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Master ~ And ~ Commander With football principles learned under his dad, a coach at Navy, brainy Bill Belichick has turned New England into the NFL's mightiest vessel

Aug. 09, 2004
Aug. 09, 2004

Table of Contents
Aug. 9, 2004

Master ~ And ~ Commander With football principles learned under his dad, a coach at Navy, brainy Bill Belichick has turned New England into the NFL's mightiest vessel

Would you like to see Bill's room?" ¶ The kindly voice belongs
to Jeannette Belichick, a petite 82-year-old who is standing in
the living room of her Annapolis, Md., home. Back when she
taught Spanish at Hiram (Ohio) College, Jeannette spoke four
languages fluently and understood seven, but now, as she says
with a smile and a twinkle, "The only language I speak is
football." ¶ It's a short walk to the onetime bedroom of Steve
and Jeannette Belichick's only child, now 52 and coach of the
two-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The twin
beds are made pristinely, as though awaiting military
inspection. Two maritime paintings done by amateur painter
Steve--hang on the walls. A high school graduation photo of
Bill sits on the dresser. The bookshelf is crammed with volumes
from his days at Annapolis High. A Separate Peace, by John
Knowles. Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler. The Case of the
Screaming Woman, a Perry Mason mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner.
There's The Gettysburg Civil War Battle Game and a signed
football from the 1963 Navy team and four trophies from Bill's
childhood athletic triumphs. "That room hasn't changed in 40
years," Bill says when asked about it later.

This is an article from the Aug. 9, 2004 issue Original Layout

The room is, to be frank, a little barren. "It's not a big deal,"
Jeannette says. "That's the way we live."

The contents of the room provide a window into the mind of Bill
Belichick. They tell us that the hottest coach in the NFL is
well-educated and uncluttered in his thinking. Through a
roller-coaster coaching ride that has included a trying stint
with the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s and a Captain Queeg-like
performance in walking away from the New York Jets 24 hours after
being promoted to head coach in January 2000, Belichick has in
many respects remained unaltered. "I don't think he's changed
from his Cleveland days," says good friend Jim Brown, the Hall of
Fame running back, who remains close to the Browns' organization.
"He's acquired some life experiences, but he's exactly the same
man I knew 10 years ago."

