What makes Bill Belichick tick?
Stratus Falangus always knew he could rely on one person for guidance at Phillips Academy in Andover. At least when he was on the football field.
All too often, the big left tackle did not know his assignment when he left the huddle and took his position facing the opposing team. So he’d ask a skinny center named Bill Belichick what to do next.
“I’d never know who to hit,” Falangus recalls of those crisp, fall Saturday afternoons back in 1970 when he lined up two spots down from Belichick to do battle with the likes of Lawrenceville Academy or Exeter. “I’d always ask Bill, and he’d say, `Hit that guy over there.’ He always knew what every one of us was supposed to do.”
Belichick didn’t mind imparting his wisdom to an absentminded teammate - up to a point. But the 18-year-old player, who 30 years later would return to Massachusetts to become the 14th head coach of the New England Patriots, eventually tired then, as he does now, of a colleague who approached his job in a lackadaisical fashion.
“One time he got so frustrated he yelled, `That guy over there!’ and pointed to the guy I was supposed to block as we got to the line,” Falangus says with a laugh. “The guy knew I was coming, and he killed me. But Bill was right. He was upset that I didn’t know my assignment. He looked at football differently from most of us. He looked at football like another subject.
It was a science as much as a sport. We were undefeated that season,’‘ Falangus continues, ``and Bill was far from our best player. In fact, he was our smallest starting lineman, but he was a very able center because he didn’t make mistakes. He helped me out in a lot of situations. Until he got me decked that one time. I learned my assignments after that.’‘
Falangus, who lives in Wakefield and works in his father’s food business, saw two sides of Bill Belichick: the football scientist and the angry perfectionist. He saw what the Patriots will see this year many times. He saw the professor and the principal.
But he didn’t see all the sides of Bill Belichick, because nobody does. Not his teammates, his players, his friends, or the media. People see only what he lets them see, and nothing more.
The man on whom Patriots owner Robert Kraft is resting his hopes this season is the most unlikely of football coaches. Not just because of how Belichick views the sport, not just because of his legendary penchant for privacy, and not just because he is an enigma of a man.
Belichick, 48, was raised in the conservative, middle-class confines of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, spent a year at Andover, and went on to a small liberal arts college - hardly a typical upbringing for a pro football coach. His father, Steve, was a coach and scout for the Midshipmen for 33 years, a career that left an indelible impression on his only child.
As a 10-year-old, Belichick was a constant companion of his dad’s, sitting in on meetings of a coaching staff that included several future National Football League coaches plus the legendary Navy head coach Wayne Hardin.
Rick Forzano was part of that staff and saw then something in this kid who would watch game film in silence for hours with men who were 20 to 30 years older. What he saw was not a coach in the making but a mind different from the rest.
“He could break down film at 10 or 11 and understood what he was looking at,” recalls Forzano, who in 1976 gave the 25-year-old Belichick his first paying job in the NFL, as an as sist ant special teams coach in Detroit. “He had a great mind even then. He could see things others didn’t. His father was a great scout. That was part of it. He learned from a great coach, like Tiger Woods did as a boy. But he also has a gift like Tiger Woods has.”
It was not just his father’s influence that molded him. His high school also gave him experiences that proved invaluable during his later years in the racial mix of the NFL, where minorities are the majority.
“Back when I was growing up in Annapolis, there was a black high school, Bates, and a white high school, Annapolis High,” Belichick recalls. “When I was a freshman, integration began, and I got sent to Bates for two years. The schools were only a few blocks apart, but they fit the neighborhoods. When integration began, it was rough. I was sent there for the ninth and 10th grades, and because the neighborhoods were so different, there was a lot of beating up of kids and that kind of thing. I was young. It was all over my head.
“You kind of knew the way it was when the two schools played each other in sports, though. There were always problems, but I didn’t realize what was behind it all then. I’d spent most of my time at the academy, so I walked into this situation with all this tension and thought, `What’s the problem here?’
“There would be three fire alarms a day, cherry bombs going off in the toilets. Things would calm down for a while, and then some incident would occur to stir people up. Somebody got beaten up, and there would be a retaliation.
“I still remember the day I heard Martin Luther King had been assassinated [April 4, 1968]. I was a sophomore integrating Bates. You can’t imagine how that was, but the one thing that pulled people together was sports. That was the one place where it didn’t make any difference what color your skin was. Pretty soon, the guys on the football team were just people, and eventually there was a progression.
