Living by the motto “In Bill We Trust” used to be easy. Bill Belichick brought New England three Super Bowl rings, a playoff appearance nearly every year, and more wins than any other active NFL coach. But as Belichick’s 14th season gets underway, questions about character and failed relationships hang over the team — and it’s now been nearly a decade since the Patriots’ last championship. With all that in mind, plus the recent news that Belichick’s contract has been extended beyond the end of this season, we asked sportswriters, fans, and former players to weigh in on Coach . . .
GLENN STOUT on a Lingering Cold
In no sport are coaches worshiped so openly as in football, and perhaps no professional football coach of the last two decades has been more venerated than Bill Belichick. He is the latest in a lineage that stretches from George Halas and Paul Brown through Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Don Shula, Chuck Noll, and Bill Walsh. All these coaches not only won but also created dynasties and appeared to possess unique qualities that set them apart from their more mortal counterparts. Both strategic geniuses and motivational Svengalis, they seemingly forged championship crystal from common clay by force of intellect and iron will.
That is, of course, the danger in the worship business, the ease with which we assign moral supremacy to personal achievement and equate on-field success with any other kind. As long they keep winning and one doesn’t look too hard, it’s harmless fantasy. Yet it doesn’t always last very long once losing takes hold or when the outside world — where wins and losses are never as tidy as they are on the field — inevitably intrudes.
Today, Bill Belichick is at that terminus. He is a very good and successful football coach who over the past few years has been revealed to be a thoroughly average human being, one not immune to cheating on the field (see Spygate) or off it (see his divorce), and, given Aaron Hernandez’s arrest on charges of murder, one whose ability to judge or build character is apparently not all that special. He didn’t help himself by remaining on an overseas vacation when Hernandez was arrested, then delivering his only public statements on the matter through the public relations sieve of a tightly managed press conference, deflecting most substantive questions behind the excuse of the “ongoing judicial process” and never even mentioning Odin Lloyd, the murder victim, by name.
That is his problem moving forward. For all his successes, Belichick’s ties to New England are oddly emotionless and remote. He doesn’t do warm and fuzzy and has left community outreach to his owner, Robert Kraft, and players like Tom Brady. From his postgame press conferences to his investments in Nantucket real estate, Belichick’s connections to the region seem thoroughly transactional. He could be anywhere.
Yet as long as Belichick continues to win, much of that will be ignored. But if he does not, or when he retires, and the “In Bill We Trust” motto is finally withdrawn, what will remain beyond his record? Most of those aforementioned coaching legends remained beloved figures in the community long after commanding their last game.
Patriots fans may put their confidence in Bill Belichick for now, but one day there may come an accounting that goes beyond wins and losses and championships. Belichick knows he has won New England’s trust. Whether he has earned New England’s love — or if he even cares — remains to be determined.
RODNEY HARRISON on a Shared Responsibility
Everyone is asking, “Has he lost his touch?’’ He hasn’t lost his touch. It’s almost like you get to a point where people expect you to win the Super Bowl every year. But people don’t realize how difficult it is to have success, to win a division, to get to the Super Bowl, let alone win a Super Bowl.
When you lose a guy like [former Patriots vice president of player personnel] Scott Pioli, there’s a certain level of experience, communication [that’s also lost]. Scott is a very talented player evaluator. When you lose a guy like that, I think it does hurt, because now the responsibility falls more on Belichick’s shoulders. Maybe I’m off base with that, but I don’t think so. When you lose a guy like Scott Pioli, I don’t think that can help you.
But I still do believe in Beli-chick. I still believe in his ability to get talent. I still believe that he’s a tremendous coach. I believe that the players still listen to him. But it also comes down to the players making plays. I don’t know if in any of the Super Bowls if Belichick had any receptions or any fumbles lost or touchdowns thrown. It all comes down to the players making plays. That’s not to take anything away from him. But the players make plays, and he’ll tell you that.
