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THE EDUCATION OF A COACH
By DAVID HALBERSTAM
HYPERION Copyright © 2005 The Amateurs Ltd.
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-4013-0154-1
When the clock was finally winding down, the seconds ticking off, with the Philadelphia team unconscionably slow in getting its plays off, Steve Belichick, always in the background whenever there were television cameras around, left his place behind some of the New England players, back around the 50-yard line. Moving quickly, he headed toward the 35, wanting to share this final glorious moment with his son, Bill, the coach of New England, about to win his third Super Bowl victory in four years. Bill Belichick himself was puzzled at that moment by the slow, almost languid way the Eagles were running their plays, as if they were the ones with the lead, not the Patriots, and they wanted to burn the clock. He kept checking the scoreboard, which said 24-14, as if perhaps he was the one who had the score wrong. He called his assistants, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini, on the headphones to make sure the Patriots did indeed enjoy a ten-point lead. "Have I got the score right?" he asked, and they assured him he did. "Then what the hell are they trying to do?" he asked. His assistants did not know, either. The long, slow drive had finally culminated in a Philadelphia score, because of a blown defensive coverage on the part of the Patriots; the correct defense, designed to give up a limited number of yards in exchange for more time off the clock, had not been sent in or used, and Philadelphia scored on a 30-yard pass play. Seeing that his players were in the wrong coverage, Belichick had tried desperately to call time-out, but he had been too late, and the Eagles had scored. Belichick had been momentarily furious, mostly at himself, because he demanded perfection first and foremost of himself: But the score had served only to snake the game closer; it had not affected the final outcome.
Steve Belichick got to his son's side just in time to be soaked by Gatorade in the ritual shower of the victorious. That gave him his first great moment of celebrity, coming at the end of a six-decade career of playing and coaching football, and that moment was witnessed by much of the entire nation, live and in color, on national television. One could imagine one of those Disneyland commercials, generally accorded the young and instantly famous at moments like these, when a voice would ask, "Steve Belichick, you've been coaching and playing for sixty, years, where are you going slow that your son has won his third Super Bowl in four years?"
It was one of the best moments of the entire Super Bowl extravaganza, filled as it is so often with moments of artificial emotion, because this moment was absolutely genuine, father and son drenched together, emotion finally showing on the face of the son, usually so reticent about showing emotion, as if to do so was to give away some precious bit of control, to fall victim at least momentarily to the whims of the modern media trap. Father and son were bonded in this instant by the joy of victory and by the shared experience of a lifetime of coaching, with all its bitter as well as celebratory moments.
Steve Belichick was a lifer, viewed by his peers as a coach's coach. He had never made much money and never enjoyed much fame outside the small hermetically sealed world of coaching. For much of his adulthood he had lived with the special uncertainty of a coach-a world without guarantees, except for the one that no matter how well things were going at the moment, they would surely turn around soon. There would be a bad recruiting year, a prize recruit who said he would come to your school and then decided at the last moment to attend an arch-rival, too many good players would be injured in the preseason (but only after the national magazines had looked at your roster and predicted a conference championship), or there would be a change in athletic directors and the new one had a favorite all his own whom he hoped to install in what was now his program. In the end, the head coach would be fired and the assistant coaches would have to leave with him.
Bill Belichick had been born in I952 in Nashville, when Steve, already considered an exceptional coach-tough and smart, original and demanding, way ahead of the curve in the drills he demanded, and, in addition to everything else, an absolutely brilliant scout-was in the process of being fired as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, even though the team he was part of had done reasonably well. He had been fired, all of the members of the Belichick family later believed, because they and the coaching team they were part of had been not quite social enough for the genteel world of Vanderbilt football, and there had been a deftly organized campaign against them by one of Nashville's more influential (and social) sportswriters.
Thus Bill Belichick had entered the world rather typically as the son of a lifer. When he was a toddler, his family had already given up the lease on their house and put their furniture in storage, and his father was waiting for word on his next job. The head coach they had followed to Vanderbilt, an immensely popular man named Bill Edwards (William Steven Belichick was named both for Bill Edwards and for his father), was well connected in the world of coaching and liked by almost everyone, save apparently one or two Nashville sportswriters, but it was late in the year, and there were not a lot of openings.
