On a chilly Wednesday morning in Foxboro, Massachusetts, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick casually walked to the podium to address the media at Gillette Stadium. On the verge of his 13th appearance in an AFC Championship Game as the Pats head coach, it might seem that obligations such as these are simply business as usual. However, Belichick (never one to rest on his laurels) refuses to take anything for granted. He is single-minded in purpose. Outside distractions are neither a concern, nor an excuse.
When asked about the potential of frigid, arctic cold weather being a factor in the Patriots matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, Belichick replied in true fashion:
“I love to play in a championship game. Schedule it wherever you want. We’ll be there.”
He did not verbally dismiss the weather, nor did he berate the reporter who asked him the question. Rather, he simply conveyed his message. At the moment, Belichick has nothing in his sights but the Kansas City Chiefs football team. It is this focus that makes him who he is; the greatest head coach in professional sports.
A Student-Teacher of the Game
Belichick’s prowess as an NFL head coach requires no embellishment. His enshrinement in Canton became a mere formality long ago. However, the sustained success with which he has guided the Patriots over the past two decades remains his greatest mystique. Whether he is praised as a ‘defensive genius’ or playfully mocked as a ‘diabolical manipulator,’ Belichick has reached the top of the coaching plateau for one, simple reason. He has never ceased to be a student of the game.
Bill Belichick is renowned for his penchant for watching and examining game film. While some will read this sentence through the delusional lens of “Spygate” falsehoods, Belichick’s ability to break down game strategy is second to none. Since entering the league as a low-level assistant with the Baltimore Colts in 1975, he has used each and every opportunity to increase his knowledge of football. In the 43 years since, his appetite for improvement has only become more voracious. Whether it be on the field, or in the media room, Belichick is always watching and learning. One needs not look further for a better reason why the Patriots so often seem to be a step ahead of their competition.
In addition to studying film, Belichick is also a master at football reconnaissance. Many of his friends in the business have likened football discussions with him as ‘benign brain-picking.’ Whether it be his curiosity regarding one of their recent draft picks, or seeking an opinion on a rule interpretation, his conversational battery-mate can be sure of one thing: Bill Belichick has come into the discussion having done his homework.
However, his thirst for knowledge is not what has made Belichick the longest tenured head coach in the NFL today. It is his ability to put that knowledge into practice. On the field, the student becomes the teacher with an unparalleled effectiveness. Belichick is not afraid to impart his concepts with monotonous repetition, until it is ingrained deep into his players’ bones. His players will frequently practice basic hand techniques and foot placements. They will become experts on ways to bat down a pass, shed a blocker, or gain leverage. Simply put, they will do so until they get it right. Over the past 19 years, the Patriots have routinely been one of the most disciplined, and fundamentally sound teams in the NFL. That starts at the top, with their head coach. Each coach that has coached under Belichick has absorbed this mentality. As a result, they have sought to put these methods into practice when they obtain positions of greater stature.
With the New England Patriots near two-decade run of success, it is no surprise that several Belichick-disciples have been highly-coveted candidates for head coaching vacancies. Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Nick Saban, Bill O’Brien and Matt Patricia have been sone of the most high-profile ‘branches of the Belichick coaching tree’ to land in the head seat. Current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also spent time as head coach of the Denver Broncos from 2009-2010. While it has yet to be confirmed, it is highly expected that current Patriots’ de-facto defensive coordinator, Brian Flores, will leave the team at the conclusion of the 2018 season to become the head coach of the Miami Dolphins.
In each of these instances, the ‘branches’ of Belichick’s ‘tree’ were hired with great expectations. Each team brimmed with optimism as they anticipated a siphoning of the Belichickian tank of knowledge. However, the success enjoyed by Bill Belichick and the Patriots has not translated to that of his protégés with the same frequency and abundance at the NFL level. Aside from Nick Saban (at the collegiate level), no ‘branch” of Bill’s coaching tree has enjoyed championship-level prosperity.