As a coach, however, Belichick has continually educated himself,
never allowing himself or his team to become too predictable.
Less than a month after the Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers
to claim their their second Lombardi Trophy last February, he
flew to Baton Rouge and spent two days drawing up schemes with
his former defensive coordinator in Cleveland, LSU coach Nick
Saban. For the second straight year he traveled to the Florida
Keys to pick the brain of fellow two-time Super Bowl winner Jimmy
Johnson. During a vacation on Nantucket before training camp, he
listened to audiotapes of a book by retired Navy captain D.
Michael Abrashoff called It's Your Ship: Management Techniques
from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. He also found time for one
of the Harry Potter tomes. Hey, even a guy as intense as
Belichick has to have fun once in a while.

~~~

"Frank took the hawk to its perch in the garage, set the burglar
alarm, and locked the door. He had just sat down at the table for
lunch when Joe appeared, carrying a volume of the encyclopedia."

--FRANKLIN W. DIXON, THE HOODED HAWK MYSTERY

Even at age nine, Bill Belichick had football on the brain. He was
devoted to his father, a longtime assistant coach and scout at
Navy. Son joined Dad whenever he could. If Steve had to drive to
the Baltimore airport to pick up films on that week's opponent,
Bill rode with him. Once home, Bill not only watched the films
but also saw how his father diagrammed plays. When Bill was nine
or 10, he tagged along to the weekly Monday-night meeting, at
which players were given the scouting report for the next game.

"He'd sit in the back of the room, maybe for 90 minutes a
session," says Steve, now 85. "I never had to say a word to him
about his behavior. He'd stare at the front of the room and not
say a word."

When Bill was 10 or 11, the assistant in charge of the offensive
game plan, Ernie Jorge, sent him an envelope every Thursday
night. BILL'S READY LIST was written on the envelope, and inside
was the game plan for the week, including all the plays. Before
he was a teenager Bill knew terminology, formations, schemes. He
also knew bona fide football stars from the time he spent at
Midshipmen practices. When he was seven, Navy's biggest standout
was running back Joe Bellino, the 1960 Heisman Trophy winner.
"That was his first hero," Steve Belichick says. "Joe was the
hero of a lot of kids in America then, and Bill was his friend."

To this day Bellino, now an auto-auction executive in the Boston
area, remembers playing catch on the practice field with Bill.
"Imagine what Bill must have absorbed," says Bellino. "He'd sit
in the back of the room listening to his father give the scouting
report. He's a six-, seven-, eight-year-old youngster hanging out
at the Naval Academy. Midshipmen in uniform, parades, the brass,
the visiting presidents, the football team with two Heisman
winners [Bellino and 1963 recipient Roger Staubach]. And he saw
his father's work ethic. He saw everyone in that room soak up
what his dad was telling us, believing if we did what he said, we
could beat anybody."

As he got older and the Staubach era began, Belichick was able to
do more. If Staubach wanted to work after practice on a pass he
knew he'd be using that week, Belichick often served as his
receiver. "Say Roger would be working on a sprint-out, throwing
to the sideline," recalls Belichick. "I'd go to the spot on the
sideline and practice the throw. Not a few. I'm talking 20, 30 of
them. People ask me now why I do things a certain way. Look at
the way I grew up. I grew up thinking, This is the way it's
supposed to be."

Meanwhile at home, he and Jeannette read books to each other.
Bill lived for the Hardy Boys. Sometimes, while his mom was
getting dinner ready, he would sit in the kitchen and read a
chapter aloud. Mother and son might trade off at bedtime,
Jeannette reading a chapter, then Bill. In high school, the
reading with Mom didn't stop. A Clockwork Orange one month, The
Godfather the next.

Bill got a taste of the real world when Annapolis High was
integrated before his freshman year, in 1966. It was also then
that he began playing for the second influential football coach
in his life, Al Laramore. "There was no individuality on his
team, other than the number you wore," says Belichick, who worked
his way up to first-string center as a senior. "I learned a lot
about the team concept and about toughness from him. We used to
have one bucket of water at practice. Everyone drank from it. If
he didn't like the way we were practicing, he'd walk to the
bucket, kick it over and say, 'You guys ain't gettin' a water
break today.'"

~~~

"Change is avalanching upon our heads, and most people are
grotesquely unprepared to cope with it."

--ALVIN TOFFLER, FUTURE SHOCK

Actually, Belichick was better at lacrosse than he was at
football. But what he did best was organize. After a year at
Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., he enrolled at Wesleyan
University in Middletown, Conn. Turned off by the poor
facilities at Wesleyan, Belichick got permission from the Naval
Academy athletic director for the Cardinals to hold lacrosse
spring training on the Navy practice fields, and during
consecutive spring breaks the team practiced in Annapolis. The
players bunked at the Belichicks'.

When he graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics in the
spring of 1975, Belichick wasn't sure what he wanted to do. He
thought working in virtually any capacity for the coaching staff
of a college or professional team would be his best way to build
his resume for a full-time graduate assistant's job in college
football, which sounded like fun to him. So he wrote letters to
250 coaches. The Baltimore Colts hired him as a special
assistant. He made $25 a week, and he hitched a ride to and from
work with head coach Ted Marchibroda. Belichick's duties included
telling players who were about to be released that the coach
wanted to see them in his office. On NFL teams that individual is
known as the Turk, but Belichick inherited another nickname: Bad
News Bill.

