Preparation leads Belichick to top

Preparation and dedication has kept Bill Belichick and the Patriots one step ahead.

Updated: December 20, 2003, 7:05 PM ET
By Jeff Reynolds | Pro Football Weekly

He had never been to New England. The odds he actually would end up in New England, Steve Belichick thought to himself, might be even at best. The Northeast was fine and all, but what did his son know about New England?

As the discussion progressed, a 17-year-old Bill Belichick, then a junior football and lacrosse star at Annapolis (Md.) High, had dropped the gavel on his father, on his intentions to attend college in New England. Not with an authoritarian roar, mind you, but with the same decisive nature that stamped his ticket back to New England in 2000.

Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick and the Patriots are looking for their 11th straight win.
"He didn't hesitate," said Steve, 84, a retired Navy football coach of 33 years and fullback for the Detroit Lions in 1941. "Turns out, he'd done all this research. Of course, he knew exactly what he was looking for."

As did Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who made Bill the head coach in New England in January 2000. Belichick was persona non grata as a head-coaching candidate after an unceremonious ouster in Cleveland in 1995. Many with Kraft's ear, some with personnel pull in the league, pleaded with Kraft not to hire Belichick. Even Patriots fans didn't want Belichick to replace Pete Carroll. But Belichick had left a positive impression on Kraft in '96, when, as defensive coordinator, Belichick shared personnel and philosophical tendencies that Kraft says "almost always were right."

Two years after Kraft spat in the face of popular opinion and even traded a first-round pick for Belichick, they shared a toast over the Lombardi Trophy.

"I had to trust my own instincts," Kraft said by airphone last week. "In any decision, there are risks and rewards. People would tell me, 'He's terrible with the media. He's a great coordinator, not a great coach. Did you see what happened in Cleveland?'

"Bill was right for me. I had that exposure to him in '96, and I always believed in him. It gave me comfort to give him control of our franchise."

Making a name

A dozen years passed before the name Bill Belichick, as defensive coordinator of the 1986 Super Bowl champion New York Giants, became synonymous with defense and winning. Having landed with Ted Marchibroda and the Baltimore Colts in 1975 after his father arranged a face-to-face meeting to get Bill the "gopher hire," Bill made his own way through the league.

Well, kind of. He was still armed with what he said last week was a lifetime of invaluable knowledge divulged from Monday film sessions at Navy, father-son Q&A's at the dinner table and the occasional brush with Roger Staubach -- who was simply known as "the quarterback" to a 10-year-old Belichick.

The equivalent of a quality-control coach under Marchibroda, Belichick drew notice from other teams, banked knowledge and attacked new territory like settlers met the open range.

"The way I started out was pretty unusual," Belichick said, sounding a bit nostalgic. "At the end of my first four years (in the NFL), I had four years on special teams, a year with wide receivers and tight ends, two years of being like the quality-control guy on defense, a year with primarily the secondary and another with the linebackers. That was tremendous exposure to a lot of different coaches and systems and philosophies."

A hands-on exhibit in the benefits of cross-training is what Belichick made it.

"He was willing to work 'round the clock for nothing and learn everything he could about the game," Marchibroda said.

In Detroit, Belichick studied defense with Fritz Shurmur -- a Jim Johnson coordinator of his day who never met a blitz he didn't like -- talked special teams with Floyd Reese and grilled offensive line coach Joe Bugel at every turn.

Belichick ended up the Lions' wide receivers coach because he was so adept in teaching coverage recognition. He was a sponge who talked little and documented everything he could.

In 1993, with the advent of free agency, the Browns were among the first teams in the league to have extensive scouting reports on every player in the league. That offseason, Belichick assigned each Browns assistant a chore: Find out how three teams utilize practice time to make them better. Belichick wasn't trying to gain a strategic advantage or uncover hidden secrets. He wanted to make sure he had all the information needed in making out his daily practice schedule. This was the same head coach who had 18 years of experience and the knowledge base equal to the width of a decade of New York City phonebooks.