Despite how he comes across in the media, he’s normal. He jokes. He laughs. He’s actually funny. He’s got a great personality. He’s sarcastic. He’ll bust your chops. He’s just a normal guy. As weird as people want to make him out to be . . . the guy is smart. He’s just like a cool dude. I like Bill.
The thing I enjoyed most about playing for Bill was that he was a teacher. The man is so full of knowledge and understanding of the game and his players. He really gave us a lot of freedom. He wasn’t one of those coaches that hounded you all of the time. Now, he was tough on the rookies. But as far as the veteran players, he gave you a lot of freedom. With that freedom came a lot of responsibility. You had to know what to do and perform on a consistent basis.
If you don’t love football, then I think he’s very tough to play for. If you’re just along for the ride, he’s going to weed you out.
Rodney Harrison played safety for six seasons with the Patriots and won two Super Bowls with the team. He is now an analyst for NBC’s Football Night in America and host of Safety Blitz With Rodney Harrison on NBC Sports Radio.
— As told to Shira Springer (Interview has been edited and condensed.)
LESLEY VISSER on the Prep School Effect
I first met Bill Belichick in 1979, when he was an assistant with the New York Giants and I was the young (mostly terrified) NFL reporter for the Globe. Like so many blessings of my life, the late Globe sportswriter Will McDonough made it happen. Will would point out to me up-and-comers and other people I ought to know; he also gave me George Young, Bill Parcells, and Al Davis — three cornerstones of my love and knowledge for the game. (Taking the bus with John Madden would come much later.) On a cold day at Giants Stadium, Will pointed across the field and said, out of the side of his mouth, “That guy’s going to be good.” Wind whipping in my face, I crossed at the 50-yard line and introduced myself. Belichick, part of the legendary staff of Ray Perkins, the taskmaster who’d been with the Patriots, seemed surprised at my extended hand. We talked lacrosse — I had grown up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Belichick in Annapolis, where he loved all things Navy and lacrosse — and the conversation ended quickly.
I’ve had many dealings with Bill over the last three decades — pregame, postgame, while producing features, during conversations. Sometimes he’s been great (once, when he was the head coach in Cleveland, he actually persuaded Andre Rison to meet me, on time, for an interview at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, where Rison’s girlfriend, rapper Lisa Lopes, had previously taken him). Sometimes he’s been brutal (oh, the dreaded halftime interview). The famed NFL general manager Ernie Accorsi, who hired 38-year-old Belichick as the head coach of the Browns in 1991, once said: “Almost better than anyone, Bill learned from his mistakes. He learned how to win Super Bowls.”
Have you ever had people whom you knew at one time, and now they’re remote to you? That’s how I feel about Bill Belichick. I don’t really know him anymore, but there were years when he would send me a personal Christmas card, signed in the lower right corner. I always flattered myself that I kind of understood him. At various times in my own upbringing, I had a private school education, from the Calvert School in Baltimore to Derby Academy in Hingham. There is a courtliness and a handshake that you learn very early, and I always thought that Belichick, a product of Phillips Academy, Andover, had that. Though it might seem unimaginable, I can promise you there was a time when Belichick wore a shirt (probably white) with a collar and a tie and didn’t mumble. He almost certainly said “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” to his teachers and looked them in the eye.
Maybe Belichick has always been socially awkward (one friend calls talking to him an “epic slog”), but I don’t think that’s the depth of what’s going on. Somewhere in there, I see prep school manners. Manners? Belichick? Am I crazy? But Belichick didn’t go to Andover so he could then play football at Alabama or LSU; he went there to get into a better school. Like Wesleyan. While at Andover, he made a lifelong friend in Ernie Adams, a guy with no ego who loved Latin, football, and naval history.
Bill Belichick might look like some boorish media-phobe, but underneath it, I think he’s a savvy prep school kid.
“When I’m answering questions from the Denver media, I’m not worried about what the Broncos’ people are going to think,” [Wes] Welker says. “I’m worried about what Belichick will think. Isn’t that crazy?” Sports Illustrated, August 12, 2013
BILL LITTLEFIELD on Keeping Perspective
Wes Welker’s said coach Belichick is less than what he seems;
That he is not perhaps the coach of every player’s dreams.