The pro game grew on him. From Baltimore he moved on to assistant
jobs with the Detroit Lions and the Denver Broncos, and then for
12 years with the New York Giants, first as the special teams
coach, then linebackers coach, then defensive coordinator. He
worked under Bill Parcells for the last eight years, six as
coordinator. "Bill gave me a lot of latitude to do my job,"
Belichick says. "There was probably never a week where he
wouldn't adjust something in the defensive game plan, but he had
a lot of respect for the coaches' doing their jobs." Because
Parcells was a domineering presence with a strong defensive
reputation, it took a while for Belichick to be seen by NFL
owners as his own man. But Browns owner Art Modell hired him
after the Giants won their second Super Bowl, in January 1991.

From the beginning in Cleveland, Belichick was tougher and more
demanding of the players than any of his recent predecessors.
With reporters he was notoriously uncommunicative. His
monosyllabic answers became so legendary ("Sitting through his
press conferences was like putting a sharp pencil into your eye,"
says Tony Grossi, who covered the team for The Plain Dealer in
Cleveland) that when Patriots owner Robert Kraft was thinking of
hiring Belichick in 2000, an executive from one NFL team sent him
a tape of one of the coach's media sessions and said, "Are you
serious about hiring this guy?"

In the middle of the 1993 season Belichick decided that
quarterback Bernie Kosar had become ineffective on the field and,
with his complaints about what he thought was an unimaginative
offense, a distraction off it. Backup Vinny Testaverde was hurt,
but that didn't stop Belichick from releasing Kosar. The Browns,
5-3 at the time, lost six of their last eight games. "We've
kissed and made up," Kosar said recently. "We were both type A
personalities who had different ideas about how we should be
doing things. Now, as you can see, the man can coach."

Unlike many of the Cleveland players, Browns coaches loved
working for Belichick. Every Monday after a win over an AFC
Central opponent, he would have his secretary cash a check from
his personal account, and $200 in cash would be left on the desk
of every assistant. Before the coaching staff headed off on
vacation every June, he would distribute the proceeds from his TV
and radio shows to his assistants--maybe $12,000 a man--and take
nothing for himself. "Bill remembered what it was like to be an
assistant coach," says his former line coach Kirk Ferentz, now
the head coach at Iowa. "He gave everyone a second Christmas. You
think that doesn't make you loyal?" One time Belichick left a
$100 bill in the car ashtray of low-level scout Scott Pioli. When
Pioli protested that he didn't need the money, Belichick replied,
"Shut up and take it. I've been where you've been."

Before the staff split for vacation one summer, Ferentz
remembers, Belichick gave each assistant a book to read. One got
The Winner Within, by Pat Riley. One got a book on the history of
the Browns. One got Educating Dexter, about the drug addiction of
former All-Pro defensive end Dexter Manley. Ferentz got One More
July, by George Plimpton, about former Alabama and Green Bay
Packers center Bill Curry. Belichick thought Ferentz could
benefit from learning about Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi. "Bill
wanted us to read the books, then give reports on what we learned
that could help the staff," Ferentz says. "He was always doing
things like that."

"That's the thing about Bill," says former Browns player
personnel director Mike Lombardi, now an Oakland Raiders
executive. "He was always 'in search of.' When the salary cap and
free agency were coming into the league, I told him I thought we
should go see Jerry West, because he'd done such a great job
managing the Lakers. We met [West] in Chicago at [the NBA] summer
camp for draftees, and we spent three hours talking." West's
advice: Develop your own players so you can manage salaries, and
don't buy into the one-player-at-any-cost mentality.

That was tough when you worked for Modell. "Around the office,"
says one Browns staffer, "we used to say our organizational
philosophy was, 'Ready, fire, aim.'" In the spring of 1995,
following an 11-5 season and a playoff win over Parcells's
Patriots, Modell signed troubled but talented free-agent wideout
Andre Rison to a five-year, $17 million deal. Rison lasted one
season. Following a chaotic 5-11 season in '95--the one during
which Modell announced he was moving the franchise to
Baltimore--Belichick was fired.

