A LOT OF NFL OWNERS LIKE TO PLUCK BRANCHES OFF BILL BELICHICK'S COACHING TREE. IF ONLY HIS SAPLINGS GREW SO MIGHTY.
AS SENDOFFS GO, THEY seem like empty ones. In a final meeting with an assistant coach on his way out of New England to run another team, Bill Belichick and his departing employee will usually get together in the head coach's office. They will chitchat about the assistant's new job for a few minutes, even exchange a few pleasantries. Then, reaching for a handshake, Belichick always says the same thing: "Learn from your time here."
Now that Belichick's football network is the network in football-eight of his proteges are college or NFL head coaches and five are GMs-both men know what the assistant's new team is expecting: A duplication of how Belichick coaches, how he solves problems, the way he thinks. But the Patriots coach knows that such an expectation is a fool's errand. His system is so fluid, so specific to him, that he's able to alter his methods when a situation commands it. He trains his charges to think for themselves, then funnel those thoughts up the chain, where only he knows how to translate them into Super Bowls. Learn from him? Sure. Duplicate him? Not possible. And no one should know better than the man walking out the door.
THERE ARE two types of Belichick guys. There are the veterans-Charlie Weis, Ozzie Newsome, Nick Saban-who've spent a fraction of their careers with him in New England or Cleveland. And there are the proteges, young guys from outside the traditional coaching fraternity whom Belichick brings in as entry-level grunts. Sometimes he hires them solely on recommendation, like Josh McDaniels, Denver's new 33-year-old head coach, who became Belichick's personnel assistant after a referral by Saban. Other times he sees something special in a guy nobody notices, like current Browns boss Eric Mangini, whom Belichick plucked from Cleveland's PR department. Persistence is what got new Chiefs GM Scott Pioli in the door. He landed on Belichick's radar in 1986 as a college senior when he drove 90 minutes to watch nearly every Giants training-camp practice.
Most NFL coaches hire their friends, placing loyalty above competence. To work for Belichick, you just have to be smart enough to excel outside football-and obsessed with applying that intelligence to the sport. You have to be self-motivated and not stuck in your ways. And above all, you must be grateful for the opportunity, despite the tiny salary. "Like Bill when he was their age," says former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
Most of the kids Belichick brings in also look a lot like him-none played professionally and they usually learned the game at small, nonfootball schools. Mangini is from Belichick's alma mater, Wesleyan. McDaniels is from John Carroll. Pioli, Central Connecticut State; Lions coach Jim Schwartz, Georgetown; Thomas Dimitroff, Atlanta's GM, University of Guelph; Kirk Ferentz, Iowa's head coach, UConn; Phil Savage, former Browns GM, University of the South. Says Savage, "There's a sense that if he can make it, so can you."
That comfort fades fast when sitting across from Belichick in a job interview. The three-time Super Bowl winner always keeps a pencil behind his ear, ready to correct mistakes. His hair is usually tousled, as if he'd already worked a long day, even first thing in the morning. His default expression is a scowl. When Ferentz interviewed in 1993 to be the Browns' offensive line coach, Belichick began by saying, "I really don't know much about offensive line play." Then he put in a practice tape and peppered Ferentz with rapid-fire questions. How would you improve the drill? What does that player's footwork tell you about him? What about that player would bother a defensive tackle? Four hours later, they hadn't finished with run-blocking drills. It continued the next morning, into the next afternoon. Ferentz was sure he'd bombed. "Everything I was explaining Bill already knew," he remembers. Once he got the job he realized the grilling wasn't meant to test his knowledge but to free it. "He wanted my ideas."
For the low-rung assistants, the job starts with typical grunt work: stocking the fridge, turning lights off during fi lm sessions, splicing video or finding ways to make practice DVDs interesting. Each task is about learning how to work Belichick's way. When Savage was hired in 1991 to be the Browns offensive and defensive assistant, the 26-year-old's first job was to break down every play from each opponent's previous four games. Belichick told him to grab a pencil and as much paper as it would take to detail all 22 players, personnel packages, down and distance, the game clock and schemes. Dissecting one play would take 10 minutes. As Belichick gave directions, Savage did the math in his head: 10 minutes for each play, times 65 plays in a game, times four games, times 16 opponents equaled, he says now, "no sleep." Even today, with X's and O's software on every coach's computer, Belichick makes his entry-level guys diagram plays by hand, just the way he does.