And Patriots, like other players, sometimes drink and drive.
They act like idiots sometimes and do not always strive
In ways to make their fans as proud as ever they could be,
(And one, in fact, may be in jail ’til he is eighty-three).
The fault is not with Belichick, who’s no more than a man,
And shouldn’t be expected to do more than mortals can.
For coaches, even Belichick, the thoroughly desired,
Are all the same in one respect: They’re hired to get fired.
The fault is with the folks who’ve said no matter what, we must
In Belichick, the great and mighty, always place our trust;
For all the wins and all the grand mystique the coach now claims,
My friends, he is a coach. That’s all. His work is only games.
GREGG EASTERBROOK on Getting Offensive
Bill Belichick makes a surprising number of questionable moves — first-round draft choices who were disappointments (Brandon Meriweather, Laurence Maroney), free-agency mistakes (Wes Welker is likely to be seen as one), and there was that Spygate business. Then consider the numbers — 170-64, his regular- and post-season career record with the Patriots, and three, his Super Bowl rings.
Belichick has more career victories (207) than any other active NFL coach, more wins with the same team than any active NFL coach. His 18-8 post-season record not only is best among active coaches, it’s also better than most coaches in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Belichick’s ethics leave something to be desired — troubling because NFL figures are role models for young people. His open contempt for the sports press is puzzling, given that the sports press has helped make him a multimillionaire. Maybe he’s just an ungrateful, heartless SOB. But he sure can run a football team.
What’s interesting about Belichick at this point is his conversion from defense-minded to obsessed with offense. Sometimes public figures make 180-degree conversions — noted education researcher Diane Ravitch flipped from right to left in the public schools debate, for example. In football terms, Belichick’s flip from defense to offense is as striking.
As an assistant with the Giants and Jets, and as head coach of the Browns, he focused on building a power defense that could win a low-scoring game. In recent years, he’s focused on offense, becoming the most pass-wacky head coach since Don “Air” Coryell. The Patriots set the NFL season scoring record in 2007, then led the league in scoring in 2012 while setting the league season record for first downs. Meanwhile, the Patriots’ defense has been bad to awful — 25th in 2012, 31st in 2011.
For years, stat mavens have said that since NFL teams average around 3 more yards per pass attempt than per rush attempt, they should throw more often. In recent years, Belichick has taken that to heart. (Other coaches have, too — check the stats of the Lions and Saints.) Belichick saw the effects of no-huddle tactics in college football and realized it meant the offense could stage more plays, and more plays equates to more yards. He saw that rules changes involving the pass rush and pass coverage were shifting the advantage to the offense. Last season in the NCAA, a battle of quick-snap versus pass-wacky resulted in a final score of Oregon 62, USC 51. Neither defense was effective. If the opponent can score 51, Belichick seems to have realized, your team better be able to get to 62.
Since the national sport of New England is psychoanalyzing Belichick, let me offer the Sigmund Freud explanation for his shift toward favoring offense. Defense is about preventing what the other guy wants to do; offense is about controlling the action, through execution and game planning. Belichick is a control freak: The football gods always wanted him to be an offensive mind.
ARMOND COLOMBO on Weathering the Haters
The more success you have, the more people want to criticize you. They find ways to detract from the success you’ve had. I have great respect for the way Belichick coaches and the way he handles himself. In the history of NFL coaches, he is one of the best, if not the best.
I absolutely trust what he’s doing. The Patriots have continued to win. Even in his so-called bad years, he’s won 12, 13, 14 games a season. To judge a coach by only the success that he’s had in the Super Bowl is wrong. And that’s true of athletes as well — there are great athletes who never got to the Super Bowl. With the success that he’s had year in and year out and his method of coaching his players, you can’t dispute the fact that he’s a tremendously successful man.