"I didn't walk away from there saying I did a bad job," says
Belichick, who was 36-44 in five seasons. "Not at all. We took a
bad team, made it pretty good, made the playoffs, had a bad year
in the most off-the-charts negative situation maybe in football
history, got fired. It just wasn't a good mix between Art and
me."

No one except those closest to him realizes it, but it was
because of his experience with Modell that Belichick walked away
from the Jets' job. Belichick knew he might get only one more
chance to be an NFL head coach, and he didn't want that to be
under the thumb of an owner he didn't know (the Jets were up for
sale), with a club president he viewed as a know-nothing (Steve
Gutman) and, to a much lesser degree, a director of football
operations he felt he had outgrown (Parcells). If he was going to
be a head coach again, he would do it on his terms.

~~~

"Each small victory improves the odds that you will triumph at
the moment of truth."

--PAT RILEY, THE WINNER WITHIN

Then he joined New England 23 days after bailing on the Jets,
Belichick had two important things going for him. He had an
owner, Kraft, who was committed to letting him make all the
football decisions. And in Pioli he brought along a personnel
man who had his full support. On the day Belichick took the
job, the Patriots were $10 million over the salary cap, so in
2000 he made his first order of business eliminating the
surplus. That season the Patriots finished 5-11. "It was a rude
awakening," says Kraft. "We paid so many guys, and we were
still losing. We had to shut off the financial spigot."

Kraft saw a slightly different Belichick than the one he'd known
in 1996 as a Pats assistant. "He used to be a junior Parcells,"
Kraft says. "He walked around saying things like, 'This team's
worse than I thought,' or, 'We can't win with this.' I told him
to cut it out. Who needs that? Talk to me about what we can do to
make it better. And he did."

Belichick and Pioli studied more than 200 free agents in the
early months of 2001. They signed 17 bit players who made the
Patriots the next season for a piddling combined signing-bonus
charge of $2.7 million. One was Mike Vrabel, miscast as a
special-teamer and a backup linebacker with the Pittsburgh
Steelers. Belichick thought the speedy and athletic Vrabel could
fill two roles--dropping into coverage from defensive end or
linebacker and playing as a nickel pass rusher.

"Until the Patriots called me, I thought seriously of going to
law school, because my career with Pittsburgh wasn't working
out," says Vrabel. "I didn't think anyone would find a way to use
me. But I was amazed how much Bill knew about me. One day he came
up to me and said, 'Remember in that Miami preseason game last
year, how you played the power block? That's how we want to do it
here.' In situational football, which is basically what the NFL
is today, he's got to be the best mind out there." Against the
St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, Vrabel pressured Kurt Warner
into an interception that cornerback Ty Law returned for a
touchdown. In Super Bowl XXXVIII, Vrabel had two sacks against
the Panthers and, in a classic display of Belichick ingenuity,
caught a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Tom Brady.

Having studied the game for so long, and having understood it
with such clarity since age 12, Belichick has the confidence to
try anything that makes sense to him. He is always open to
suggestions from his assistant coaches. Before the Super Bowl he
was concerned about the power running of Carolina's Stephen
Davis, so defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel suggested
disguising a scheme that got backup linemen Jarvis Green and Ty
Warren more involved. Davis carried 13 times for 49 yards.

The first time New England faced quarterback Drew Bledsoe after
trading him to the Buffalo Bills in 2002, the Patriots surprised
the Bills by not blitzing. Seven or eight times in the game, New
England used a defense that had no linemen, four linebackers
standing at or near the line and seven defensive backs. The Pats
won 38-7. Against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship
Game last January, New England told its players to be extremely
physical with the Colts' wide receivers. On eight to 10 plays the
Pats flopped Law and safety Rodney Harrison in their coverage of
Marvin Harrison. The idea was to encourage Peyton Manning to
throw short to Marvin Harrison, which would allow the defense to
clobber the All-Pro wideout. If Manning elected to throw deep,
Law would be there with blanket coverage. The four interceptions
thrown by Manning, three of them by Law, told the story of the
game. "There was a lot we hadn't seen," says Indianapolis coach
Tony Dungy. "But that's the thing about Bill. He's not afraid to
take risks."

Adds former Giants quarterback and current CBS analyst Phil
Simms, "Bill changes all the time. To continue to win, you've got
to."

That's why Belichick was in Baton Rouge last February. Even
though his defense allowed the fewest points per game in the
league last season (14.9) and held opponents to the fewest yards
per pass attempt (5.23), Belichick wasn't about to stand pat. "He
had just won the Super Bowl, for crying out loud, but here he
was," says Saban. "We went at it for two days."

One new scheme Belichick came away with was a way to make his
Cover 4 look like Cover 2. In Cover 4, a quartet of defensive
backs spreads out across the deep secondary, each taking a
quarter of the field. In Cover 2, two deep safeties are
responsible for half the field. A quarterback has maybe three
seconds from the time he takes the snap to the time he releases
the ball. If he's expecting two deep safeties, he'd be pretty
comfortable throwing an 18-yard out, assuming the receiver can
beat his corner to the sideline. If while the quarterback drops,
Cover 2 morphs into Cover 4, the intermediate and deep areas
suddenly get more crowded. A panicked quarterback might not
recognize the change until it is too late.

At a minicamp in June, Brady went against Belichick's new scheme
for the first time. "I was sure it was Cover 2, then all of a
sudden I'm seeing Cover 4," Brady says. "The more I don't
understand what I'm seeing, the longer it takes me to get into my
read progression. The later I throw, the better the chances are
for an incompletion or interception."

Belichick knows, however, that sustaining success in today's NFL
requires more than just devising defensive wrinkles. When he met
with Johnson this year, the topic was how to keep a championship
team together. "Don't think I'm going to give you a solution
you'll be happy with," Johnson told him. "You've won two of the
last three Super Bowls, and the problem with that is that
everyone in the organization thinks they're a bigger reason than
they are for your winning." Johnson's advice: Quietly put
incentives into the contracts of players you want to keep, don't
redo any contract until the last season of the deal and figure
out who you can win without.

"Jimmy's really the only guy in this era who's lived it, who's
dealt with what we're dealing with, and more," Belichick says.
"Who else am I gonna talk to?"