It was a difficult moment. On Steve's tiny salary they had not been able to save any money, and they were hunkered down in a house they would soon have to vacate. They had no furniture-moving boxes filled with their possessions served as their tables and chairs. The phone, which was supposed to be ringing with job offers, did not ring. There was talk that Bill Edwards might be offered a job at North Carolina as an assistant to a man named George Barclay, and that if he were, Steve Belichick might become a part of his team, but it was still just talk. Time was running out. Finally a game plan was decided on, one that Jeannette Belichick helped formulate. They would pile everything they had into the car and drive east. Somewhere along the way, they would stop and call the Carolina people. If the job was there, they would continue on to Chapel Hill; if there was no word, they would leave the uncertain world of college coaching, head south, and Steve would try to find a job in Florida, coaching high school football.
In Knoxville, not quite halfway to Chapel Hill, the Belichick family pulled up alongside a restaurant, and Steve got out and called from a pay phone. The Carolina job was his. So they had continued to Chapel Hill, and the idea of coaching high school football was put aside, at least for the moment. The Belichick family loved Chapel Hill, and Steve always regretted that Carolina was not a perennial football power, but to his mind George Barclay was not that good a coach-it would have been better had Edwards been the coach, he thought. Chapel Hill lasted three years, 1953-55, before they were all once again fired.
From there Steve Belichick managed to get the job as an assistant coach at Navy. Bill was three years old when they went to Annapolis. Steve Belichick loved coaching there, loved coaching the midshipmen, and decided he would stay there permanently if he could. He did not long to be a head coach-he had seen how quickly they came and went, even when they were talented, like his friend Bill Edwards. He did not need the title or the power. He decided everything he needed was right there: a solid program (Navy still had nationally ranked teams in those days), great young men, an attractive community, wonderful colleagues. He was by all accounts a brilliant coach, an exceptional teacher, and arguably the best and most professional scout of his era. No one, it was said, could scout another team and break down their film quite like Steve Belichick; no one could pick up on a giveaway mistake of another team-say, a runner who involuntarily gave a small tip-off before the snap when he was going to get the ball-like Belichick.
He was one of those rare Americans who, though ambitious and exceptionally hardworking, knew when he had a deal that suited him, and had no urge for greener pastures, which in his shrewd estimate might in fact not be greener. Over the years he turned down countless other job offers, from other colleges and from the pros. When Bill Edwards, his great mentor and by then coach at Wittenberg College in Ohio, asked him to come there, he regretfully turned it down because it would be a step backward in terms of the strength of the program. When there was a chance to become the head coach of Navy, he told the committee that he liked the job he already had, thereby taking himself out of the running for head coach. He did another shrewd thing. At Chapel Hill he had become close to the Carolina basketball coach, the legendary Frank McGuire, who had taken a special liking to the Belichick family and especially to its three-year-old son. Basketball practice always stopped when Steve and Bill showed up, and someone was ordered to find a basketball, always brand-new, to roll out to Bill. When McGuire heard that the Belichicks were going to Navy, he told Steve to do what his friend Ben Carnevale, the basketball coach there, had done, which was to try and move up on a tenure track as a physical education instructor in addition to coaching. This would protect him from the volatility and uncertainty of the coach's life. Steve took the advice, and became an assistant professor first and then a tenured associate professor. That gave him something rare in the world of coaching, job security, and he ended up staying at Navy for thirty-three years under eight head coaches.
He taught thousands of players and younger coaches, many of whom went on to more prominent jobs, but in the end his greatest pupil was his son. He taught him many things, including what position to play-center, because the boy was smart and strong for his size, but he was not going to be very big, not on a football-player scale, and because, even more important, he was not going to be particularly fast. Steve knew that early on because Bill had heavy ankles-that was the first thing he looked for when he was recruiting, the ankles, because it was a tip-off on speed. Center was the right position for Bill because he was smart and would know the game, and a smart center who knew how to read a defense was always valuable. So, as a result, a particular repetitive sound, a kind of thudding, filled the Belichick house in Bill's teenage years: the sound of him centering the ball against a mat hanging from a wall in the basement. Another important thing Steve taught his son was how to scout and how to study film, which Bill Belichick started doing when he was about nine years old.