That's why they like him as a boss. He makes his own copies. He maintains that his assistants work with him, not for him. He doesn't do small talk, but always says hello in the hallway. "He doesn't think he's above anyone," Pioli says.
Once they're proficient, he moves them around. Unlike other influential football coaching trees-Bill Walsh's, for instance-where coaches specialize in either offense or defense, Belichick cross-trains his coaching assistants. The scouting department's grunts become the grunts for offense or defense or both. Before becoming the quarterbacks coach, McDaniels worked on defense and scouting. Mangini was an offensive gofer before moving to defensive gofer. Nick Caserio, Belichick's current personnel director, coached receivers. The more diverse a young coach's experience the more he understands how Belichick works, and the closer he is to teaching Belichick something the head coach doesn't know. "Once they get the experience," Belichick says, "they get how our system fits together."
Eventually he rewards them with a project. Each one is a football dissertation, with a two- or three-month deadline. Mangini was once asked to analyze the fumble history of every free agent running back-how often they lost the ball, from which arm, when hit by which kinds of players. As a coaching assistant in 2002, McDaniels was told to scout 35 defensive backs, compare them to free agent DBs, then recommend candidates to rebuild the secondary. Each project is a test; those who fail them fail Belichick. "If you're not ready when your number is called," Dimitroff says, "you won't be called again."
The most successful projects-and the rarest-answer questions Belichick never thought to ask. When McDaniels and Caserio were tasked with scouting New England's opposing receivers and corners, they took it further, creating a formula for size, speed, ball skills, scheme and assignments. Then they developed a ranking system based on the Patriots' personnel and playbook. Impressed, Belichick ditched his manual for scouting receivers and corners, replacing it with what he'd learned.
BELICHICK'S TRAINING plan was reshaped in 2005, when veteran coordinators Weis and Crennel left the Patriots for Notre Dame and the Browns, respectively. The departures prompted a shift in Belichick's thinking-instead of scrambling to land veteran coordinators, he would focus more on mentoring his young assistants and take on a bigger role himself. The logic was simple: As long as the Pats won, his assistants were going to be in demand as head coaching candidates. So he would groom them and involve himself even more to maintain continuity after every season. Job titles wouldn't matter. Mangini, a 34-year-old defensive backs coach in 2005, got Crennel's defensive coordinator job. To replace Weis on offense, Belichick gave McDaniels, his 28-year-old quarterbacks coach, play-calling responsibility but not the offensive coordinator title. When Mangini left for the Jets in 2006, Belichick split the job between two other coaches. And when McDaniels bolted to Denver this off-season, Belichick repeated the cycle: wide receivers coach Bill O'Brien was moved to quarterbacks coach and given play-calling duties but not a coordinator title. In fact, the Patriots have no true offensive coordinator.
It sounds like a disaster, being the only NFL team besides the Raiders without a coordinator running the offense. But Belichick has the chops to pull it off. Since 2001 he has met with Tom Brady three times a week, and Brady is routinely floored by the amount of football transferred in those sessions. He's told people close to him that, no offense to other Patriots coaches, nobody matches Belichick's acumen.
So the coaching part is easy. The bigger question is how Belichick mentors his young coaches and stays as involved as he is while fulfilling a promise he made to himself more than a decade ago. After he was fired by the Browns in 1995, he vowed to delegate more. He didn't have an offensive coordinator for two seasons in Cleveland, and his solution was to call the plays himself. At one point, he coordinated the offense and defense and dropped into position meetings to discuss the minutiae of third and one. The micromanaging bottlenecked the organization. "People were waiting on me to make decisions," he says. "By spending time on the little things, I held up other people from doing their job. Now, if there's a problem, I can let them handle it. Or I work with them on the problem. Or I just say, 'Here's what we're going to do.' "
It sounds simple. But in reality, it's complicated to maintain an organization so fluid. His management model, depending on the year, is either vertical (with coordinators) or horizontal (without them). His role, depending on the week, can be as a broad thinker or coordinator or both. And only he knows where his time is best spent.