Sure, there have been moments of fleeting celebration. O’Brien has enjoyed modest success as the keeper of the helm of the Houston Texans. Eric Mangini earned a 10-6 record in his first year as head coach of the New York Jets, which earned him a cameo on HBO’s The Sopranos. McDaniels and Patricia each notched regular-season wins over their former boss. However, as jobs have come and gone, Belichick remains the only constant. Why is that? The answer is quite simple. Bill Belichick has always remained his own man.
“Who’s a better consigliere than my father?”
In trying to emulate their mentor, so many Belichick-protégés have failed to grasp one simple concept. There is a difference between being ‘like’ Bill Belichick and trying to ‘BE’ him. It should be noted that he, himself, is no stranger is having to evolve from a legendary shadow. Having served as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants under Bill Parcells during much of the 1980s, Belichick also struggled to find his identity, at first. His tenure as head coach of the Cleveland Browns from 1991-1995 is often (and unfairly) regarded as a failure. However, he was able to harness his own persona by using the example from the man he admired most. That man was his father, Steve Belichick.
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Anyone familiar with the Patriots head coach is keenly aware of the reverence and respect with which he holds his father’s memory. Keeping the great love between and father and son out of the equation, Belichick is a staunch advocate of his father’s coaching philosophy. He often cites Steve Belichick’s highly-regarded book “Football Scouting Methods” as the greatest influence on his coaching methods. The elder Belichick, a legendary Naval Academy assistant coach, regarded the key to being a successful coach to mastering “the alignment, assignment, and execution of every move of every player visible on the screen.” Once he embraced this fundamental principle, Bill was able to put his father’s wisdom into a practice all his own. He wasn’t trying to ‘be’ his father. He was following his example. The results have more than spoken for themselves.
A Sixth-Sense of Accomplishment?
As he pursues his sixth Super Bowl championship, Belichick continues to march to the beat of his own drum. Much has changed in the game of football since his ‘rookie’ campaign in 1975. The rules of the game have evolved. Media coverage has become far more scrutinous. The era of ‘no-frills grit’ has been supplanted by that of the ‘sound byte’ and the ‘hot take.’ In some cases, the appearance is more important than the result.
However, Bill Belichick remains ‘the constant’ due to his unwillingness to change the formula with which he has found so much success. Of course, he evolves with the times, as any person would. Yet, there are core axioms and fundamentals that keep him firmly within the grasp of his own counsel. In his own words, Belichick once simply stated:
“What it takes to win and the things that cause you to lose, I don’t think those have changed.”
That, perhaps, is the greatest key to Belichick’s success. He remains steadfast in the knowledge and practice that is as finely detailed as its technician. In terms of distraction, Belichick ever continues to be the contrarian who refuses to be defined by the story of the day. Whether it be a purported rift with quarterback Tom Brady, or the most recent media-embellished scandal surrounding his team, he defiantly refuses to feed into the frenzy. What most matters to him is that the 53 players in his locker room understand him. It is why he has succeeded so mightily, while others around him have not.
For this reason, the Patriots will be certainly be ready to play this Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. It will be a hard-fought game between two very good football teams. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. The outcome of the game is as uncertain as Sunday’s weather forecast.
However, one thing remains certain. Bill Belichick will be on the sidelines, imparting the knowledge he has collected to his players. It is incumbent on the Patriots roster to put that plan into action. Win or lose, that will expectedly be the same scenario in the very next game which the Patriots play; whether that be Super Bowl LIII or a preseason game in August. Despite the sartorial jabs he receives on a daily basis, a hoodie with cut-off sleeves will almost certainly be his apparel of choice. He will not look past his next opponent. He will work tirelessly to ensure that his team does not defeat itself with careless mistakes.
At his core, Bill Belichick will not change, and Patriots fans are just fine with that.
To paraphrase his own iconic quote: He is who he is.
And few, if any, have ever done it better.
-Mike D’Abate is the Managing Editor of Full Press Patriots and is a National Columnist for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots and the NFL. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC