FOXBOROUGH — It’s a sport played with a much smaller ball, on a shorter field, using hardly any protective pads, and without touchdowns.
Lacrosse, though, is one of the biggest reasons why football coaches Bill Belichick and Greg Schiano have become such good friends.
Belichick’s son, Steve, played lacrosse at Rutgers, where Schiano was turning around a football program that had long languished. Once Steve’s four seasons of lacrosse eligibility had expired, he joined Schiano’s football team in 2011 as a walk-on long snapper, giving his father and his new coach even more reason to communicate. Theirs is a friendship rooted in deep respect, with a shared passion for competition, progress, and building a successful program in a way that’s heavy on demands and discipline. It’s not a system for everybody.
Belichick thinks highly enough of Schiano that he’s peppered his roster in years past with Rutgers players — he drafted three more of them in April — perhaps the ultimate compliment. In turn, Schiano has attempted to emulate the job Belichick has done with the Patriots, installing a blueprint that includes many of the same characteristics: team first, close attention to detail, preparation, hard work.
They’ll put the friendship on hold for a few hours come Sunday afternoon, when Schiano brings his Tampa Bay Buccaneers to Gillette Stadium for a game against the Patriots. It’s not the first time they’ll be on opposite sidelines as head coaches; the teams have met each of the past two preseasons, including last month. But it’s the first time the game will count in the standings.
“Both, maybe at different levels, have been very successful, and I think there’s that thing where they’ve both done things and are challenged by doing things that people say can’t be done,” said Jim Stagnitta, a friend to both coaches. “I think Bill has done that in New England, and I think Greg did the same at Rutgers. I wouldn’t doubt that he’d be able to have that same impact on Tampa Bay.”
Stagnitta didn’t introduce Belichick and Schiano, but certainly had a prime seat to watch the friendship develop. As the head lacrosse coach at Rutgers from 2002-11, he recruited Steve Belichick, coached him, and got to know the father of his player quite well. Stagnitta’s office also was located not far from Schiano’s in the school’s athletics complex. Stagnitta was fortunate enough to spend plenty of time with both, benefiting from routine access to two winning football minds as he built his own program. Similarities? He saw more than a few.
“They both have a strong belief in systems, in how they do things, and are very committed to their programs and the people in their programs,” said Stagnitta, now the coach of the Denver Outlaws in Major League Lacrosse. “Detail-oriented, hard workers. I can see those two guys having a ton of respect for the way each goes about their business and does their job.”
Schiano spent three seasons (1996-98) as an NFL assistant coach with the Chicago Bears, and was part of the 1997 team that lost to the Patriots (31-3) when Belichick was an assistant in New England. It really wasn’t until Steve Belichick enrolled at Rutgers, though, that the football coaches became friends.
“I’d say that’s where I had the chance to spend the most time with him,” Belichick said. “Down there the lacrosse players, and where they dressed and met, everything was in the same building as football, so I ran into [Schiano] down there several times, just going to Stephen’s games or practices, the football team’s going in or coming out, whatever it was.”
Belichick was the head coach of the Patriots by then, and Schiano the head man for the Scarlet Knights. Their seasons would overlap, obviously, so any time they would spend together usually came in the spring, during lacrosse season. Belichick would pop down to catch a game or practice, occasionally putting himself in harm’s way (Piscataway, N.J., is prime Giants and Jets country, after all). Robert Mulcahy, the Rutgers athletics director from 1998-2009 who hired Schiano, said the school requested a waiver from the NCAA so that Belichick could watch the lacrosse action from the sideline and stay out of the stands, where he would face some heckling.
“He was a very respectful fan,” Mulcahy said. “I once asked if he needed anything special and he said no. He would just go and be there and not bother anybody.”
While there, Belichick would also take the opportunity to check out any pro prospects from Rutgers as the NFL draft approached each April. The burgeoning bond between two head football coaches seemed too easy.
“I got to know [Belichick] when he would come down to work out our players,” Schiano said. “He has been very good to me, and I think our passion for the game of football led to us hitting it off.”
That, and a like-minded approach to the game, many who know both Schiano and Belichick will say.
“I think they approach the game from the mental aspect first, and I think both like the same kind of players,” said Kyle Flood, who took over for Schiano as Rutgers head coach after spending seven seasons there as one of his assistants. “I think that’s what has drawn Coach Belichick to our program a little bit in terms of some of the players he’s drafted and signed as free agents. They’re both serious guys, very football-oriented. They know what they want.”
Belichick has been complimentary over the years of Schiano and the program he built at Rutgers. Having his son there — first as a student, then as a member of the football team — certainly didn’t hurt, but it’s deeper than that, mutual friends say. Belichick has always liked the way Schiano and his staff prepared their players.
That’s evident by the Patriots’ roster. There are four players from Rutgers on the active squad — Devin McCourty, Steve Beauharnais, Duron Harmon, and Logan Ryan. All were draft picks. All happen to play defense. With the addition of free agent signings, the number in the past has been even larger; there were eight Scarlet Knights on the team at one time this summer, before cuts were made.
“I think Bill had a great respect for Greg and how he did things, his attention to detail, that’s obviously very similar to how Bill does things,” Stagnitta said. “I think that as time evolved over those four years when Stephen was in the lacrosse program, and in his fifth year when he played football, each year it seemed like Coach Belichick would do more with the football team, be it have a chance to speak with them, or watch film with Greg. Over time, with Bill’s opportunity to be on campus, both he and Greg took more and more of an opportunity to develop that relationship.”
Time will tell if the pipeline from Piscataway to the Patriots continues with Schiano no longer there. Instead of sending his players to help Belichick’s team, Schiano’s players now are trying to help their coach beat Belichick’s team. Steve Belichick will be there, too; he’s in his second season as an assistant coach for the Patriots, serving under his father.
Friends face friends every week in the NFL, so Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium won’t be all that unique. Brothers squaring off, like last year’s Super Bowl between the Harbaugh brothers? That was unique.
The Belichick-Schiano friendship will actually be quite low on the list of important story lines this Sunday. Can the Patriots’ offense find its rhythm? Will it have Rob Gronkowski back? Are the reports of dissention between some of Tampa Bay’s players and Schiano true, or unfounded? Do the 0-2 Buccaneers have a chance against the 2-0 Patriots?
“Well, I mean, look — it’s an NFL game,” Belichick said. “We’ve got a job to do, they’ve got a job to do. We all respect that, but this week we’re in a competitive situation, we’re going to go out there and try to play our best football and win. That’s what we’re here for. Doesn’t make a difference who’s on the other side of the field.”
Said Flood, the current Rutgers coach: “I don’t think it’ll be difficult at all. I think they’ll shake hands before the game, they’ll shake hands after, and for every minute in between they’ll be trying to beat each other. That’s the competitive nature of coaches in general. It’s not personal, but each coach on Sunday has a job to do, and that’s to do everything they can to win the game.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.