‘The single most important year in my development’: Bill Belichick, Ernie Adams and the 1970 Andover football team
Before they were World Champions with the Patriots, Belichick and Adams were high school teammates at Phillips Academy. This is the story of that undefeated campaign 48 years ago, and how you can see, even back then, hints of their football greatness that would follow.
In the late summer of 1970, the Phillips Academy football players came back to school two weeks early to prepare for the season.
Some were new to the handsome prep school campus in Andover, others had known it for years.
Among them were Bill Belichick and Ernie Adams, now head coach and director of football research for the Patriots, then center and right guard for a team that would go undefeated. They weren’t the stars of the team, but they had their first taste of mutual success in football that season, and there already were signs that the game was a calling for both of them.
Belichick and Adams have remained together, like twin strands of DNA wrapped around the genetic backbone of the Patriots dynasty, the coils tracing back to the practice fields at Andover over one perfect season.
Here is the story of that season, through the eyes of the players.
Bill Belichick, C, Class of 1971: I only had one year at Andover, but it was probably the single most important year in my development.
The 1969 team had gone 5-2 and returned several strong players but, as always, a lot was riding on the new crop of postgraduates. PGs were students who had already graduated from other high schools but came to Andover for an additional year before college. They were older, usually athletic, and could make or break the sports teams.
Belichick was one of them, but when the list of students going out for football went up in the dining hall, only Adams and a senior named Walter Haydock paid particular attention to his name. Adams recognized it because he’d read with interest the “Football Scouting Methods” manual authored by Steve Belichick, Bill’s father. Haydock made note because Belichick was listed as a center, where Haydock had planned on taking the starting job.
To everyone else, the name Milt Holt was by far most interesting. Holt was a lefthanded PG quarterback from Hawaii who would become an instant legend. He had a big smile, a bigger arm, and unusual taste in footwear.
Lawry Bump, DE/K, Class of 1971: One of the things that stood out about him was that, while the rest of us wore super-ugly black football cleats, he painted his white. He became known as Mr. White Shoes.
Milt Holt, QB, Class of 1971: Joe Willie Namath was the one who used to wear white shoes. I was a big fan of his.
Dan Lasman, G, Class of 1973: Of course he got endless crap from people, but he could do that because he was good enough. But it was just funny. So he wore white shoes. That was his thing.
Bob Palladino, C, Class of 1972: He was kind of like Manny Ramirez; it’s like Milt being Milt.
Holt never seemed to spend hours in the weight room, but he was a natural athlete. He was also an ace pitcher for the baseball team, with 18 strikeouts against Exeter that spring and a nasty, no-look pickoff move. He went on to play quarterback and pitch at Harvard.
At Andover, head football coach Steve Sorota designed an offense that made the most of Holt’s talents both as a passer and a scrambler. They threw the ball far more than a typical high school offense at the time, ran some play-action, and had a counter play that always worked.
Holt: We’d fake the fullback into the line and then shoot the halfback off into the flats. We’d pull the linebackers with a running play up the middle and then I’d fake the counter handoff and then step back throw it out to the flats.
Holt called his own plays, as Sorota wanted all his quarterbacks to. This empowered players to take ownership of the offense, and aided the development of a special relationship between Holt and his center, Belichick.
Holt: He was pretty steady. Bill was my center. I had my hands under his butt every game.
Belichick: All centers and quarterbacks have a relationship relative to cadence, ball exchange, etc. Milt called the plays, so he would rely on suggestions from Ernie and me from time to time regarding the running game and interior line blocking. I had never had that experience before, as the plays at Annapolis High School were called by Coach [Al] Laramore.
The defense was a strong unit that played well together, with a particularly good group of senior safeties and defensive backs in John Malo, Steve Sherrill, Darryl Robinson, Dennis Lombardo, and Weldon Baird, the “rover.” Sorota was a stickler about tackling, so when Andover did give up a catch, this group was quick to bring receivers to the ground or even force a fumble.
Lombardo handled kickoff duties, and Bump, who also played on defense, kicked extra points and field goals. Baird was also the punter and Belichick was the long snapper.
Belichick: We didn’t have to punt very often. Weldon Baird was an athletic punter, so he handled my errant snaps smoothly.
Bringing the players together was Sorota, who had been leading the program for 32 years. He ran a disciplined program but rarely raised his voice. He had the respect of his players, so when he spoke, everyone listened. Some of his gravitas came from having played with Vince Lombardi at Fordham under coach Jim Crowley, one of the original “Four Horsemen” of Notre Dame.
