Pete Carroll was not Patriots owner Robert Kraft's ?rst choice to replace Bill Parcells in 1997. Kraft had grown close to Belichick in his year with the Patriots after Art Modell ?red him as the Browns were moving from Cleveland to Baltimore. Belichick had alienated Browns fans with his secretive ways, lack of personality, painful-to-watch news conferences, and his controversial decision to cut popular quarterback Bernie Kosar, who grew up in nearby Boardman, Ohio. Modell knew that to get started on an upbeat note in Baltimore he could not take the morose Belichick with him. Parcells threw Belichick a career-saving lifeline and brought him to New England to help with the defense for what turned out to be a Super Bowl year. Kraft and Belichick became buddies.
"We had our budget full when Belichick got ?red," Kraft said. "Parcells said, 'Look, this is a guy I think we should have in the system. You talk to him and you see if you agree.' I liked him from the minute I met him. That's when I realized I would eventually hire him as a coach."
Kraft and his wife, Myra, and Belichick and his wife, Debby, went to dinner after Parcells left, and Kraft explained why he had to make a clean break from the Parcells era. "I probably should have hired him," Kraft said. "But in the important decisions in life, I go with my instinct. I don't think Belichick would have been right in '96. I told him when I didn't hire him that I thought he had to work on how he handled the media, how he handled things. But the real problem I had with him was he was so tight with Parcells. I thought Parcells had stuck it to us. Belichick wanted to stay with us. He didn't want to go."
It shows the depth of Kraft's enmity for Parcells at that point that he dismissed Belichick, whom he considered a friend, "because I didn't want anything to do with Parcells," he said. "Anyone who could live with Parcells for so many years and be under his thumb, I needed someone as a head coach I could trust, and I hired a guy who is the antithesis. As soon as I met Pete, I knew I wanted to hire him."
Kraft needed to heal, and Carroll was exactly the right medicine to help Kraft get over Parcells. Carroll has an infectious personality, and players liked playing for him.
Parcells was the tough Jersey guy. He had friends in the Boston media. Carroll was California cool, and that didn't play well in one of the toughest sports towns in America. He used to wear sandals to work, not that there is anything wrong with that; it just didn't play well in Beantown. "Can you see Bill Parcells coming to a meeting in sandals?" Kraft said. "Pete is one of the truly great guys in the coaching fraternity, and I didn't give him all the support he needed. Pete was inclusive. Look, in the end, I needed someone to make me feel good. It was good for me to have a guy like Pete Carroll because he's my kind of guy. I mean, we loved Pete. You want Pete to marry into your family. I love the guy to this day. He's an awesome guy."
Kraft just didn't want him as his head coach anymore. Three years was enough. The team was going backward. Carroll won the AFC East with a 10-6 record in his ?rst year in New England and lost 7-6 to the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the second round of the playoffs after beating Miami in the wild-card game. He made the playoffs his second year but lost in the wild-card game to the Jaguars. The Patriots won just nine games that year, and making things worse, Parcells and the Jets ?nished 12-4 and won the AFC East for the ?rst time since the division was formed in 1970. New England avoided further embarrassment when the Jets blew a 10-0 second half lead in Denver in the AFC championship game and failed to make the Super Bowl. In 1999, the Patriots started 6-2 and looked like one of the better teams in the NFL, but they went just 2-6 in the second half of the season and missed the playoffs at 8-8. They had gone from eleven victories in Parcells's ?nal season down to ten, then nine, then eight with Carroll. Kraft ?red him.
"Pete was very good, but I probably went overboard in cutting down his in?uence over personnel to the point where I didn't give him a fair chance," Kraft said.
The scars had healed from Parcells, and Kraft felt the time was right to bring Belichick back to New England. Even though Belichick came off looking like a stooge when he ran interference for Parcells in the 1997 scam by briefly taking the Jets head coaching job as a way to get Parcells to New York, it wasn't something Kraft held against him. He remembered how as Belichick was leaving the Patriots, he not only spoke to him about the personnel on the team but how thorough he was in his presentation. That was his guy, and it was the right time.
The Kraft-Belichick marriage turned out to be one of the best owner-coach relationships in football history. Belichick turned out to be a combination of Parcells and Carroll. He's tough like Parcells and a control freak like Parcells. Publicly, he's cranky, but with Kraft, he's open and honest. He doesn't have Carroll's outgoing personality, but he respects his boss the way Carroll did.
"Whatever I want to know, I know," Kraft said. "Is he forthcoming? He knows what I want to know, and he tells me. He's smart because he knows it's in his interests, especially if something doesn't go right.
'Bill will leave me voice mails at eleven, eleven thirty at night, on his way home. Then I'm speaking to him at six in the morning. That's six days a week. That's just what it is." Belichick had Kraft's complete backing, and Kraft gave him the power he had taken away from Parcells and never gave to Carroll.
But Belichick had developed the rules-breaking program of having one of his video guys tape the opponent's defensive coaches hand signals sending in the alignment. He was caught during the 2007 season opener against the Jets.
It was dubbed Spygate, and the scandal had such a long shelf life that you can't tell the story of Belichick's career without bringing it up. Commissioner Roger Goodell ?ned Belichick the maximum $500,000, the most a coach had ever been ?ned. He ?ned the Patriots $250,000 and took away a ?rst-round pick from New England in 2008. Belichick was fortunate Goodell did not suspend him.
"Everybody has their idiosyncrasies, but if there is trust, that's the key in business, in marriages," Kraft said. "You build a sense of trust so you go through rough times. Look what happened with this bogus thing with the Jets. I stood by him pretty darn good. That was rough."
Kraft questioned Belichick about his use of the videotape.
"How much did this help us on a scale of 1 to 100?" Kraft said. "One," Belichick replied.
"Then you're a real schmuck," Kraft said.
Maybe Kraft had blind loyalty to Belichick because he delivered three Super Bowl rings, but he never thought about ?ring him after Spygate. He believes Belichick wouldn't do anything "deliberately" wrong. "He would take every edge he could get, but he would never knowingly break the rules or cross the line," he said. "I know him. I'm not saying he was a choirboy."
There was never a doubt in Kraft's mind that he would support Belichick. He didn't condone what he did, but he wasn't going to end their relationship because he made a mistake. "Your wife gets very sick. You dump her? Or your kid makes a bad mistake. It's your kid," he said. "It's your family. How can you get people to dig deep and go through the wall for you if they know you're not going to be there for them when they need you? You make your decisions, you think it out, you get good people, and then you stay the course. And then the wind comes and the lightning comes and you stay the course."
Kraft one day should be in the Hall of Fame as an owner. Belichick's three Super Bowl championships as a head coach and two as an assistant will get him to Canton, too. That won't stop critics from saying that what the Patriots accomplished before the videotaping was stopped is tainted.
But as Kraft says: "That's their problem."