~~~

"You must adapt to your opportunities and weaknesses. You can use
a variety of approaches and still have a consistent result."

--SUN TZU, THE ART OF WAR

Befittingly, Belichick has a library full of books in his brick
house in a leafy Boston suburb. While examining the titles one
day this summer, a visitor came across a thin, worn paperback.

"The Art of War," the visitor said, looking at the translation of
a 2,500-year-old treatise on the Chinese principles of warfare.
"Wow. You read that?"

"Yeah," Belichick replied, getting a look on his face not unlike
the one he wears when a play goes wrong. "I got something out of
it. But, you know, 'Don't move your troops when the ground is
muddy'? I mean...."

He's not saying he's any smarter than Sun Tzu. He just knows that
he's got a pretty good brain, and he's willing to use it. Just as
Jeannette and Steve Belichick taught their boy to do.

SI.com
Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback, plus news and Postcards
from Training Camp, at si.com/nfl.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ELISE AMENDOLA/AP PAT APPROACH Belichick has parlayed his defensive wizardry andsalary-cap shrewdness into two Super Bowl titles.COLOR PHOTO: DEHOOG/TDPB/W PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE BELICHICK FAMILY (TOP) BIG STICK At six Bill was a little slugger; at Wesleyan (top row,far right), he was a lacrosse ringleader.B/W PHOTO: COURTESY OF WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: JERRY PINKUS (TOP) TUNA HELPER After directing Lawrence Taylor (56) and the Giants' defense under Parcells, Belichick took over the Browns.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: TIM CAMMETT/WIREIMAGE.COM (TOP) BY THE BOOK Belichick's dad (left) let him sit in on Navy coaches' meetings and taught him to button down every detail.COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE