just happen. Someone has to make sure that the seated panel isn’t a sea of navy blue and that those small print ties don’t strobe.

That someone is costumer Jennifer Head, who’s been with the show since its inception. It’s up to her not only to choose and coordinate the clothes, but also to convince the guys to wear them--easier now than it was in the beginning.

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She orders eight to 10 custom suits for each commentator at the beginning of each season. (Clothes from previous seasons may be carried over if they’re in good shape.) From fabric swatches submitted by a manufacturer (this year it’s a well-known American designer label--Head wouldn’t say who) she chooses the styles, patterns, colors and textures. Shirts are also custom-made; ties are usually the clothing company’s choice, with Head augmenting the selection herself as the budget allows.

This season’s suits were ordered in black, navy, charcoal and brown, heavy on the pinstripes. Head chose double-breasted and three-button single-breasted styles--deciding that two-button jackets don’t look current.

“We choose according to the style that’s appropriate to the personality,” she explains from her home in Los Angeles.

With the same basic wardrobe for the four men, Head says her challenge is in making each look distinctive: “That’s a challenge in itself. To have one in brown, one in gray, one in blue and one in black--basically that’s my goal. You just have to think about it all the time.”

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Bradshaw, for instance, “likes shirts with two pockets in front that button,” Head says. “J.B. likes cuff links, and he has that pocket square--he’s a very elegant man. I like putting him in bright print ties, not solids. We started putting Howie in knits--mock turtlenecks and polo shirts--and lately he’s been in shirts and ties in monochromatic colors. For the last four years or so, we’ve been trying to get them into color. They were a little apprehensive at first, but now they’re really enjoying it. . . . At first they weren’t seeing it in the magazines, and they’d ask, ‘Is this OK to wear?’ Then people started responding in a positive way, and they’d say, ‘Oh, Jennifer, this is great.’ ”

Color shows up in Long’s French blue shirt and tie, Brown’s crimson patterned tie and pocket square, and Collinsworth’s solid apricot tie worn with a charcoal suit and white shirt.

“When I let people know that I do the show,” she says, “the guys always want to talk about the clothes. I thought they’d want to talk about sports.”

Long, who names Cary Grant as his style icon, admits his on-air wardrobe has dramatically improved his off-air style. Most everything, save some J. Crew items in tall-XXL, is custom-made to suit his 6-foot-5-inch, 255-pound frame.

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“Until I got to Fox, I didn’t really have a job,” he explains, speaking from his home in Virginia. “My job was going to work every day packed in ice, and rarely would I get dressed up. Now it’s funny to me when I walk into my closet and have 30 suits hanging up. Last night I had a bluish-gray suit on with a polo shirt and a white T-shirt underneath. I was at a function signing autographs for three hours, and I felt as comfortable when I left as when I arrived.”

Ah, what a good suit will do for a man’s demeanor.

Style and Substance

Brown knows that. The leader of this four-pack (and the only non-athlete of the bunch) recalls long ago when he showed up to an interview at ultra-corporate IBM wearing a blue plaid suit, a powder blue shirt and a blue-velvet bow tie.

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Obviously Brown has gotten with the fashion program since then. He now favors custom-tailored suits and shirts, and his philosophy of dressing goes something like this: “I want the viewer to be comfortable with me. We’re going into an awful lot of homes, and I want to appear like someone you can believe in, someone who’s projecting confidence.”

That explains the pocket square.

“The guys tease me about that, but I’ve always worn a pocket square,” he says. “I’ve gone out at times without it, and I feel like I’m right out there naked. Without being ostentatious, it just adds a little to it, a little color and life. And the cuff links add a final touch, almost like having polished shoes on. It shows attention to detail.”

Brown says he’s started to spot other anchors sporting the square, too: “It lets me know I’m doing the right thing.”

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A New Standard

Jim Moore, creative director of GQ magazine, is not at all surprised by the show’s dashing designer display.

“These guys don’t want to look like bankers,” he says. “They want to look hip and cool.”

It wasn’t always such for pro athletes, he adds, who were content to appear publicly in sweatsuits--albeit expensive ones. That changed when superstar players such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson traded sweats for designer suits, creating a new standard.

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“Maybe they’d have one suit in their wardrobe,” Moore says. “But now wearing a suit has become cool. We’ve shot a lot of these guys for the magazine, and I’ve seen their closets, and it’s tremendous. They have 50, 100 suits. They’re really proud of them, the details, the fact that they’re custom-made. That’s the thing that they’re spending their bucks on, and they really want to look elegant.”

Ensembles for this Sunday are coming together, Head says. Expect to see Brown in a black suit with a cream shirt and either a red or a gold-cream-and-black tie and pocket square duo. Long plans an homage to the Raiders with black, gray and silver tones, Bradshaw will be outfitted in shades of brown and taupe, and Collinsworth will be dressed in a navy suit with a white shirt and an orange or red solid tie.

Head’s wish list for next season includes more color and different fabrics--her pinstripe saturation point has about been reached.

“I’d love to do some tweeds with blues and greens in them. I’d like to see J.B. in more cognac browns, warmer tones. And I’d like to get some more colored shirts and get a lot more playful with the ties. I usually just go with my instincts, what I like. I’ve always liked color. You just have to try things sometimes.”

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