"No stone unturned," said Pat Hill, head coach at Fresno State and a special-assignment scout in Cleveland in '93. "His organizational structure, a lot probably comes from his father with that military background, but he's so prepared for any and every situation. Nothing is ever half-assed."

That philosophy is on display this season with Patriots rookies Eugene Wilson and Dan Klecko, among other contemporary pupils. Wilson, ranked by New England as one of the top cornerbacks in the 2003 draft, started his 13th game of the season at free safety last week vs. Jacksonville. Not a major role reversal to a layman, but a rarity in the pro ranks. Klecko, tiny by NFL standards as a defensive lineman at 280 pounds, has played nose tackle, linebacker and fullback. Just as Steve Belichick maximized as a coach -- he had one hour to install a game plan because of the hectic schedules the Midshipmen keep -- Bill still marches in step.

"It doesn't matter if the coaches have the knowledge," said Hill, bubbling with praise and half-admitting he felt inept comparing his own habits to Belichick's. "The key is getting the players the knowledge in a manner that it is understood and becomes functional... second nature."

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, offensive line coach in Cleveland from 1993 to '95, had worked for Marchibroda but remembers Belichick coaching every player, every day, like he was a starter.

"Our philosophy is to coach the players and not start in the middle of the season with, 'OK, Eugene. You might be playing safety this week,' " Belichick said. "That starts in minicamp through training camp and preseason games and the season. You don't want to try to build in the depth the day of the game."

Taking credit

Nudging Belichick into the limelight and getting him to stand up and take credit is more likely, by the narrowest of margins, than a Patriots fan buying a "Bobby Grier Sings the Holiday Classics" album, but it isn't easy. He answered our interview request, as expected, by suggesting, rather adamantly, the story focus on the way his team has performed. But Belichick's peers, players and pupils pile on the praise. The universal trait his colleagues appreciate and respect is his willingness to and effectiveness in making difficult decisions.

Part of the fan apathy in Cleveland came after Belichick and his immediate support staff of Ozzie Newsome and Michael Lombardi announced that quarterback Bernie Kosar, one of the team lifelines to the fan base, would be released in 1993. The reaction in the meeting in which Belichick announced the move would be made was described as stunned "silence."

"He wasn't afraid to make that decision if it was best for the team," said Jim Schwartz, Titans defensive coordinator and one-time Browns scout. "There are a lot of coaches who aren't going to make those hard decisions. It takes a lot of balls to cut a guy like that. But Bill isn't about P.R. He's about football and putting the best product on the field. That's what other coaches respect about him, and more importantly, that is why his players love and respect him."

Much was made of Belichick releasing Pro Bowl strong safety Lawyer Milloy four days before the first game of the 2003 season. Reports of controversy and upheaval in the locker room were greatly exaggerated. The moment, or day, of shock passed. Players trusted that Belichick had made the right move. Their head coach wouldn't allow the mood to swing too far in one direction.

On the way to the Super Bowl in 2001, the Patriots started 1-3 and lost franchise centerpiece Drew Bledsoe. Sixth-round pick Tom Brady, who had taken more snaps than the average No. 2 quarterback but was still as green as they come, stepped in, won and helped prompt Belichick's decision to launch Bledsoe in the offseason.

"When they started 1-3, he wasn't abandoning ship," Schwartz said. "He wasn't running around, changing the scheme. His message stayed the same. When you can do that for your players, you get respect and response.

"Take all the X's and O's out of the equation; that's the best thing he does as a head coach: He doesn't waver. His consistency is remarkable. Some coaches are sky high one day, in the doldrums the next. Not Bill, and the players rely on him because they know what he's all about -- he's giving them a consistent message."

Belichick said: "We've made some tough decisions. It's a credit to Mr. Kraft. He's been 100 percent supportive of them and given me the latitude to do that. We've spent money. Everything a coach could ask for in order to coach and run a team, it has been provided."

No stone unturned. His organizational structure, a lot probably comes from his father with that military background, but he's so prepared for any and every situation. Nothing is ever half-assed.
Pat Hill, head coach at Fresno State and a special-assignment scout in Cleveland in '93

Looking at the facts

Passing judgment on Belichick based on popular opinion skips Step 1 in the Steve Belichick Guide to Making Your Own Decisions: Go straight to the facts.