Ernie Adams, G, Class of 1971: He was very aware of the difference between big football and how it was going to fit in at a school like Andover. But when it was the 90 minutes a day we were doing football? We were doing football.
Lasman: He didn’t scream and shout. It was just, he would look, he had rimless glasses and he would peer through those rimless glasses and God, I’m sure there wasn’t a detail that escaped his attention.
Weldon Baird, DB/P, Class of 1971: He had a lot of respect, being a good, close friend of Lombardi’s. He had all the credibility in the world.
Sorota was also the track and field coach during the winter, which meant he kept his football teams in good condition. In the 1960s, when the Patriots trained at Phillips Academy, Sorota at one point suggested to coach Mike Holovak that he could update the team’s strength and conditioning program. Sorota’s track background also meant that he coached his linemen the way he coached his discus and hammer throwers: to have a strong base.
Adams: A good teacher, knew how to [teach] techniques, which you have to be when you’re coaching field events. You can’t just be a cheerleader when you’re teaching someone how to do the high jump. Everything was very precise, very detailed.
Belichick: The major strength of the team was Coach Sorota’s ability to get everyone on the same page and commit to excellence. Football at Andover is one of many activities. It was stressed and supported by the school but did not have the same school support that some of us [postgraduates] had experienced in public high school, where big crowds and community support was much larger than Andover.
The student-athletes at Andover faced the competition and pressure of grades, college admission, and other scholastic activities that were important to the college admission process. Football was not a vehicle for students to be admitted to college. Coach Sorota put together a good and cohesive football team, not easy at that point in time at Andover.
Why wasn’t it easy? As was the case on many college campuses, dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War bled into a general questioning of authority and tradition. There were protests on campus in the spring of 1971 directed both at the war and at rules students saw as antiquated, such as the dress code.
Adams: Up until the spring of 1971, everything, it was coats and ties for all required appointments. Then Nixon went into Cambodia, all hell broke loose, the school got shut down, and John Kemper, who was the headmaster, knew he had to do something. So he said, “Well, it’s getting warm, so we’ll go no more coats and ties.” So that’s where coats and ties ended at Phillips Academy.
There was tension between students and members of the faculty who were more old-school, but Sorota, who was strict in a way that showed he took his players seriously, was exempt.
Lasman: I think the faculty were just confused about us. They just didn’t know what was going on. We were just so different. We were trying to get unbuttoned and there was this real tension between authority and rules and rules for rules’ sake.
So you could kind of feel, I think there was a reasonable amount of tension between the faculty and the kids . . . And that was a real contrast in some ways with what was going on on the football field because I think there was this incredible deference for Coach Sorota, who I think was very traditional.
Practices were more physical before the season started. There were “Oklahomas” and “Nutcrackers” and other drills that have since gone out of vogue. Once the games began, though, Sorota didn’t want a lot of hitting, so practices were light and very technical. One thing never let up, though: the running.
Every practice began with a run around “Siberia,” an expanse of athletic fields on the far side of campus, and ended with hill sprints. To make the team, boys had to run a six-minute mile.
Lasman: There was a hill at Andover at the northern end of the football field, and we would run sprints up that hill at the end of practice until we fell over.
Adams: You get a lot of talk about us running the hill out here [in Foxborough]? Well, Phillips Academy is built on a hill, and we ran the hill because Steve was a track coach, OK? Our hills out here, that’s where we do the same. We have both. Some days we would run the long, sloping hill and some days we would run the steeper hill.
Practices were organized by individual work, group work, and team work. Sorota had two assistants, Tim Callard and Joe Wennick. Callard was a religion instructor who, once classes were over, went over to the football field and coached linemen in a manner rather severe.
The presence of Callard and Wennick enabled Sorota to spend portions of practice working one-on-one with players.
Whistle in hand, Sorota would walk the field and stare through his glasses looking for needed corrections to footwork, tackling, and, most importantly, leverage.
In football, as in hammer throwing, leverage is key. Sorota was open-minded and listened to his players’ suggestions. Holt and his receivers loved to experiment with new route patterns, a practice the coach encouraged. When a defensive lineman wanted to line up in a three-point stance instead of the usual four, however, he said no. For a player that size, a four-point stance offered better leverage.