“You got to know each other, and then you’d try and convince your friends not to do something, because the other guy was all right. Sports bonded us together. When I moved back to Annapolis High for my junior year, we had a great coach who didn’t see color. All he saw was per form ance. If you did it his way, you were OK. If you didn’t, you were in trouble. From my experience there, I took something with me. I don’t see color; I see football players. What links us is the game.”
That link has run throughout Belichick’s life, from the naval academy to Annapolis High to the year he spent as a postgraduate student at Andover, the elite Massachusetts boarding school where he chose to go despite having scored over 1,400 on his SATs. One of the things Belichick remembers about entering Andover in the fall of 1970 was meeting a student named Ernie Adams, who was working on his tutorial in Latin. To Belichick, this was astounding.
“Andover was a shock to me because of guys like Ernie,” Belichick says of the student who became a lifelong friend and recently his director of football research for the Patriots. “I thought I was a pretty good student until I got there. Everyone was brilliant in something. You could see why they all were there. It was one of the best years of my life.
“I had come from this conservative naval background to a place that was pretty liberal in the ‘70s. I didn’t get into Yale or Dartmouth originally. If I had, my decision might have been different, but the fact is I probably wasn’t ready for college, because when I went to Andover it was definitely a culture shock.
“I had a broad range of experiences because I’d gone to public school, but Andover was a far different point on that triangle. I knew there were things going on in the world that weren’t going on at Annapolis. I just didn’t know how much was going on.”
Belichick says that Andover was harder academically than his first year of college: “I had taken four years of French, so I sign up for French 4 when I get there, and they said, `Maybe you better try French 3.’ I figured: All right, easy. The first assignment was to read Les Miserables . . . in French! I’m looking up every [expletive] word! Math was the same way. I needed extra help every day. I’d turn in a paper I would have gotten an A on in high school, and it would come back with red marks all over it. I’d never worked that hard before.”
From Andover, Belichick went to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he won varsity letters in football and lacrosse as well as squash, a most un-NFL-like sport. He also served as president of Chi Psi, a fraternity his friends claim was the “animal house” on campus. He did all this while majoring in economics.
His position coach in 1974, the fall of Belichick’s senior year, was John Biddiscombe, who is now Wesleyan’s athletic director. His recollections are not of a guy he thought was going to spend his life in locker rooms. “He was in a curriculum at Wesleyan that emphasized a scientific, analytical approach to come to conclusions,” Biddiscombe says. “He’s never lost that kind of thinking. Back then, I didn’t think he’d become a coach. He was talking about graduate school. I thought he’d get an MBA.
“There was no question he was as interested in the technical aspects of football as the physical ones, which is very unusual for a college player. I just thought he had too many other interests to spend his life in sports. Then I ran into him and his father at the football coaches’ convention his senior year. I was shocked. He never said a thing about coaching. I’m sure he was the only undergraduate there. It surprised me, but I think it whet his appetite.”
Belichick had indeed been planning on getting an MBA and had written to more than 100 colleges seeking part-time work as a graduate assistant in coaching. “I kept a number of the rejection letters,” he says. He ultimately was accepted into North Carolina State’s MBA program, with an opportunity to serve as a graduate assistant under football coach Lou Holtz.
But complications arose on Holtz’s staff, and Belichick wrote to the Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins volunteering his services. Friends interceded, and Belichick landed a $25-a-week job with the Colts that was really an internship in football. After that, he never went back to economics, though he claims his training in it comes into play today in understanding the NFL’s salary cap.
“It was a great opportunity for a guy with no coaching experience,” he says.
“I started breaking down film like I’d done with Dad, but they gave me more and more responsibility. I worked diligently, so they kept giving me more.
“I didn’t have a place to live, so I slept on a sofa. It was a 7-to-midnight shift every day. It was like a tutorial in coaching, listening to those guys. But Ted [Marchibroda, the Colts’ head coach] asked what I thought. He treated me with the same respect as the others, even though I was 24. Socially, it wasn’t always the most comfortable situation for me and Debbie [his wife, who had been his high school sweetheart], but it was my chance.”
That experience was a searing one for Bill Belichick. Many years later, he, too, has given young, untested people chances, but he always demands they pass the same kind of test he did in 1975.
