The large function room at a suburban Marriott hotel, precise location in the Boston area not divulged, is filled on this Sunday morning. The standing-room-only crowd, mostly men, everyone clutching a splashy four-color brochure handed out at the door, is here for an introductory lecture about the Bill Belichick School of Shenanigans and Skullduggery, commonly called the BBSSS.
I extend a welcome from the stage.
“How’s everyone doing out there?” I ask, a little feedback from the microphone providing punctuation. “Gonna get a little nippy, huh? Some weather coming in. Well, just relax in here. This is the place to be to start your day. How many of you are here for the first time?”
The show of hands is almost universal. I figured as much.
As soon as Antonio Smith of the Houston Texans ran his mouth last Monday about how he thought Coach Belichick and the New England Patriots had to be doing something fishy — “it seemed like they knew everything we did on defense, even though we never had done it before” was his basic message — I knew that attendance would jump. Smith, like so many Patriots opponents in the past, sounded as if he had been intimidated, beaten in the mind, before he had been touched physically.
This was a perfect example of what the BBSSS can do for a team, a business, a person, for anyone who wants to get ahead in this world. The BBSSS sells itself. A lot of people want to get ahead in this world.
“The organization is over 60 years old,” I say in introduction. “I’m sure many of you know this already. The school was started by Arnold (Red) Auerbach, longtime coach of the Boston Celtics. On his way to nine titles, then seven more as a front-office executive between 1950 and 2006, he created an atmosphere of distrust and paranoia around the NBA that probably is unparalleled in modern sport.
“Teams would head to the late Boston Garden expecting the absolute worst. Their locker rooms would be refrigerated in the winter, then turned into sweatboxes for the playoffs in the spring. Showers wouldn’t work. Secret spots on the parquet floor would cause a dribbled basketball to stop bouncing. The clock above the court would run faster or slower depending on the Celtics’ needs. Red would intimidate officials, send physical brutes from the bench to thrust elbows into the sternums of visiting stars, light up cigars at the end to finish off the night with a good dose of secondary smoke to slow the poor saps from New York or LA or downtown Milwaukee when they hit their next stop.
“The man was the master. Even if he didn’t do a thing — and often he didn’t — he had the other team worried to distraction about the possible stunts he might pull. Coach Belichick is his worthy successor. The Arnold Auerbach School of Shenanigans and Skullduggery (AASSS), established in 1955, became the BBSSS a decade ago.”
Gamesmanship, getting the edge, has been part of sport since man ran his first footrace and Human Being 1 jumped a half-second early in front of Human Being 2 before someone said “Go.” The rules have been boundaries to be pushed at all times, broken if no one is watching. Illegal grabs and holds are parts of all sports. Coaches teach players how to do them without being caught.
Every small detail in games — yes, in life, too — becomes important. Baseball catchers routinely move their gloves to make an umpire call a ball a strike. Runners on second base routinely try to steal those catchers’ signs to the pitcher. Football players routinely fake injuries now to slow down the hyper offenses. Boxers spit out mouthguards to get a timeout. Grass on fields is grown to certain heights depending on certain abilities. Ice in rinks is made harder or softer. Game films are analyzed as if they were Rosetta Stones offering the keys to civilization. Every day another story arises about gamesmanship.
Why did Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd spill that soft drink on the floor a week or so ago? Why was Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin standing where he was standing during that runback? What was that stuff in Jon Lester’s glove during the World Series? What was the real NASCAR reason Clint Bowyer went into that late-race spin-out at Richmond?
The edge is important. Even the appearance of the edge is important.
“You probably noticed that Coach Belichick was taking notes on a little pad last week during the Houston game,” I tell my audience. “What do you think those Houston players were thinking about that? A reporter asked Coach this week what he was writing down. Coach said, ‘Things I wanted to remember.’ Hah. That’s the kind of stuff we teach here. Always keep ’em guessing.”
I mention that the best thing that ever happened to BBSSS was the fabled “Spygate” controversy when Coach Belichick was fined $500,000 by the NFL in 2007 for having an assistant tape the defensive signals of the New York Jets. The transgression really wasn’t much — Did you think that other teams weren’t taping signals? Do you think other teams aren’t still doing it now by some elaborate alternate method? — but when it became overblown, it only heightened the mystery about Belichick and the Patriots. This was a good thing. This was a great thing.
“Mystery is everything,” I say. “That is your first lesson. The more you can make the other guy try to figure out what YOU’RE doing, the less time he has to figure out what HE’S doing. This is the part of the game that isn’t part of the game. If you know what I mean.”
I offer the usual BBSSS packages. The six-DVD instructional films. The MP3 downloads. The workbooks. The personal tutor, who comes to your home once a week. I offer the extras like the BB hoodie, the special pencil to keep behind the ear, the souvenir “Spygate” telescope. I note that Visa and MasterCard will be accepted.
I say that I have time for one question. A man raises his hand in the front row.
“Yes?” I say.
“What about steroids?” the man asks. “PEDs? HGH? How does the school feel about all that?”
I shake my head in response.
“Oh, no,” I say. “No steroids. None. Steroids would be cheating.”
Leigh Montville’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.