Belichick: Practices were well-organized. He had a larger staff than what I had at Annapolis High School, so Coach Sorota was able to do multiple drills at the same time. This enabled individual skill development. This is not a unique concept — I observed it many times at Navy football practices — however, this was the first time I experienced it as a player. Most of the teams I played on, football and lacrosse, were basically run by a single coach.
Players were well-prepared mentally, too. There were weekly film-review sessions when Sorota would gather the boys in front of the projector in the wrestling room, or sometimes in his own living room, to critique the last week’s game. This was fairly advanced for a high school program at the time.
It was quickly apparent that Belichick, Adams, and another teammate, Evan Bonds, shared a particular love of schematics. Adams and Bonds had been friends since they were freshmen, and after that 1970 season, they completed a project together in which they charted all of the team’s tendencies by down and distance. They gave it to Sorota, who was very pleased.
With Belichick on campus, the pair became a trio, diagramming plays at the dinner table and answering teammates’ questions on the field.
Ken Lacey, E, Class of 1971: They clearly were much more into the details of football than most of us were at that time. They were studying film of the games and they were sort of the brain guys behind what was going on there.
Tom Foley, T, Class of 1971: I’d say two or three games into the season they were recommending plays, Ernie Adams was helping out and these guys were staying up pretty late at night working on football plays. They had it in their blood and they loved it.
Lasman: I remember walking across the floor of the gym, you know, I’d be going to run on the track or something, and seeing the three of them huddled around the projector, the film projector, and being very animated by God knows. And I’d just wave.
Walter Haydock, C, Class of 1971: Ernie, from the first day of school, all he would talk about was football. When Belichick arrived senior year, it was almost that if they were in the cafeteria and you saw them at a table, you would not go to that table because you knew exactly what they were talking about, which was football. If you wanted to talk about anything else, you better just go to another table.
The season began on Oct. 3 at home against the Tufts freshmen, the first of three college teams Andover beat that year.
Holt immediately lived up to the hype, leading the team to a 26-12 win, punctuated by a 70-yard touchdown pass to halfback Bruce Bruckmann.
He was erratic the next week against the Williams freshmen, throwing three touchdown passes but four interceptions. Andover nearly blew a 21-0 lead but escaped with a 28-22 win. Bump earned Athlete of the Week for his blocked punt, four PATs, and contributions on defense.
The first road game was Oct. 17 at Lawrenceville. It turned out to be the hardest victory of the year.
Lawrenceville’s coach was Ken Keuffel, a former captain for Sorota at Andover and a champion of the single wing offense most programs were no longer using. Belichick, whose prep school choice had come down to Lawrenceville or Andover, had met and been impressed by Keuffel. He ultimately chose Andover on the recommendation of Dick Duden, a star player and coach at Navy who had played for Sorota at Andover. Preparing for the single wing was difficult because Andover saw it only once a year.
Adams: It’s the same problem that people in this [NFL] league had when Tim Tebow started playing in Denver. OK, he’s running a lot of option, you’re not used to seeing the option, and it’s a real issue. I mean, if you practiced against the single wing every day, it’d be a little different. But that’s part of the reason when you get a team that runs a unique offense, it can be a problem.
Belichick: The revival of the “Wildcat” was essentially the rebirth of a version of the single wing . . . When I was in seventh grade, my coach was from Clemson and we ran the single wing offense for a year [on the] Annapolis T-Birds. In retrospect, I am so glad that I was able to play in that offense.
Adding to the visiting team’s challenge was the draining six-hour bus ride to New Jersey. Andover went down the night before the game, and the players slept on cots in the Lawrenceville gym, chattering into the night until Sorota had to come and quiet them down. Some players spent the bus ride gathered around Louis Lampson and his portable radio, listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash, while others attempted to get schoolwork done.
Bill Belichick: Lawrenceville was my first overnight trip for a game; most of my time was spent studying. French at Andover was difficult for me, even though I took four years of French at AHS. Reading “Les Miserables” in French was a slow process! I think we were a tired team from the six-plus-hour bus ride, and didn’t play our best, but as usual in that season, Milt pulled it out for us!
There was one other student who made the long journey down for the game. A young Manhattanite, Buzz Bissinger, covered the team for the school paper, The Phillipian. It was not the last time the “Friday Night Lights” author would put his pen to work on a season of high school football.
Buzz Bissinger, reporter, Class of 1972: It just felt really alien because that was the farthest Andover traveled, and I went down with Marge Harrison, who was the athletic director’s wife. She was the biggest chain-smoker I ever saw, smoked about six packs of cigarettes the whole game. I was dying to ask her for one but I knew I’d get put on probation.