“I must get three or four letters a month, 40 to 50 a year, from young guys looking for a break,” Belichick says. “They all say, `All I want is a chance.’ But I have a prescription for what I believe makes inexperienced people successful.
“Are they intelligent? Do they have a work ethic? Can they work with others? Can they do five or six things at once and be self-motivated? When I hire young people, it isn’t like I haven’t done the jobs I’m asking them to do. There really isn’t a job I haven’t done. I made the airport runs and picked up the towels and all that crap. I know what `entry level’ means.
“So when I hire those kind of guys, I try to make it as bad as possible. I fight with my coaches all the time because they say we can pay these guys more so they could be more comfortable. I don’t want them to be comfortable. I don’t want them to make ends meet. Will you make the sacrifice? I don’t know what that sacrifice is for you, and I don’t care. I just want to know if you’ll make it. Are you willing to make the commitment this job takes?”
It is a muggy afternoon at the Patriots’ summer camp at Bryant College in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. Bill Belichick has come full circle, back to New England three decades after he first arrived at Andover and began to view football as a physical science as well as a sport. Despite the heat, he’s wearing his usual outfit, a blue Patriots sweat top with cutoff sleeves over a T-shirt and team shorts.
A whistle dangles from his neck, but he wears no sunglasses, as his predecessor Pete Carroll often did. No cap. No clipboard. Usually, his hands are behind his back, and he is all eyes as he puts the players through their paces. It won’t be long before the season opener against one of the best teams in football, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and that game is already on his mind.
“One thing they’ll learn up there is he sees everything, and he knows more than you think he knows,” says Kevin Byrne, a vice president of the Baltimore Ravens. Byrne worked for Belichick for five years during Belichick’s first head coaching stint, in Cleveland from 1991 to ‘95.
It is obvious that this is true as Belichick stalks behind the huddle, observing, commenting, at times profanely, about what he sees. He is not perpetually cheery, as Carroll was, but neither is he boisterous like his longtime mentor, Bill Parcells, whose shadow still haunts anyone who coaches the Patriots.
Belichick is a small man in a big man’s game, but clearly he is the players’ general. He has taken over a team that slipped from Super Bowl status in 1996, when Parcells was the boss and Belichick his chief aide, to an 8-8 noncontender last season, losing six of its last eight games and getting Carroll fired.
Pepper Johnson, who is working this summer as a coaching intern under Belichick, who was his coach with the Giants and Browns, recalls his first encounter with Belichick when he was a rookie in New York and Belichick was running the defense for Parcells.
“We were in preseason, and we didn’t play our technique right on a defense, so the next time we go in, I look to him for the signals, and it’s stack defense, cover 2,” the former linebacker says. “We play it and stop them, and I look for the signal for the next play, and it’s stack defense, cover 2. We weren’t in situations for that defense, but he kept calling it because we hadn’t run it right. After a few plays, I kept looking over, but I knew what was coming: stack defense, cover 2. And finally we stopped ‘em. We were jumping around like we just won the Super Bowl. When we get back to the sidelines, he says, `You SOBs don’t want to run it right, we’ll play it the whole [expletive] game.’ We got the technique right after that.”
Yet most of the time on this day, Belichick says little and sees all. He makes suggestions, adjustments in where one man puts his hand or another his feet. He moves a player a foot in one direction or the other. He is teaching the art and science of football, and the practice field is his classroom.
“When we were at Andover, we had an extremely cerebral coach in Steve Serota,” recalls Dana Seero of South Boston, Belichick’s former Andover teammate. “He would change our offense and defense to the type of players he had every year, so you had to study. Bill adopted that approach. Bill had an understanding of the whole system, the strategy and the tactics of the game that the rest of us didn’t. He was way beyond us in understanding how a defense was structured and how an offense might attack it. Our quarterback was Milt Holt. Great player. Went to Harvard. Is a state senator now in Hawaii. I don’t think even he had the understanding of things Bill had.”
Perhaps it is the difference in his background from the average NFL coach that has allowed Belichick to look differently at football. While all coaches understand the importance of tactics and strategy, over the years Belichick has truly become a wizard of a chess-like defense strategy. “He’s a football genius, like a whiz kid at football,” says former New York Jets linebacker Roman Phifer, who played under Belichick. Phifer says he was regularly mystified at Belichick’s game plans, which so often put him and his teammates in exactly the right position to make plays: “I can just picture him watching film at all hours of the night.”
