ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The invitation was open-ended. This past summer, Bill Belichick reached out to the coaching staff at Navy and asked them to spend the first day of veterans’ minicamp with the Patriots. And he wanted to know: What, in particular, did they want to see?
“Just to be a fly on the wall,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo told him.
Many have asked, but few have ever been granted such access to the NFL’s most secretive team. Yet on a Tuesday morning in early June, Niumatalolo found himself in the back of a meeting room at Gillette Stadium, watching Tom Brady show up early and sit in the front row like an eager rookie trying to make the team.
For the rest of the day, Navy’s coaching staff embedded with the Patriots. They attended position meetings. They were out on the practice field. Niumatalolo filled his iPad with more notes than he’d taken in the nearly 30 years since he’d graduated from college. His goal: to gain a better understanding of New England’s winning culture and what makes it work.
“Do your job, hold people accountable,” Niumatalolo says. “I think that’s the difference between him and a lot of people. I don’t know if all NFL people hold their guys accountable like the Patriots and Coach Belichick do.”
In the morning meeting, for example, Niumatalolo watched Belichick begin by showing his players a catalog of very detailed stats that correlate to winning. What kind of stats? “I’d like to be invited back to a meeting,” Niumatalolo politely says, demurring from sharing specifics. But Belichick’s message was clear: These are ways in which teams beat themselves. Don’t beat yourselves.
At one point Belichick introduced his players to the visitors in the back of the room. He then took that opportunity to launch into a 20-minute lesson about World War II history. Niumatalolo recalls that Belichick had notes but scarcely looked at them. He recited specific battles and the dates they happened, and how the power had shifted across different hemispheres. He implored his players to have appreciation for their country’s history.
Later, the Navy coaches got a lesson in pass protection techniques from venerable offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. They also jotted down schemes for all four phases of special teams—punt, kickoff, punt return and kickoff return. All of this intelligence, which the Patriots generally treat as classified information, would soon be implemented at Navy for the 2016 season.
A couple months later, another college coach told Niumatalolo that his staff had also paid an offseason visit to the Patriots—but the curtains hadn’t been lifted for this other team. Niumatalolo didn’t say anything, but he knew the reason why: They weren’t the Naval Academy.
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It was on the Annapolis campus where Bill Belichick learned his lifelong trade. He was 4 years old when his father, Steve, began a 33-year run as a football coach and scout for Navy. The elder Belichick was known not just for turning the practice of scouting into an exact science, which he detailed in his 1962 book, Football Scouting Methods, but also for his offseason workouts that were notorious for being more brutal than Plebe Summer, the grueling training program that all incoming freshmen must endure at the Naval Academy.
Even after Steve Belichick retired in 1989, he didn’t go far. He’d still find his way over to Ricketts Hall, the football building, multiple times per week. He’d grab his morning coffee, and copies of The Washington Post and USA Today, and settle into a seat. When Bill Belichick took over as the Patriots’ coach in 2000, and soon started winning Super Bowls, Steve Belichick didn’t have a computer. So Navy’s sports information director, Scott Strasemeier, had his assistant scour the Internet for Patriots articles published across New England and print them out for Steve to read.
Niumatalolo, who has been the head coach since 2007, first arrived at Navy in 1995 as a running backs coach. Each day, he looked forward to seeing Steve Belichick in Ricketts Hall. The retired coach’s memory was unimpeachable. One spring, Niumatalolo mentioned he was about to head out on a recruiting trip to his native Hawaii. A month or so went by before he ran into Steve again. When he did, Steve cracked: “Have you been in Hawaii this whole time? Geeze, what a job!”
The retired coach also had a regular seat for home games in the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium press box—and he never held back after games. He’d come in the following week armed with a quick comment for any coach who’d pass by: How come you guys didn’t go for it on fourth down? What kind of play was that?
On Nov. 19, 2005, Steve Belichick was in his press box seat for Navy’s 38-17 win over Temple. Later that night, at home, his heart gave out. Niumatalolo was among the 200 or so people at the Naval Academy Chapel for his service four days later, the day before Thanksgiving. Eleven years later, Niumatalolo still remembers much of the eulogy that Bill Belichick delivered for his father.
“I remember Coach Belichick talking about how he used to go along when his dad would scout, and how his dad could see all 22 guys,” Niumatalolo says. “That’s hard. It’s hard enough to see a couple guys. But his dad, by memory, could draw what all 22 guys on the field were doing. Knowing Steve Belichick, and knowing his son, that doesn’t surprise me.”
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Last April, Bill Belichick returned to Annapolis for a business trip of his own. He and his offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, went to work out Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds before the draft. For Niumatalolo, it was another window into the way Belichick works.
McDaniels ran the workout on the practice fields next door to Ricketts Hall, putting Reynolds through a comprehensive set of drills at quarterback, receiver, and punt returner. Reynolds had directed a triple-option offense at Navy, but his athleticism projected to other positions at the NFL level. When McDaniels finished the planned set, he looked over at Belichick. “All right, I’m done,” he told his boss.
“I got one more thing,” Belichick replied.
He asked one of the Navy coaches for a water bottle. Belichick then drenched the football and gave it back to Reynolds. “He wanted to see how he could throw and catch the ball in bad weather,” Niumatalolo says. “I just thought to myself, Holy smokes. No detail is overlooked with this guy.” (The Patriots, despite their interest, didn’t end up drafting Reynolds. The Ravens took him in the sixth round.)
Belichick went back to Navy another time last year, on his way back from the Carolinas on a summer boating trip. He visited his mom, Jeannette, who is 95 now and living in a local assisted-care facility. He texted Niumatalolo to schedule a time when he could stop by Ricketts Hall.
There are ties that will always connect Bill Belichick and the Naval Academy. His father’s gravestone is on gentle slope in the Navy cemetery; his mother will one day be buried there, too. There’s also the Belichick Collection—a library of more than 400 of the family’s football books dating back to 1891—that is housed in Ricketts Hall. The Midshipmen have also used the motto “Do your job” ever since Niumatalolo watched a video clip of Belichick delivering that exact message to his team before one of his earliest Super Bowls.
After visiting Foxborough last June, Navy adjusted its practice script to copy what the Patriots do, stealing some extra periods by having players not involved in special teams doing position work during those blocks of time. And their pass protection and special teams, Niumatalolo says, have improved “dramatically” since applying the Patriots’ techniques.
“Their legacy,” Niumatalolo says, “is real here.”
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