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NFL Coach of the Year - Bill BelichickGetting to know the Real Bill Belichick
by: Richard Scott
© April 2002
You thought you knew him from his days in Cleveland. You saw the images on television. The grim, stern, face, void of emotion, ratcheted with intensity. You saw the newspaper stories. The humorless, dogmatic responses. A personality as cold and brittle as the wind blowing in from Lake Erie, pummeling Cleveland.
You thought you knew him, but did you? Did you really? Did the people feeding those images really know him? Did he allow you, or them, to know him? To see him for whom he really is?
You thought you knew him, but it turns out you didn’t. Ask the people who do know him – the people he works with, the people he coaches – and they will tell you some things you probably didn’t know about New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
This wasn’t the same Belichick who became a scapegoat in Cleveland when he failed to connect with the players, the media and the fans. Even the Patriots who thought they knew him found someone who didn’t match the image.
They saw the smiles, heard the laughter, the encouragement and the stories, returned the hugs and the high fives, and followed a man who led them all the way to a 20-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl XXXVI.
“I never remember a season like this,” says Scott Pioli, New England’s director of player personal. “All the perceptions of Bill based on history – his inability to communicate and handle and deal with people – what he has done here is the antithesis of the perception that’s out there.”
Patriots linebacker Bryan Cox, who first played for Belichick when the two were with the Jets in 1998 and ‘99, says, “Bill’s learned over time what had to happen. As you get older, you change, and I think he’s changed. He’s learned from prior experiences, and it’s working for him now.”
Patriots defensive end Anthony Pleasant, who first played for Belichick in Cleveland and has now played eight seasons for him, insists, “Bill’s changed a lot. He was tough and hard-nosed. It was always his way or no way. He’s more lenient now. It’s good. It’s not anything negative towards Bill, but I wish he did this when he was in Cleveland.
“It was always pound, pound, pound. We never wore shorts. It was always in pads and going full tilt. Now, he’s cut back and he doesn’t beat up his players like he did. He’s learned from his mistakes. I think he’s learned that there has to be a balance.”
That’s why Belichick is American Football Monthly’s NFL Coach of the Year for the 2001 season. Sure, his team won the Super Bowl, but this award isn’t just a measure of wins and losses. That would be too easy. Instead, it’s about Belichick’s ability to adjust, adapt and grow, not just as a coach but also as a 49-year-old man at the peak of his professional career.
“It’s been a year, unfortunately, where we’ve gotten used to the distractions,” linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. “It’s been a lot of things, and he’s had a lot to deal with. He’s done a good job of keeping us focused. He’s done a lot of things a head football coach doesn’t usually have to do.”
“Everything he’s done this year has worked out for us,” Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown says. “The more he proved, the more we believed. The more things worked out, the more we said, ‘He knows what he’s doing.’”
The truth is, Belichick does know what he’s doing. The 2001 season proved it. Not just winning the Super Bowl, but the whole process of building a championship team. Not just doing the things that lead people to call him a defensive “genius” or “guru,” but the journey of overcoming personal and professional obstacles on the path to a championship.
“I guess I’ve learned a lot since 1991,” Belichick admits. “A lot on the field and a lot off the field. I think I’m more flexible now. I try to take a good look at any situation I’ve been in.”
The 2001 season required a tremendous amount of flexibility, from Belichick, his coaching staff, his players - the entire organization. It was a successful season, but it wasn’t an easy season by any measure. You can’t have an assistant coach die without suffering some pain. You can’t lose a standout linebacker for the season without suffering some consequences. You can’t struggle with the on-again, off-again availability of a petulant star receiver without suffering some frustrations. You can’t endure a quarterback change without suffering through some second-guessing and criticism.
It started in training camp, when the Patriots faced immediate questions about the signing of more than 20 new players, including veteran running back Antowain Smith, as Belichick and Pioli attempted to transform the team. Things didn’t get any better when starting linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer showed up with a neck problem and ended up having season-ending surgery.
Then enigmatic star wide receiver Terry Glenn was suspended for the first four games of the season by the NFL for missing a drug test, and then suspended again by the team when he refused to practice.
A few days later, quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein, who had a history of heart problems, was at a Boston-area hospital undergoing routine tests on his pacemaker when he collapsed. Doctors could not revive him and died of heart failure.
That night, Belichick gathered his players together for an emotional meeting. “Dick Rehbein, that was not a distraction, that was real life,” Belichick says. “Dick was such a nice, popular guy, and he contributed so much to the quarterback position and also the offensive players. That was a real emotional situation with the whole team being together at the funeral, mourning and grieving and then getting over it.”
Soon after, Belichick responded by taking his coaches and players to the movies. Not to get them away from their problems, but to help them deal with their struggles. Belichick piled everyone in buses, spent $800 of his own money to rent out a local IMAX theatre and took the team to see “Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure.” The movie is based on Sir Ernest Shackleton, who attempted to become the first explorer to lead an expedition across Antarctica, and the 1914 voyage of the “Endurance.” The ship became trapped and crushed in the ice, forcing Shackleton and his 26-man crew to suffer through 17 months of hunger, frigid temperatures and tedious monotony before making their way to safety. Everyone on the aptly named “Endurance” survived.
“That told you that there are always going to be obstacles in the way,” quarterback Tom Brady says. “You have to keep your faith, keep believing in each other, keep working together, even if you think you’re never going to make it.”
“If they wouldn’t have been a team out there, they wouldn’t have survived. If they hadn’t believed in their captain, they wouldn’t have survived,” defensive lineman Willie McGinest said the week before the Super Bowl.
“(Belichick) is the captain of our ship, and we’re the crew members. Everything hasn’t gone perfectly for us, obviously, but we’ve believed in him, we’ve followed his direction and he’s gotten us to the Super Bowl.”
Belichick’s challenges did not end with training camp. Things went from bad to worse when the Patriots opened the season with a 1-3 record and lost veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe to a chest injury in a Week 2 loss to the Jets.
At that point, Belichick showed his team a tape of the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“At that time of the season, a lot of people in the media were talking about how if the season ended today, the Patriots would be the fifth seed in the playoffs, and then the next week, it would be some other combination of things,” Belichick says. “My point to the team was, ‘Look at this horse race. When the horses came around the final bend heading for home, there were six horses all within a head of each other.’
“So I stopped the tape and I asked the team, ‘Who’s going to win?’”
One player guessed a horse on the right, another chose a horse in the middle of the pack.
Belichick recalls, “My answer was, ‘Who cares? It’s a matter of who wins at the finish line, so who cares where we are 11, 12 games into the season. We could be sixth at that point but still win the race.’” It was Tiznow that eventually won the race, and Tiznow that eventually became the team’s unofficial mascot.
The Patriots went on to go 11-5 and win the AFC East Division title, but there were other hurdles to overcome along the way. When the Patriots lost 30-10 to Miami on Oct. 7, Belichick came to work at 6 a.m. the next day and asked executive assistant Berj Najarian and director of operations Nick Carparelli to find an empty box, paint it black and place a game ball inside. Belichick then asked them to dig a hole a few feet away from the practice field and place the box inside the hole.
When the players went outside for a walk-through practice session, Belichick led them to the hole and the box. He picked up the box, took out the ball and showed it to the team.
“We’re moving on. That game’s in the past,” Belichick told the players. “I want you guys to bury this game.”
Belichick then place the ball back in the box and asked safety Lawyer Milloy and receiver Troy Brown to kick dirt on top of the box. After covering the box with dirt, Milloy even spat on top of the new grave and the players celebrated their new start. By no coincidence, the Patriots went on to win four of their next five games.
Realistically, those motivational strategies are just ploys or gimmicks if you can’t back them up with leadership, preparation and coaching. Belichick excelled in those areas.
Belichick’s evolution as a leader was evident in 2001, especially to people who knew him back in his days as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. In his first stint as a head coach, Belichick did a lot of positive things, including rebuilding from the ashes of a 3-13 disaster in 1990 and turning the Browns into an 11-5 wild-card playoff team in 1994.
Along the way, however, Belichick often alienated players, media and fans with his gruff, no-nonsense manner and his constant intensity.
“He worked his (butt) off,” says Baltimore Ravens’ kicker Matt Stover, who played for Belichick for five years in Cleveland. “He worked so hard, he would almost isolate himself. It’s the nature of the job sometimes, I guess. A lot of times he may not have come off as personable.”
Because of that perception, it was easy for players, media and fans to turn on him when things didn’t go well. When Belichick butted heads with veterans such as Bernie Kosar, Reggie Langhorne and Michael Dean Perry, it was Belichick who got hit with the blame.
“There was nobody who hated Belichick more than Bernie Kosar and me,” Langhorne says. “But as I’ve gotten older, I understood some of the moves that he’s made. He realized some of the mistakes he made, and I’m sure he’s handled things a little differently.
“You have to remember that we players, as a group, had been together for six or seven years, and he changed the way we had been doing things. We all bumped heads. But right now, I respect what he’s done, and if I were to ever coach, I’d do some of the same.”
Unfortunately for Belichick, that healthy perspective didn’t come soon enough. The Cleveland media, in particular, became extremely critical of Belichick - both his coaching and his personality.
“It was definitely antagonistic at times,’’ Belichick says. “Whether that was me or them, or a combination of both, I’ll certainly take my share of the responsibility. But there were some people (in Cleveland) who were difficult to deal with and some of them are long gone. I got fired, they got fired too. Either they’re no longer in the profession, or not at those papers. Maybe that says something about the quality of their work.
“There’s no question that there was friction and that it was very adversarial. And it was really personal at times.’’
Perhaps it’s a reflection on the Cleveland players, fans and media, or on Belichick’s own personal growth, or both, but Belichick enjoyed a more positive working relationship with the Boston-area media last year. According to Boston columnists, Belichick could often be seen as cordial, open and even humorous when it fit the situation.
“I’ve tried to look back on those five years (in Cleveland) and taken some of the good things and built upon them,” Belichick says. “Each year you go through things you just put in the bank, the things that you feel like you did right, and try to do them more often. The mistakes that you made or the things that you feel like you could have done better you analyze and try to figure out a better way of doing it.”