Oct. 17, 1970, in Lawrenceville, N.J., was freezing cold. This helped no one, particularly the specialists. Lombardo was on kickoff duty and he, like the punter Baird, kicked barefoot. Since both played on defense, this required a semi-elaborate ritual after each punt or kickoff where a backup would wait on the sideline with a shoe and a sock. If the kicking player didn’t get his shoe laced up in time, his backup would go into the game.
Unfortunately for Andover, this emergency ripcord was pulled right after the opening kickoff when Lombardo’s frozen shoelaces broke while he attempted to tie them. Lombardo frantically searched for an extra shoelace while Lawrenceville’s big fullback Joe Sciolla started to wear away at the defense.
Holt: [Sciolla] wound up being my roommate at Harvard, but he was running roughshod all over us. We had a hard time slowing him down. We hadn’t defensed the single wing all season.
Stan Livingston, G, Class of 1971: I remember from the first whistle how hard they hit.
Andover took a lead in the first half, but Lawrenceville kept coming. They were determined to be the first ones to knock off Holt.
Bump: We got up Saturday morning and walked around the Lawrenceville campus and they had banners hanging from their dorm windows saying, “We’re going to get you Mr. White Shoes.” So he was known all over. That was their goal, was to stop Milt. And sure enough, about the middle of the fourth quarter, we fell behind, 14-13, and things were not looking good at the time. They weren’t looking good for me because the reason we were down by 1 point is that I had missed an extra point, so the pressure was on.
The defense had done an admirable job in the first half but was exhausted. If not for a game-saving tackle at the goal line by John Malo, Sciolla would have put Lawrenceville up by another touchdown.
Andover needed to score. Down by a point with just a few minutes left, Sorota turned things over to Holt. Most who were there remember this drive as the moment the legend of Mr. White Shoes doubled in size. Holt himself remembers one other detail.
Holt: The coach put me in during the kickoff! I’d never returned a kickoff in my life. I’m lucky he didn’t kick the ball to me. But we got the ball and scored in two or three plays on a pass to Tom Mulroy over the middle.
Mulroy was Holt’s most trusted receiver. After the quarterback scrambled for a first down, he dropped back from the Lawrenceville 45-yard line and unleashed a ball 35 yards in the air downfield, right on the money. Mulroy snaked between two defenders and brought it the last 10 yards to score the game-winner.
Adams: Milt hit Tom Mulroy on a curl pattern, yeah.
Bissinger: It was intense. I thought we were going to lose. I thought that the season that might be immaculate would be over. But that was Milt.
A rough estimation of Andover’s game-winning play against Lawrenceville.
Andover recovered in time to beat Mt. Hermon, 25-0, at home the next week, and beat Deerfield the week after that. Bissinger disliked Deerfield, and his disdain was evident in his Phillipian report on the game: “Upping its season’s record to 5-0, the Andover football squad crushed previously undefeated and highly overrated Deerfield, 35-6.” Andover’s defense collected five sacks, and Holt and the offense gained 407 yards.
Kurt Kuchta, E, Class of 1971: I remember the Deerfield parents going, “Which one’s Holt? Where’s Holt?” And we just kind of pointed to the guy with the white shoes. He was a prep school celebrity. They wanted to see what this guy looked like. He was different.
The second-to-last game was at Dartmouth. The Dartmouth varsity won five consecutive Ivy League titles from 1969-1973, but the freshman team was divided between “A” and “B” squads, and the Andover team dispatched the B’s without much fuss, 21-0.
The last game of the season was the rivalry game, vs. Exeter. The two schools have been linked since 1781, when John Phillips founded Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., three years after his nephew Samuel Phillips Jr. founded Phillips Academy 37 miles away in Andover. They have been playing football since 1878.
Holt: That was a big game. It was all hyped up. It’s like the Harvard-Yale of prep football. The stands were pretty full.
Bissinger: It was always covered yearly in Women’s Wear Daily, of all things, to see what the new prep school styles were.
Evan Bonds, G, Class of 1971:It was pretty fevered. A lot was riding on the game. I’d like to think looking back on it now, “Well, it was nice that we won, but if we’d lost, life would have gone on,” but that wasn’t the way it looked at the time.