For if anyone had helped create the extraordinary coach who stood there, soaked in Gatorade, that evening of his third Super Bowl win (both Belichicks subsequently caught bad colds and suspected it was because of the shower), it was Steve Belichick. At that moment his son (still known as Billy to some of the players and coaches Steve had worked with during the Navy years) stood at the pinnacle of his profession. Others in the football world placed him in the pantheon of the NFL's greatest coaches. Maxie Baughan, one of the first men he worked under when he joined the league in 1975, a nine-time Pro Bowl player himself, and a longtime George Mien favorite, was one of the first players to pick up on Bill Belichick's brilliance when he was still a child-coach with the Colts back in 1975. After the third Super Bowl he placed Belichick among the elite three, a new trinity: Lombardi, Landry, and now Belichick. Others were more cautious and added the names of Paul Brown, George Allen, Chuck Noll, Don Shula, and Bill Walsh, among other immensely talented coaches, but of Belichick's excellence and originality and his place among the elite, there was no doubt, Ron Jaworski, who quarterbacked an earlier Eagle team to the Super Bowl in 1981 and eventually became ESPN's most knowledgeable football commentator, thought it was quite possible that Belichick was the best ever, because he had won three times in an era dramatically less congenial to creating a dynasty than before. In the past, there were two principal obstacles faced by a team once it became a champion. The first was the instinct to relax and not work as hard once you had won it all, to think that because you had just been the best, you were entitled to be the best again. The other was the League's draft, the fact that each year the weakest teams had the best shot at the very best players. In the modern era, when there were probably too many teams, the League had decided, consciously or unconsciously, on policies to keep the better teams and better organizations from dominating, and instead to make weaker organizations look better-in effect, to reward the weak and punish the strong. Now the schedule was rigged-the better you were, the tougher the schedule you faced.
The League, it was believed, wanted every team to come in as close to .500 with its record as possible. That was a dramatic change from the past. In addition, free agency and the salary cap worked against dynastic ambitions. Teams that did their scouting better than their competitors could not stockpile players as in the past, and it was harder than ever to keep a good bench, because if you won, other teams stole your starters and your backup people-those you were grooming, but who were probably a bit dissatisfied because they were not starting. The salary cap put a certain pressure on you as well, because as you won, your players felt, not without some justification, that they deserved more money, and it was hard to keep them all satisfied, so some of your role-playing athletes were snatched away at star-player salaries by your rivals. What Dallas, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco did in another era-create a powerful team and add to it systematically-was harder to do now. "There's a volatility to line-ups now that wasn't there before, before free agency and the cap, and no matter how good your organization is these days you're going to lose a number of your best players each year," Jaworski said. "That makes his accomplishments even more remarkable." Or as Bill Walsh, the celebrated architect and coach of the San Francisco 49ers in their glory years, and sometimes called The Genius, said admiringly of Belichick: "He's done it in an age when the dynasties are gone, unless you count the Patriots as a dynasty, which I think they are."
What football men, coaches and players alike, admired about him more than anything else was his ability to create a team in an age when the outside forces working against it seemed more powerful every year and where often the more talented a player was, the more he needed to display his ego, to celebrate his own deeds rather than team deeds. A fan could now watch truly bizarre scenes on Sunday-a player, his team down by four touchdowns, making a good catch and dancing around as if his team had just won the championship. Belichick, as much as anyone in football, tried to limit that, and to make New England win and behave at all times like a team. The most obvious example of that old-fashioned emphasis on team came in the first of New England's three Super Bowl victories. The League had asked him, according to tradition, whether he wanted to introduce his offensive or defensive team to both the crowd and the nation at the start of the game, and he had said, neither-he wanted to introduce the entire team. The League officials argued against it, because that was not the way it was done, and told him he had to choose. Belichick was nothing if not stubborn-stubborn when he was right and sometimes just as stubborn when he was wrong-and he refused to budge, so, finally, the League caved.
Out they had come, all the Patriots, joyously and confidently, and it was not just other players and coaches who got it immediately, that this introduction was something different, designed to show this was a team and everyone was a part of it. It was also understood by much of the vast television audience, exhausted not merely by players' excessive egos, but also by broadcasters who failed to blow the whistle on them. A great many people decided then and there that they would root for New England as kind of an homage to the game itself.
Excerpted from THE EDUCATION OF A COACH by DAVID HALBERSTAM Copyright © 2005 by The Amateurs Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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