Bearded Fedora, Brey break the coaching mold

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora stands behind his players during the playing of the alma mater following the Tar Heels 34-3 loss to Virginia Tech last Saturday at Kenan Stadium.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora stands behind his players during the playing of the alma mater following the Tar Heels 34-3 loss to Virginia Tech last Saturday at Kenan Stadium.

Think of all the football and basketball coaches you’ve seen on local college sidelines over the years. Then broaden your purview and picture all the college coaches you’ve ever seen from any big-time programs, male or female.

Now, ask yourself this simple question: How many of them had beards?

Think of anyone yet? Once you count Peter John “P.J.” Carlesimo, formerly at Seton Hall, you’ve probably exhausted the roster of possibilities. And Carlesimo hasn’t coached a college team since 1994.

College coaches don’t wear beards.

Which makes what’s sprouting in the ACC all the more remarkable. Two head coaches, one each in football and basketball, are sporting beards this fall. Not just a few days of scraggly whiskers, or a rugged aftershave-model look, or a brief beach-week avoidance of a razor.

Quite independently, and with remarkably little forethought, both North Carolina’s Larry Fedora and Notre Dame’s Mike Brey have broken with sideline decorum and gone the hirsute route. We’re not talking young men trying to find a comfortable public persona, but rather established successes well into their fifties.

“I don’t know, maybe it was a little bit of a mid-life crisis, whatever, South Bend winter,” Brey says in attempting to explain his full, neatly trimmed beard. “At Notre Dame I don’t wear a tie, I don’t shave, they’re wondering what in the hell is going on. Who’s running our program?”

Brey, 57, admits “it’s kind of nice not shaving every day,” a sentiment the Fighting Irish coach shares with other beard-wearers. In his case, though, the follicled foray began as a reaction to victory after he casually took to the bench with stubble on his face.

“You know we’re all knucklehead superstitious, all us coaches,” says Brey, entering his 17th year at Notre Dame. “My fans, they couldn’t figure it out. I would ride the beard until we lost, then I would shave. Then I would go clean-shaven until we lost, and I’d go back to the beard. I was like, who is this guy? I had two looks going on.”

Facial statement

Fedora grew into his look in a manner common to many men in or out of sports. “Usually in the summer, when I go on vacation I let it go a little bit because I don’t have to worry about it,” he says of his full, carefully-clipped beard. “My wife liked it, and so at the end of the summer I just said, ‘You know what? I’m going to keep it.’ There was no reason why. There was no, hey, if we’re not successful I’m going to cut it. There was nothing like that.”

If either man’s commitment grows fuzzy, there are vigilant females in the family ready with encouragement.

“They dig it,” Brey says of his wife, Tish Brey, and his daughter, Callie, 26. “My daughter really loves it.”

Fedora was similarly urged to stay the course. “Actually, all the daughters liked it,” says the 54-year-old. Sydney, the oldest of three girls, conducted a Twitter poll in July which asked, “Should @CoachFedora keep the beard?” In a follow-up tweet the University of Texas senior declared, “Need votes to solve family debate.” Seventy-two percent of 364 respondents said yes.

“She just did it,” Fedora says of the poll. “They don’t ask me a lot of things. They just do pretty much what they want to do.”

Perhaps that independent-mindedness is a family trait. Men who sport beards are making a statement about their individuality, according to Dr. Christopher Oldstone-Moore, a senior lecturer in history at Ohio’s Wright State University and author of the 2015 book, “Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair.”

Oldstone-Moore found it “surprising” that a pair of major-college coaches would grow beards. “They are highly visible. They are obviously in leadership positions,” he explains. “Generally they follow the norm for men to avoid facial hair. So it is significant that they are not following that norm.”

The author told Esquire in January: “I always argue that the first people who grow beards are the people who can.” But in a recent telephone interview, Oldstone-Moore was intrigued that Fedora and Brey willingly defied “corporate” standards to let their facial hair grow in. Considering widespread complaints about the dominance of corporate interests in sports, with their emphasis on blandness and packaged personalities, perhaps we should salute the coaches’ beards as welcome if unintentional acts of defiance.

Conversation piece

Oldstone-Moore also wonders about the subliminal message Brey and Fedora are sending to their squads. “If you have a coach who’s sporting all this facial hair, you’re really inviting the younger players to be more individualistic and flash their own style,” he says. “There’s a certain risk in that in terms of the team mentality.”

Fedora did not share the historian’s concern. Facial hair and long locks, increasingly common among contemporary players, reflect coaches’ willingness to accommodate idiosyncratic expression. “We have players with beards, they don’t have any problem conforming to what we do as a team,” says the fifth-year Tar Heels coach. “I really don’t know if there’s much in that.”

Brey is similarly unconcerned. “They tease me about (the beard),” he says of his players. “Of course they’ve got some major facial hair going on. Sometimes people go, ‘When are you going to make your guys shave?’ Well, how can I say anything to them if I’m rocking one?”

As for what a beard conveys to the person wearing it, Oldstone-Moore mentioned a psychological study in which men were given fake facial hair, asked to look in the mirror, and report what they saw. “The men saw themselves as more masculine, tougher, more assertive, that kind of thing,” he says.

Sure enough, when asked what he sees when gazing in the mirror, Brey says with characteristic light-heartedness, “I think I look like Clint Eastwood.” Similarly amused, Fedora says of his beard, “I don’t know what I look like. Maybe that’s why my wife likes it – it’s 28 years of marriage and she’s like looking at a different person now.”

Besides commentary from their immediate families, both coaches share an experience common to bearded men, finding acquaintances and even strangers feel free to share opinions about their facial hair. Brey says Irish fans are “split right down the middle” on the beard issue. “It’s a pretty good conversation piece. It’s just a change-up,” he observes.

Fedora says plenty of folks think they have a say, although the only vote that matters belongs to his wife, Cristi Fedora.

“Quite a few people end up giving me opinions,” he notes. “Some like it. Some don’t like it. Some say, ‘Well, when you start graying you need to cut it off.’” (Fedora’s brown beard already is flecked with gray.) “All kinds of things. They all have opinions. They have their opinion about what (plays) I call. The beard’s just another thing they have to discuss.”

Maybe now that Fedora and Brey have unabashedly defied convention, this season will serve as a tonsorial turning point on otherwise-conservative college sidelines. Not because Nike or Under Armour decreed it, or found a way to sell it, but because self-assured men wanted to give it a try. “There’s no reason that can’t work,” Oldstone-Moore says of coaches trying a fuzz-friendly face. “It just hasn’t been the model thus far.”