There’s no question in my mind that there are people who are going to relish the thought of not having to say good things about Bill Belichick. Success brings on people — whether you want to call it jealousy — that do not like the idea that he is the success that he is. And they’re going to tear him down if they get a shot.
Armond Colombo retired from coaching at Brockton High School with the most wins in the history of Massachusetts high school football. He now serves as a volunteer coach for the team alongside the head coach, his son Peter.
— As told to S.S. (Interview has been edited and condensed.)
CHRISTINE BRENNAN on a Hidden Friendly Side
In BB we trust. Absolutely. I think we all understand his personality and his relationship with the media. It’s almost scripted responses when you listen to his press conferences. He’s not going to give away his hand. He has not changed since the day he got here. He set the expectations for the fans: This is how I am. This is how I’m going to handle myself, and it’s not going to change.
But I’ve actually had the privilege of having dinner with the coach. It was a reward through a [Patriots] credit card. I cashed in my points to have dinner with him. It wasn’t one-on-one, but an event with 40 people. He was much different than I expected him to be. He was very relaxed. He answered questions. He had a sense of humor. He was complimenting me for being Fan of the Year. I didn’t think he had that side of him.
Christine Brennan, a hairstylist in Nashua, was named New England Patriots Fan of the Year in 2009. This season, she plans to attend every Pats home game.
— As told to S.S. (Interview has been edited and condensed.)
DAMIEN WOODY on a Self-Policing Locker Room
When people talk about Bill Belichick, the one thing I hear is, “Well, he hasn’t won a Super Bowl since Spygate.” But you have to remind people of some crazy stats the Patriots have, stats that you just haven’t seen since free agency started. The fact that they’ve won the American Football Conference East division title every year except two since 2001 is mind-boggling. After Spygate in 2007, they go undefeated, 16-0. In 2008, Tom Brady goes down Week 1 and [backup quarterback] Matt Cassel comes in. The team goes 11-5.
When we had that dynasty, winning those three championships, we had a great locker room. Guys understood: This is a cold business, but we’re a family. Belichick did that. He brought the players in and created a culture where he didn’t have to police the locker room. It made it easier on him to do his job, coach the team. You look around the NFL, a lot of coaches have to baby-sit players, do things that ultimately distract them from what they’re paid to do.
Because he had so much success, I think that gave him some cachet to take chances on guys, and he did on players who had questionable backgrounds. Some of them worked; some of them didn’t. Obviously, everyone points to the big one: Aaron Hernandez. You’re going to miss on some guys. He missed on Hernandez.
Look at Belichick’s body of work and give me a head coach who’s better in this generation. I don’t know if you can. That would be my number one question to anyone who raises doubts about coach Bill Belichick. Give me one head coach who’s better, who’s accomplished more in this era of free agency. I’ve never been coached by a smarter coach in my whole football career. When we lost games, I was shocked.
— As told to S.S. (Interview has been edited and condensed.)
LEIGH MONTVILLE on a Say-Nothing Strategy
I have learned from the master. I treat your basic question — “Does the idea of ‘In Bill We Trust’ still apply to Bill Belichick?” — with the Belichickian contempt, the utter disdain that it deserves. I treat you with the contempt, the utter disdain you deserve.
“Run, Spot, run,” I say to begin this press conference.
I laugh to myself as I watch you write these words into your notebooks, as your tape recorders spin. You are a collection of damn fools, barking little puppies that chase your own tails.
I have my pencil behind my ear. I wear my New England Patriots sun visor that matches my New England Patriots sweat shirt. I am a genius. I know everything about everything. Am I supposed to discuss this question — discuss anything — with people who live so far away on the other end of the bell curve?
“Jack be nimble,” I say. “Jack be quick. Jack jumped over the candlestick.”
The goal is to give away nothing. Make my face a plaster mask of neutrality. Nothing I say will show that I am happy. Nothing I say will show that I am sad. Nothing I say will be interesting. That is the Belichick way. I will take moments or situations that might be exciting or fascinating — something like playing in a Super Bowl, dealing daily with the best quarterback in football and his famous wife, discovering that a murderer might have resided in your starting lineup — and wring all emotion, all nuance, all interest from the subject as if it were a dishrag. I will leave that dishrag sitting by itself on the kitchen counter. Talk to it all you want.
