July 11, 2009

HE'S SO SMART HE CAN SPELL GENIUS WITH JUST THE "G":

"this Is The Way It's Supposed To Be": The son of a Naval Academy coach, Bill Belichick grew up in the game: listening to Joe Bellino, catching balls thrown by Roger Staubach and waiting for a sideline to call his own (Peter King, February 16, 2005, SI)

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 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 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."

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.'"

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 the best way to build his r�sum� 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 inspired another nickname: Bad News Bill.

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 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?" [...]

"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. "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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 11, 2009 11:59 AM
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