As far as his overall approach to the players, the media and the fans, Belichick adds, “There are things I would have done differently in Cleveland, and I think there’s a better way to do it. I think I’ve delegated things now more than I did back then. I’m a very detailed-oriented person, but looking back, I would have been better off spending my time on bigger-picture things.
“As I’ve done more of that here, I have found that there are a lot of people who did it better than I would have done it, so I wish I’d handed that ball off sooner. Every once in a while, you can step in there and say, ‘I think you’re doing a great job, but what if we just do it a little bit this way and maybe we can do it better.’ It’s your way plus their way, yet you find a way to be more efficient. I think so far, it’s worked pretty well.” The same can be said for his ability to prepare his week to week. When Rehbein died, Belichick decided it was too late to hire a quality replacement. He then decided to work directly with the quarterbacks, even though he had climbed the coaching ladder as a defensive coach.
Belichick’s direct role with the quarterbacks became even more important when Bledsoe went down in Week 2 and the Patriots had to turn to second-year quarterback Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick with no significant NFL experience at that point.
Belichick and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis obviously did something right. Brady continued to be the starter even when Bledsoe returned and went on to go 11-3 as a starter during the regular season and engineered stunning comebacks in the Super Bowl and the Patriots’ overtime playoff victory over Oakland. Brady also earned the Super Bowl MVP award.
“He points things out that you would never even think about,” Brady says. “He comes in and breaks down coverages for us. He probably knows what they’re doing better than they know what they’re doing. You know he watches so much tape and he really has an understanding of their tendencies and the keys that we should be looking at from a quarterback’s standpoint.”
Belichick also maintained a firm hand on the defense, working with the defensive staff to formulate winning game plans that kept most opponents off balance and out of kilter.
“There is a bit of an unknown when you face Bill Belichick,” Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler said during the season. “He is known for changing things up week-to-week.”
St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz added: “You have to prepare for anything when you face one of Bill’s defenses.”
That’s just the way Belichick’s players like it.
“Everything is new from week to week,” Cox says. “What we play this week may not be what we play next week. There are 16 different philosophies based on the 16 different teams we play.”
That ability to prepare during practice and execute during a game was never more obvious than in the Super Bowl, when the Patriots held quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Marshall Faulk and the rest of the Rams’ high-powered offense in check for most of the game.
“Nothing against Brady, but the MVP for us was Belichick, because we all knew he’d come up with something to stump them,” Malloy says. “When you’ve seen him do it time and time again, like we have, you come to believe in the man. A lot of people have the ‘genius’ label in this league, but he’s one of the guys who really deserves it. We were all confident we could stop them.”
ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski later called New England’s defensive success against the Rams, “The best coaching job I’ve ever seen. The best coaching job I have seen in 29 years - period.”
Jaworski, a former star quarterback with the Philadelphia Eagles, said he spent eight hours studying film of the Super Bowl and enjoyed every minute of it.
“We were having a blast,” Jaworski told ESPN.com. “We were jumping out of our seats and pointing at the screen and yelling. Look at this! Check this out! We were like kids in a candy store. For the most part, reviewing tape is a mundane, boring job, but this was different. This was fascinating.’
“I’ve never seen anything like it. One of their defensive ends or linebackers, usually (Willie) McGinest or (Mike) Vrabel, wouldn’t care about Warner. He would go after Faulk - and drill him. No matter where he went! It was brilliant. Here’s the key: The Rams rely on timing and rhythm, but everyone thinks that rhythm runs through Warner. Belichick and (defensive coordinator Romeo) Crennel decided that the Rams’ rhythm depended on Faulk. So they hit him and kept hitting him. There was even one time when Faulk tried to leak through the middle of the line and – bang! – there’s (defensive tackle) Richard Seymour, and he nails him.”
Somewhere in all the giddy aftermath of that Super Bowl victory, a light seemed to go “bang” in the collective conscience of the national media and fans all over the country.
It turns out Bill Belichick isn’t such a bad guy after all. He’s actually been known to smile, and even crack a joke or two. He’ll even face a tough question with grace and confidence. Heck, he’s even the kind of guy who can enjoy a parade.
When an estimated 1.25 million fans showed up to greet the team’s arrival in Boston after the Super Bowl, Belichick admitted he was overwhelmed by the community’s response.
“It was overwhelming. It was just awesome,” Belichick said the day of the parade. “There were so many people there. They were so enthusiastic. It just seemed like the crowd would never stop, and it didn’t. It was a tremendous outpouring of support. It was a great feeling. You can’t describe it. It was just a once-in-a-lifetime feeling.
“It was tremendous at the beginning, but it just kind of kept growing and growing. People hanging out of the windows and off the rooftops of buildings, and the crowd was just five, six, seven deep to points where it must have been a hundred deep.
“It was incredible. It was just awesome, just an awesome feeling.”
An awesome end to an awesome season, and an appropriate ending for an awesome coach. Now, aren’t you glad you know a little more about the real Belichick?
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