The pained look, the tortured non-answer. The contempt for every question asked during a post-game press conference, and the chilling effect that has on inquisitors.
Over two decades as head coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick has perfected the art of suppressing the press. And in return for countless football thrills and six Super Bowl wins, his deliberately bad attitude was celebrated. That’s our cranky Bill! But it feels like a different ballgame since quarterback Tom Brady left New England for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While Brady liberated himself from the dull, robotic Belichick/Patriots Way, Belichick is frozen in time with it. But with a team that isn’t winning, the theater of Belichick versus the media is less enticing.
Meanwhile, as more stories come out about the ugliness of Brady’s exit, Belichick’s judgment is drawing harsher scrutiny. One Patriots fan bought a billboard on Route 1 that others will see on their way to Gillette Stadium for Sunday’s showdown with the Buccaneers. Signed by “Jake in Boston,” a regular sports talk radio caller, it reads: “The OWL is no longer wise without his GOAT!” The ad shows Belichick as an owl, wearing one of his iconic hoodies, and a goat representing Brady. Of course, one wise guy won’t change how Belichick does business. To re-up an old Belichick saying: It is what it is, and he is who he is. Which is a strength and a weakness.
Whether it’s Belichick or Donald Trump, how someone handles victory and defeat is a window into character and soul. Those who muster grace in crushing disappointment deserve special appreciation. In those post-game press conferences, Belichick comes across as the sorest of losers, which is disappointing given how much success he owns. In print, the words he said after Sunday’s defeat sound reasonably gracious: “Give the Saints credit. They certainly were the better team. We had some chances, but in the end, we just couldn’t get it done. It’s disappointing. There’s no magic sauce to this. We just have to go back to work and do better.”
But go to the video and how he said it is anything but magnanimous. Asked a relatively benign question — what he saw in the interceptions thrown by quarterback Mac Jones — he growled: “Well, probably the same thing you saw.”
For those who believe sore losers have what it takes to be great — a hatred of losing — it depends on the meaning of greatness. Is it simply a win-loss record, or something more?
In his media interactions, Belichick is an outlier in the NFL, consistently un-charming and uncooperative. That’s partly because he’s a relic from another era. “Whether the team is winning or losing, that is who Bill is. He has always been that way. Coaches at one time were not mandated by the league to do interviews. He is true to himself‚” said Upton Bell, a former NFL executive and author of “Present at the Creation: My Life in the NFL and the Rise of America’s Game.”
True to himself means times have changed but Belichick hasn’t. In “The Education of a Coach,” published in 2005, the late, great author David Halberstam was one of the first to delve into Belichick’s leadership skills, which he found to be monumental. Of Belichick’s communication skills, however, Halberstam wrote: ”He was still often found lacking as a public figure by the media. The charisma gap still existed, and if he had his way, it would probably be larger every year. Part of the problem was his failure to become someone different from himself, the kind of person who fulfills the larger role the public expected of a coach.”
Given the Patriots’ great success, Belichick had his way. There was no need to close the charisma gap. What happened on the field was thrilling enough. The dynasty he built entitled the Patriots and their fans to lord it over the football universe however they wanted. Belichick’s authentic boorishness became a point of pride.
However, pride always comes before fall, and how a coach handles that is also part of the record. Belichick seems ready to live by his authenticity and die by it, no matter how old it grows.