A public opinion can only get a man in trouble. Look at the short, furious run of Bobby Valentine a year ago as manager of the Red Sox. He had a public opinion about every subject in the encyclopedia. His press conferences were must-attend events because he would say something that could be hung out on a headline. Ah, but there are no press conferences now, are there? Mr. Valentine’s successor, John Farrell, knows the trick. He mentions name, rank, serial number, stops right there. Hasn’t made a headline all year.
“Two times two is four,” I say. “Two times three is six. Two times four is eight.”
Politicians are grandmasters at saying nothing. (Large segments of the Massachusetts population still sleep blissfully after those debates between Ed Markey and that former Navy SEAL in the race for US Senate.) Doctors won’t tell you if you’re dying when you’re dying because of the possibility of lawsuits. (“We cannot discuss the hypotheticals concerning your case.”) And lawyers? Mountains are not molehills to lawyers; they’re flat, arid deserts.
“Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer,” I say. “Take one down. Pass it around. Ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall.”
I suppose I could say that 13 years is a long time for one coach to deliver the same message. Times change. Situations change. People change. Can the message stay the same? Doesn’t it become a bit tired? There are limits to everything. Maybe the limits have been reached here.
I also could repeat the bromide that success breeds success. The string of excellence could create an uber coach, a Wizard of Oz figure whose voice cannot be denied. Who can argue with the level of success that has been established in Foxborough? Why should it stop?
I choose to say what the master has taught me to say.
“Mary had a little lamb,” I say, “whose fleece was white as snow.”
Leigh Montville, a former Globe columnist who lives in Winthrop, is writing a book about Muhammad Ali and the military draft.
JESSICA CABRERA on the Unflappable Coach
I still trust Belichick. You can tell he’s really concerned about the players and what the organization stands for. He’s always looking to improve his players and improve on himself as a coach. As an ex-football player, I would have loved to have been coached by someone like Bill Beli-chick. I like how he keeps his composure. If you have a head coach who’s panicking on the side, it’s a little bit like a chain reaction; if the coach is panicking, then the players are going to panic. I’m looking to my coach to settle us down and give us that look that it’s going to be OK, that we’re still in this. But if my coach has that fear in his eye, then who am I going to turn to? I don’t see that fear with Belichick.
Jessica Cabrera recently retired as a defensive end for the women’s tackle football team Boston Militia. She works as a Suffolk County corrections officer and an assistant basketball coach at The Winsor School.
— As told to S.S. (Interview has been edited and condensed.)
THE MONEY MEN
Each spring, Forbes lists the highest-paid coaches in US pro sports, using sources like media reports and industry experts to estimate annual base pay. After two years in the top spot, Belichick tied for second in the May 2013 edition.
$8 million Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints
$7.5 million Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs, and Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
A BOOK BURN
In A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in his Game of Thrones series, New York football fan George R.R. Martin made a thinly veiled reference to the Giants’ crushing defeat of Belichick’s Patriots in Super Bowl XLII:
“The galley was also where the ship’s books were kept . . . the fourth and final volume of The Life of the Triarch Belicho, a famous Volantene patriot whose unbroken succession of conquests and triumphs ended rather abruptly when he was eaten by giants.”
• Belichick is the only head coach in history to win three Super Bowls in four years.
• Belichick won more games in a 10-year span than any other head coach in NFL history (140 between 2003 and 2012)
• Belichick is the only NFL head coach to direct his team to a 16-0 regular season.
• Belichick was the recipient of the highest fine ever levied against a head coach ($500,000, after Spygate)
Bill Belichick wasn’t always so tightlipped. At the start of his first season with the Pats in 2000, he participated in a Globe Magazine cover story, opining on topics as far afield as race relations in football and the agonies of French III in high school. Read “What Makes Belichick Tick.”
What do you think of Bill Belichick? Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.