"They made him out to be the village idiot in Cleveland," Steve Belichick said, adding that the Browns' 11-win season in 1994 was a miracle of a coaching job. "That's the way it is. When you win, you are really smart. If you lose, you aren't."

Nebulous and dry, guarded and dishonest. That's the portrait members of the Cleveland and New York media painted of Bill Belichick in the early and mid-'90s. It may be that coaches and players who choose to maintain a secure level of privacy, as Belichick did, and perhaps to a lesser degree still does, are easy prey.

A privileged few for sure, but those who truly know Belichick -- not co-workers or former assistants, but close friends and family -- when he takes off the hooded sweatshirt, drops the whistle and invites them into his world, say they would die for Bill Belichick. Why? He'd do the same for them.

The public image is a product of limited exposure. It sees Belichick speaking in the most general of generalities at a press conference and can't help but perpetuate what some media still envision -- a gruff, layered and secretive head coach who is "all football."

Belichick's inner circle need not wince to conjure up images of an affectionate and loyal Belichick: drudging across the Gillette Stadium turf in pursuit of ball-carrying sons Stephen and Brian, as per postgame family ritual, playing lacrosse with daughter Amanda or playing, minus the costume, Santa Claus and depositing a few greenbacks at the desk of a scout or assistant coach at a time that made it impossible for the recipient to offer thanks.

Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli knows the Patriots' head coach as well as anyone not named Belichick. He and Belichick have tag-teamed since 1992 -- interrupted by Pioli's one-year stint in Baltimore -- when Pioli took the ultimate leap of faith.

As a DL coach at Murray State in '91, Pioli was a salaried employee earning $25,000, lasting funds in Murray, Ky. Looking to move up a notch, Pioli had interviewed and been offered a spot in the 49ers' personnel department, an entry-level gig for $24,000. Still, Pioli wanted to query the Browns. He had struck up a friendship with Belichick in 1987, after meeting him at Giants training camp. Pioli's instincts proved right.

"(Belichick) said, 'I'm not sure what the job is, I'm not sure what the title is. And I have no idea what the salary is. Do you want it or not?' " Pioli recalled.

The next day Pioli informed his then-employer, Murray State, and his suitor, the 49ers, that he would leave $12,000 on the table and accept less than $15,000 to join Belichick.

Making a decision

The single case of delayed judgment from Bill, at least the only case in which his parents detected doubt or uncertainty, was one of great gravity. A senior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., Belichick wasn't ready to hit the accelerator. He didn't need a map, and he had directions. Bill wanted to make certain, midway through his final semester, he'd never need reverse.

"He never showed any interest in wanting to be a football coach," recalled Steve, who said Bill mastered game-film before his 13th birthday. "He spent a lot of time with me, and he was interested in football."

More concerned with blocking assignments as a center and tight end at Wesleyan, the last time Bill had pondered not actually playing football was in junior high. He had mentioned to his father a possible career in coaching. But from that point on, all the way through college, his focus was always on playing.

Most athletes, serious ones, remember the day the harsh realization that their genes, their gifts and abilities, weren't going to carry them as far as their dreams had. Belichick was no different. He never thought of himself as NFL-caliber, but he loved the game. Even Bill Belichick, the head coach, says Bill Belichick, the player, wouldn't have had a spot.

"No way," Bill said. "I wasn't any good. I would have found somebody better."

Steve had several connections. Most knew Bill personally from stops at Navy or meeting him at summer football camps. Big-timers like Paul Brown, Weeb Ewbank and Don Shula. But Bill tried to pave his career with his own might when, finally, and "kind of late," as Steve tells it, he transferred his dream to coaching. Bill sent 130 letters across the country, seeking employ of various levels. He still has the "eight or 10 responses."

"I thought there would be more options than there were," Bill said.

Coaches won't believe in destiny. Luck can be a factor, but you have to make your own. Belichick chose to make New England his domicile, New England didn't necessarily choose him. What did they know about Belichick?

Of course, he knew exactly what he was looking for.

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