In meetings with his coaches he asks for their ideas first, knowing that once the boss outlines his plan his underlings will feel compelled to follow. And the ideas do fl y, partly because each assistant feels an unspoken pressure to best his predecessor. After Weis' offense helped win three Super Bowls, McDaniels' 2007 unit set five NFL records. New England's offense this season under O'Brien might be even more potent. And whichever young guy replaces O'Brien one day might top all of them. Says McDaniels, "You have to get better every year," The players feel it too. When not with his coaches, Belichick is usually in front of the team in a dark film room, pausing, rewinding, questioning, "motherf-ing us," as Brady says. These meetings can last hours. The call is Ride 130 Cross Stalk. Who's the mike linebacker? Where did the offensive coordinator go to college? It's third and three at our 27: What does the defense have a 20% chance of doing? "Your gut is in knots," says former Patriots fullback Heath Evans, now with the Saints. But the fear works. In a huddle against the Bills two years ago, running back Kevin Faulk looked at his teammates and said, "It's third and three. They've got a 20% chance of blitzing the mike, so be ready." Buffalo did. He was. One meeting turns into another. Here's Belichick with his coaches, analyzing each play from the previous game and comparing how many times it was practiced with how many times it was called on Sunday and how many times it was executed correctly. There's Belichick with the team's marketers, reminding them to sell team, because putting just one player's face on a billboard can fracture a locker room. Or he might be handwriting letters to friends, his personal stationary as team-first as he is: Three Lombardi trophies on the front of the card, his name in tiny blue print on the inside. Or perhaps he'll be chatting with players about their lives, because he's realized as he's gotten older that the job is more than X's and O's.
And about those X's and O's: Belichick does not believe he is a genius, as he's been labeled. He does not think smart play-calling is about schematic wizardry. Rather, it's about precision and mitigating risk. And so he provides his coaches with 10 plays for every possible game situation. And for all the gaudy numbers those plays have produced, he's kept the Patriots' playbook relatively simple. One ex-Pat who still has his New England playbook fl ipped through it recently, looking for a significant difference between it and others he's studied around the NFL. "I'd need a few days," he said. The Patriots don't run a slant differently from anyone else, he says. They just run it at the right time.
If Belichick ever overrules his coaches, they're so eager to learn they don't care. Going into a playoff game against the Colts a few years ago, Mangini thought the defensive game plan was smart. But Saturday night, Belichick drew up a scheme for when the Pats were leading and trying to force the Colts offense into long, clock-killing drives. It had one pass-rusher, 10 pass defenders. When are we ever going to use this? Mangini thought. Sure enough, New England was ahead the next day and the defense killed a Colts comeback. "That's when you realize how staggering Bill's creativity, knowledge and work ethic are," Mangini says.
Truth is, he goes to great lengths to accumulate that knowledge. Unlike nearly every other NFL head coach, Belichick is not afraid to ask for help. Most head coaches got where they are on arrogance and expertise; relying on others is seen as a weakness. But not only does Belichick solicit ideas from his coaches, he visits Saban and Florida's Urban Meyer each offseason to pick up ideas. Belichick and Saban run essentially the same defense, and if the Alabama coach has already solved a problem, Belichick will often make the exact same change. "I just take his word for it," Belichick says. It's hard to copy a guy who's still learning.
AND YET they try. Most of Belichick's Proteges say their systems are very similar to the one they learned under their mentor. While it's too soon to make conclusions about the success of his former staffers as a group-Belichick's tree is too vast to be easily defined-the early returns are mixed. Three of them-Crennel, Savage and Mangini-have been fired, with Mangini replacing Crennel in Cleveland. Weis might need a BCS berth to keep his job. McDaniels has already created a PR mess in Denver by failing to acquire former Pats QB Matt Cassel, trading barbs with Jay Cutler, then sending the Pro Bowler to Chicago for the underwhelming Kyle Orton. If disgruntled receiver Brandon Marshall is traded, McDaniels will have disbanded both ends of the league's top QB-WR duo the past two years.
So why hasn't Belichick's gang replicated the boss's success? There are theories. One is that there's an inherent learning curve to running a team. Many fail the first time around, including Belichick. "It's hard," he says. "You're doing a lot of things and it's hard to understand all of them, put them together, keep everything straight and make things more efficient, not just a big mess." Mangini had a winning record two of his three years in New York, but admits to being surprised by the amount of organization required. Weis and Crennel both struggled to re-create the same chemistry they found on Belichick's staff. "You just don't get a feel for that type of thing as an assistant," says Weis.
Second, only a few people know what's going on inside the Patriots organization: Belichick, his longtime friend and assistant Ernie Adams, owner Bob Kraft and team president Jonathan Kraft. "We learned about the team online," says one former staffer. Belichick doesn't allow his assistants in on the rationale behind all of his personnel decisions, making it harder for them to navigate key choices on the draft, salary cap and free agency once they're on their own. Belichick develops his guys, "but they're not true head coaches," says Savage.
