There’s been a lot of nice noise about Boston sports statues in recent weeks. Within a month we unveiled Bronze Yaz and Bronze Bill Russell. Now, in the the afterglow of the magical October of David Ortiz, there’s a rush to see Big Papi set in stone.
In this spirit, I submit a case for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Not today. Not tomorrow. But someday when this fantastic football fable is finished. It may be a long time from now. As the ever-amazing Patriots rest in the hard-earned comfort of their 7-2 record on their bye weekend, there is no indication that Belichick and Brady are near the end. Long may they run.
The Belichick-Brady combo is professional sports’ most successful coach-player partnership since Red Auerbach and Russell ruled the basketball world from 1956-69.
Think about that for a second: In more than a century of North American sports competition, there have been two coach-player duos that stand above the rest and both of them worked for the greater glory of professional teams based in (and around) Boston.
There are some interesting parallels.
Let’s start with the chicken-egg notion that the star coach would be nothing without the player, and the player might be “just another guy” without the perfect coach to unleash the player’s skills.
Before drafting Russell, Auerbach was a successful coach, but never a champion. Auerbach coached 10 professional seasons before drafting Russell. He made the playoffs nine times, but went home early every year. Red’s teams were an aggregate 19-28 in playoff competition. After drafting Russell in 1956, Auerbach’s teams won nine championships in 10 seasons, including eight straight. When Red retired from the bench, he was smart enough to make Russell player-coach, and with Red calling the shots from his GM chair Russell won two more championships before retiring.
Red heard the charge. “Russell made you.’’
In 1994, I asked Red the question.
“What do you say, Red? What do you say to the critics who claim Russell made you a champion?’’
After a long pause, Red puffed on his Hoyo de Monterrey and said, “In a way, he did. What the hell. You’ve got to be an idiot not to see that.’’
Red has a statue in Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Russell has a statue in City Hall Plaza.
And now we have these two football men winning every weekend at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. There has never been anything like it in the history of the NFL.
Like Auerbach, Belichick the head coach never won anything before hitching his wagon to the best player of a generation. In Belichick’s case, the shift is more seismic.
Asked about the history of rock and roll, John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.’’ This pretty much describes Belichick’s head coaching career before Tom Brady became BB’s starting quarterback. In five seasons with the Browns, Belichick went 36-44 in the regular season and 1-1 in the playoffs. Tack on Belichick’s first year in New England (5-11), when Brady was fourth on the depth chart, and you get a record of 41-55. Add the first two games of 2001 and Belichick is 41-57 as a head coach before Tom.
Now this. Belichick and Brady together have won three Super Bowls and five AFC championships. Since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970, Belichick and Brady are the winningest tandem in NFL history. Together they are 143-41 in regular-season play, a winning percentage of .777. Don Shula and Dan Marino went 116-68 in Miami. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw went 107-51 in Pittsburgh (winning four Super Bowls). Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning won 85 games together in Indianapolis.
The Auerbach-Russell combo will forever be the best of the best for two reasons: 1. No duo is going to win nine championships in 10 seasons; 2. Auerbach gets extra points for the multiple headstands he did in order to acquire Russell.
Red’s preparation for the 1956 draft was unprecedented. He knew he needed a rebounder and a down-low defender and Russell was the one. Auerbach traded his second-best player (please never forget Cooz) Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to St. Louis for the No. 2 pick in the 1956 draft. Unfortunately, Rochester had the top pick and Russell was a consensus No. 1. Russell’s San Francisco Dons won back-to-back NCAA championships. To assure that Rochester would not take Russell with the top pick, Auerbach had Celtics owner Walter Brown cut a deal with Rochester owner Lester Harrison.
Brown agreed to send the popular Ice Capades program to Rochester in exchange for Rochester passing on Russell. On draft day, 1956, Rochester selected Duquesne guard Sihugo Green with the top pick and Boston rook Russell with the second pick. The rest is NBA history and there was nothing accidental about it.
Belichick’s acquisition of Brady and Brady’s ascension to the starting position are considerably more inadvertent. Brady was drafted in the sixth round with the 199th pick in 2000. He was selected at the urging of a Patriots quarterback coach, the late Dick Rehbein.
Brady was picked long after the 49ers took the immortal Giovanni Carmazzi and the Browns selected Spergon Wynn. Brady sat (behind Drew Bledsoe) for the 2000 season and was riding the bench when Mo Lewis knocked out Bledsoe with a hard tackle in the second game of the ’01 season.
You know the rest.
So, when will we see Bill and Tom in granite or bronze? Something tells me that Amos Alonzo Kraft will be the first person honored with a statue in Foxborough. But Belichick and Brady are deserving. And they should forever stand together, worthy bookends to Auerbach and Russell, the greatest coach-player pair in sports history.