The film room is Belichick’s laboratory. It is where he studies opponents, breaking down their weaknesses the way a biologist dissects some small animal to find its genetic defect. Eventually, often late at night, he finds that weakness and then looks at his own team to see how he can exploit it in the simplest and most direct fashion.
“I love the competition against other great coaches like [Bill] Walsh or Tom Landry,” says Belichick, who has a five-year contract to run the entire football operation that pays him well over $1 million a season. “It’s a game that’s always changing. There are always new trends, new ways to attack each other. You have to keep moving those 11 men around, and that’s a constant challenge on both sides of the ball. It’ll never get stale, because of the number of men involved and the unlimited possibilities of what you can do with them.”
Buffalo Bills quarterback Doug Flutie, the former Boston College star, has tried often to solve the riddle of Belichick’s defenses and has grown weary attempting to understand just how unlimited the possibilities are against a Belichick-coached team. “You don’t know how a Belichick defense is going to line up,” Flutie says. “Are they going to be in a five-linebacker set with two defensive backs? What are they going to do? He makes you do your homework.”
Ravens vice president Byrne says that Belichick can be an exacting taskmaster, a trait that hardly endears him to those who don’t measure up. “I think his attention to detail and his focus is so strong that those who don’t recognize that high a standard have trouble with him,” he says. “The hardest-working people we had in Cleveland had the best rapport with him. That includes the media. Bill makes you work for it.
“If you’re a guy who doesn’t work hard or who tries to fake it, you have no chance with him. He will do the job himself or replace you. But if he sees you set a high standard for yourself, you’ll have no problems.
“You need to understand this is a guy who has binders filled with things he’s studied through the years on football issues and on life situations. Human situations. Binders filled with thoughts, newspaper clippings, notes. He refers to those things all the time when something similar comes up. He thinks through everything before he acts. Could he be nicer to the guy who doesn’t know? Yes, but those guys don’t occupy his time. If you don’t have enough respect to do your job, he dismisses you, often in a profane way.”
Bill Belichick first began going to Nantucket with friends when he was in junior high school, and his affinity for the outer island remains strong.
Eventually, Belichick built three houses on Nantucket, including two used by his parents and in-laws. The builder was another friend from Wesleyan, Mark Fredland. Fredland was once one of the school’s greatest lacrosse players. He moved to Nantucket right after college, got into the building trades, and, like many of his generation, never came back to the mainland.
It was no surprise that Belichick turned to Fredland when he began building his first home there. It was also no surprise that Belichick pitched in, even though he had earned enough money - as a defensive coordinator on some of the best teams the New York Giants ever had - to order the job done and forget about it.
“It took five years altogether,” Belichick recalls. “I hammered a few nails, painted. A friend and I designed it, and I did some framing, but it wouldn’t be fair to say I built it. But I did get into it.”
So much so, says David Whiting, a financial planner who played on the same midfield line with Belichick at Wesleyan, that Belichick had one floor built on a diagonal even after Fredland advised against it. “Bill thought it would look cool, so he told Fred that’s how he wanted it,” Whiting says. “He was right. It’s cool. Bill figured that out.
“That place is where he goes to fish, play tennis and golf, go to the beach, be with his family and friends,” says Whiting. “It’s not a place for football.” There, the supposedly one-dimensional, obsessive football mind doesn’t concern itself with Colts quarterback Peyton Manning’s arm. There, Belichick doesn’t draw defenses in the sand. On Nantucket, where he went for several weeks last summer before his first training camp as Patriots head coach, the coach as scientist rested. Sort of.
“Everything we do there centers around some sort of sports,” Belichick says. “It’s kind of a haven, and I think my wife and kids [Amanda, who will follow her father to Andover this fall, and her younger brothers, Stephen and Brian] appreciate it. The things we do may be sports-related, but it’s a place about family, not football.”
So guarded is he about that space that when a writer for ESPN Magazine asked to interview him for an upcoming feature story, Belichick agreed to meet him on Nantucket because there was no other time available by the magazine’s deadline. He met him, all right - at the island airport, and there they stayed. With the interview done, Belichick drove back to the place where if there is a VCR, it is used to watch real films, not game films.
No media members allowed. No chance for anyone outside his circle to see who he is in the hours he’s not on the football sidelines. No chance to see how, or whether, the Belichicks mingle with the rich and the famous of the island resort.
Just how private and reticent a man is he? “I used to write Bill’s TV show for him,” recalls Byrne of working with Belichick in Cleveland. “One time, I had a question for him where the host was to ask what he listened to on his car radio. So I wrote, `Bill answers.’
“We’re going over the script before the taping, and he turns to me when we get to that question and says, `What do you want me to say?’ So I said, `Why not what you listen to on your car radio?’ Bill just snaps back, `Because it’s none of their [expletive] business!’ I told him it was supposed to be a light part of the show, something to let the fans know a little more about him. He looks right through me and says, `What do you want me to say, all right?’
“I remembered he and his wife once toured Europe with Jon Bon Jovi when he was opening for the Rolling Stones, because they were all friends from New Jersey when Bill was coaching with the Giants, so I said, `How about: “Bon Jovi. We’re friends from back in New Jersey. I toured Europe with him.” ‘
“He doesn’t say another word. The taping starts. We get to the question. He says, `Bon Jovi.’ He wouldn’t add the extra sentence that would show some personality. He just doesn’t feel he has to share his personality with anyone. That’s not important to him.”
So what is important to Bill Belichick?
Football? Family? Friends? How about rock ‘n’ roll and race relations? Or a women’s homeless shelter in Cleveland for which he helped raise more than $125,000, or his vast collection of tomes on the sport of football?
How about riding with cops on a drug bust in New Jersey to learn about the neighborhoods where so many desperate lives are lived out, or visiting prisoners who write him? How about working with Jim Brown’s Amer-I-Can anti-gang program that included attending a recent graduation ceremony for former gang members at a Rhode Island training school? Or maybe putting on surgical scrubs at an Annapolis hospital to watch arthroscopic surgery so he can better understand what so many of his players will likely face one day?
So what is important to him?
Not what you think of him, but certainly a lot more things than football.
“The public doesn’t know the real guy,” says Bill Devereaux, a Rhode Island attorney who was Belichick’s freshman roommate at Wesleyan and has remained so close to him that when Belichick was first hired in New England last January, he lived for several months with Devereaux and his family.
“My wife would say he was the perfect house guest,” Devereaux says. “You seldom saw him.
He’d be out of the house by 5:30 a.m. and not get back until 9 or 10 at night. But when he was there, we’d talk about a lot of things, watch some tube, have some laughs, seldom talk about football. I’m in the Naval Reserve. He reminds me of one of those admirals who focus on their jobs but know when to cut it off, too.
“So is he this guy obsessed with football? I’d say no. He’s very focused, and he loves what he does, but he has a life. One night we’re at my house, and he tells me Bon Jovi is playing at the Civic Center in Providence and asks me to go. I figured, what the hell? I never schmoozed with any rock stars, so I went. It was funny. We’re back in the dressing room, and they were just like friends of his from New Jersey asking questions about football. They weren’t guys all lathered up about each other’s celebrity.”
Ernie Adams, who is in charge of research in the Patriots’ operation and has been Belichick’s alter ego for 30 years, concurs with Devereaux’s view.
“If he was set down in another country tomorrow where he couldn’t coach football and they’d never even heard of the game, Bill would find something else interesting to do,” Adams says. “Football is a part of the world that fascinates him. But only a part of it.”
A large part of it, to be sure, but not all of it.
“I was an Army officer,” Belichick’s former Andover teammate Seero says finally of the man Robert Kraft has hired to lead his team. “In that culture, your word is your bond and you lead by example. Bill would be respected in that culture. He looks at all the angles of anything he does. In a society where everyone wants a quick solution, he knows there isn’t one. His approach is not in vogue today, but maybe it should be. It’s the best model for a successful life.”
Not everyone would agree with Seero’s opinion of Belichick. Certainly, many of the people who knew him in Cleveland would tell you he is a man without personality or professional compassion, a man too driven to succeed, too foul-mouthed and angry, too unbending in his views. Others would back the opinion of Seero and Belichick’s closest friends, who see in him a special guy who is loyal to his past and careful and concise about his future and his family.
The truth probably lies in the middle, because that is where it usually is found, especially with a complex personality like Bill Belichick. But that is not why he has been brought to New England this time. He is not in Foxboro to find a place to grow.
He is here to do what all coaches must. He is here to win football games. If he does, he knows, the rest of who he is won’t matter much.
And if he doesn’t, no one will care about it.