Even Sorota broke his usual stoicism. When he was first hired in 1933, then-headmaster Claude Fuess impressed upon him that his job was to teach, not to win. Sorota managed to do both, but it was a message he agreed with and took seriously — except when it was time to play Exeter.
Adams: When we got ready to play Exeter, he’s going, “OK boys, this week we’re playing for keeps.”
Belichick: I was impressed with the energy on campus about the Exeter game. The Exeter game was the closest thing I saw to a full school involvement in any athletic contest. The crowd was bigger in high school, but the Exeter game and the potential of an undefeated season brought out a level of support and excitement unlike any other game in 1970.
Ernie prepared me for the Exeter rivalry. It wasn’t Army-Navy, but I got the idea and was thrilled to participate in it.
Bissinger: It was in the New York Times, actually, it was mentioned, and it was the highlight of my career at Andover.
Andover got off to a fast start when it recovered the ball after the opening kickoff bounced off the back of an Exeter player. The game ultimately offered more pomp and circumstance than it did competitive football.
There was a blooper-reel moment when Holt decided to call a trap play to the left side, which the team had never run. The offense ran a trap to the right often, but not all the linemen knew whom to block going the other way, and the play was bungled. Most in the huddle knew it would not end well, but Milt had free rein to be Milt.
Mostly, that was a good thing. Andover won, 34-8, completing the program’s first undefeated season since 1959. As the players walked off the field, they were each given a cigar from the school and a flower lei, fresh from Hawaii, from Holt’s parents, who had flown in for the game.
Belichick: I am proud to have graduated from Andover, but I have never publicly displayed my diploma. I had the banner with the score of the Andover-Exeter game hanging for many years. I gave it to my daughter, Amanda, when she attended Andover.
That game, and the Exeter week, and graduation — George Bush was the commencement speaker — are my two strongest and best memories from my year at Andover. After the game, I was in Ernie’s room with Evan Bonds and Michael Carlisle listening to stories about other Andover-Exeter games and thinking about what we accomplished that season.
In that moment — Belichick, Bonds, and Carlisle gathered in Adams’s room in Double Brick House — there were shades of things to come.
Carlisle, Adams’s roommate, became a literary agent and worked with Bissinger. When Bissinger was looking for a football-obsessed town in which to embed for a season for the book project that became “Friday Night Lights,” Carlisle said they should ask Adams. He suggested Odessa, Texas.
Other teammates and classmates went on to have excellent college careers. Holt was a quarterback and pitcher at Harvard, where he roomed with Foley, who was on the crew team. He teamed up with Sciolla, the fullback from Lawrenceville, and finally ended Dartmouth’s streak of Ivy League championships in 1974.
Keuffel, the Lawrenceville coach, remained in touch with Belichick for the rest of his life, and the two often discussed the single wing and the evolution of offensive football. Linebacker Sam Walker and Kurt Kuchta both played Division 1 lacrosse, Walker for West Point and Kuchta for Rutgers, as Belichick’s son Stephen would years later.
Many have had successful careers and most keep in touch and count some of their best friends from that 1970 team.
Sometimes, paths cross. Kuchta visited a Patriots practice at the Air Force Academy last season and toured the US Olympic training facility with Adams. Belichick signed a football for Bump’s son when the team had a reunion in 2004, adding his then-two Super Bowl championship years with his name. Over the years since, Bump has brought the ball with him when the Patriots have swung through his state of North Carolina and had Belichick add the subsequent championships.
Belichick stays in touch partially through Adams, but he’s been known to return a phone call. Baird phoned the Patriots general line the day after Super Bowl XXXVI, asking if he could offer his old high school long snapper some congratulations. After convincing an office manager he wasn’t a prankster, he was allowed to leave a message. About 15 minutes later, Belichick called him back. They hadn’t talked in years, but they spent several minutes on the phone catching up. Belichick mentioned that two other teammates had called as well.
Sorota corresponded with Belichick and Adams throughout the rest of his life. When they were hired by Ray Perkins with the Giants in 1979, Sorota called Adams to offer congratulations. He also reminded Adams that his Fordham team was the only one to beat Perkins’s Alabama team in 1933. When Sorota died in 2001, Adams told that story when giving the eulogy. A signed photo from Lombardi, procured for Adams at Andover by Sorota, still hangs on the wall in his study.
From time to time, Adams said, while pacing the practice field in Foxborough, giving coaching tips on leverage and technique, next to the sloping hills that mimic the ones at Andover, he still hears Sorota’s voice ringing in his ear.