As head coaches, his proteges have all been accused of acting like him, as Belichick was accused of mimicking Bill Parcells. The Mangini former Pats colleagues now see with a whistle-so serious he's Belichick to an extreme-isn't the self-effacing guy they used to know. When McDaniels did exactly what Belichick would do in disposing of a quarterback he was unsure of (ask Bernie Kosar and Drew Bledsoe), he was accused of replicating his former boss's arrogance, not his keen eye for personnel. The move might prove prophetic-it did in New England-but if Denver loses early, it could backfire. "We're trying like hell to make the New England system work," he says.
But if Belichick's former charges are trying to replicate him, they're actually not doing what he would do. They're not thinking for themselves. After all, Belichick's football thinking is a direct reflection of his life. His work ethic came from a brutal year at Phillips Academy, where he realized he wasn't as smart as he thought. He has picked up wisdom from people he's met in every phase of his career. As an assistant in Denver, Belichick learned how to teach succinctly from then-Broncos DB coach Richie McCabe. Ted Marchibroda in Baltimore taught him to be flexible. He learned how to evaluate talent from his personnel guy in Cleveland, Mike Lombardi; learned the salary cap from NBA legend Jerry West; learned management from reading Jack Welch & the GE Way. He had to be fired by the Browns and wait five seasons for another chance. To stand with the game's greatest coaches, he has had to summon his 34 years of NFL experience, come off like a jerk at times, endure disputes with star players, pay a $500,000 fine for Spygate and win the lottery with a sixth-round Hall of Fame quarterback. It's as imperfect a path as there has ever been in coaching. That's why, as they depart, Belichick advises his coaches to learn from their time with him, from his experience. Because there's no way to copy it.
WHEN BELICHICK'S legacy is discussed in the league, the conversation isn't about the Super Bowls he's won. At least not lately. It's about how he's responded to three losses-and how those responses have changed people's perception of him. He lost part of his reputation in Spygate and answered with the NFL's first undefeated regular season in 35 years. He lost his star quarterback last season and won 11 games with a guy who hadn't started since high school. He's adapted to losing trusted assistants by altering his system so their departures don't create excuses. In NFL circles he's gone from being respected but disliked to being admired and worth emulating.
Belichick, being Belichick, doesn't speak often about his legacy. But he cares. A man who owns more than 800 football-related books cares about history. And he knows the success of his coaching tree will be his fi nal mark on the league. Belichick's problem-implied, not said-is that his network is missing camaraderie. The coaches in Tony Dungy's tree-Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, Herm Edwards- revere their mentor like a minister. But Belichick's proteges see him as a professor. "You care about each other," he says. "You put a lot into the relationship. For that to dissipate because you're in a competitive situation " His voice trails off. The fallouts he's had-the ones he's mended (Parcells), the ones that may never be (Mangini) and the ones nobody knows about-seem to weigh on him. There's debate among his former staffers about whether or not he cares how they do, but the coach is clear. "I hope they do well," he says. "But it's out of my control."
ONE DAY, Matt Patricia will probably get a goodbye handshake from Bill Belichick. New England's 34-year-old linebackers coach, an aeronautical engineering major from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has coached both offense and defense for the Pats. On a windy night this past February he's opposite Belichick in an Indy steak house, unwinding after a day at the combine. Patricia, stocky and goateed, is hidden by a Patriots hat. Belichick looks like he always does: messy hair, crumpled sweatshirt.
Midnight comes, and as the two men chat it's easy to see a day when Patricia will sit in Belichick's office, his last stop before leaving for his own headcoaching job. He will hear the same flat send-off as so many guys before him have. And then he'll be alone, carrying the lessons of Belichick and the impossible expectations that lay ahead.
NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY
Where will the next Belichick disciple come from? Odds are it won't be from the ranks of former NFL players. Only one of the 13 Patriots' 2009 coaches (including the hooded one himself) ever suited up on Sundays: defensive line coach and former Giants linebacker, Pepper Johnson (right). Neither Josh McDaniels nor Eric Mangini played professionally either. Not that there's anything unusual about Belichick's hiring practices-only 25% of all NFL coaches are former players. Here's the breakdown by job title.
PERCENTAGE OF COACHES WITH NFL PLAYING EXPERIENCE
28% HEAD COACH 9 OF 32
25% OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR 8 OF 32
19% DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR 6 OF 32
30% POSITION COACHES 143 OF 483
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