HOUSTON — Bill Belichick’s first job as a football coach came in 1975 with the Baltimore Colts. It wasn’t glamorous.
“He learned how to [break down film] and he learned how to sleep on the desk at night,” recalled Maxie Baughan, the defensive coordinator of that Baltimore team.
Belichick no longer sleeps on a desk, but his work ethic remains undiminished more than four decades into his career as a coach. His sustained passion and energy for his work, in a profession where burnout proves common, remains a marvel.
“I’ve done it for 16 years. Sixteen years sounds like a long time,” said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was born in 1976, when Belichick was in his second coaching job with the Lions. “When you’re doing it at the level he’s doing it at, competing hard every day, into 40-some years of doing it, that’s a lot of competition. That’s a lot of preparation. That’s a lot of hard work. That’s a lot of dedication. That’s a lot of dedication to the people you’re working for and working with. That inspires all of us to try to do the same thing – to do our very, very best every day, because we get the best of him.”
In April, Belichick will turn 65, a number unavoidably associated with the question of retirement in his line of work. Next season, Belichick (and Bruce Arians of the Cardinals, who turns 65 in the fall) will join a list of just 13 others in NFL history — including just one other active coach (Pete Carroll) — to hold those positions past their 65th birthday.
He’s been a coach for longer than three other NFL head coaches have been alive – four if one includes Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, a 37-year-old who soon will be named 49ers head coach. The average NFL head coach is 52. Belichick’s Super Bowl counterpart, Falcons coach Dan Quinn, was 5 when Belichick paid his dues in Baltimore.
If Belichick’s Patriots win on Sunday, he’ll become the second-oldest head coach to win a Super Bowl, surpassed only by Tom Coughlin, who was 65 when his Giants beat New England five years ago.
|Tom Coughlin||Giants||XLVI||65 years, 138 days|
|Dick Vermeil||Rams||XXXIV||63 years, 92 days|
|Bill Belichick||Patriots||XLIX||62 years, 291 days|
|Pete Carroll||Seahawks||XLVIII||62 years, 140 days|
|Weeb Ewbank||Jets||III||61 years, 251 days|
|Tom Coughlin||Giants||XLIV||61 years, 156 days|
Yet at a time when most coaches have already stepped back, the commitment and success of the Patriots head coach remains undiminished. There are no signs of concession to age, no evidence that he has had to compromise his workload or radically change the structure of his days since he came to the helm of New England in 2000.
“My days are pretty well set by what time of year it is and what day it is. What I’m doing in the middle of March is the same thing I was doing in the middle of March 15 years ago. It’s draft-related,” Belichick said. “Pick out a day, pick out a time, and there’s probably not a whole lot of difference [in his day now as compared to 2000].”
It’s natural to assume that changes to the tools of coaching – particularly the ease of analyzing video – would make a coach’s behind-the-scenes work more efficient. Yet in some ways, technological advances in the profession have led to an ironic development
“It’s worse. It should be easier, shouldn’t it? [After] forty-five years, it should be easier,” said Patriots offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia, 68, who retired for two years after the 2013 season before New England wooed him back for 2016. “What really happens now, we have all these ways to look at our opponents that we didn’t have before. We have access to every game they’ve played over the last 15 years. If we wanted to research Dan Quinn, we can do it – and we have: The way they call their defenses, all that. You stay in there and grind it, and grind it, and grind it, because it’s so big. Every week is so big.”
That perspective rings true for every coordinator and every position coach, with incredibly intense work weeks. It remains a job without a clock, with darkness both greeting coaches in their pre-dawn arrivals and bidding them adieu when they finally go home after their family members have typically gone to bed – if they go home at all, something that can be a challenge for some members of the coaching staff in short weeks.
Ivan Fears – who has been on Belichick’s staff during his entire New England tenure, spending the last 15 seasons as the running backs coach – laughed when asked whether anything had changed about the structure of his coach’s days since they started working together.
“No. No. No. You go in early, leave late. It’s still a lot of work. Just get the job done – whatever it takes, you get the job done,” said Fears. “When you’re at work and you’ve got things to get done, you don’t worry about the time as much as you worry about getting it done. The guys are going to be in the next morning. You’ve got to get it done. You can’t say, ‘Guys, I got tired, went home, went to bed. And here we are starting an 8 o’clock meeting not ready to go.’ No.”
That prevailing ethos entails sacrifices by all members of the coaching staff. Yet the toll on a head coach is simply different – a notion that became clear when Belichick’s son Steve, who coaches the Patriots safeties, was asked whether he wanted to be an NFL head coach at this time in his life.
“Not today I wouldn’t, no,” said Steve Belichick, who later clarified that his answer was related to his view of the present. “It’s a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of responsibility. I don’t know that you have control of everything under you. I’d want to be in control. I like being in control of my little safety group. I wouldn’t be happy being a head coach today.”
His father, on the other hand, continues to find joy in his vocation, in a way that sets the tone for his staff and the organization.
“It’s an impressive run. As you get to know him and you’re around him, maybe it isn’t surprising,” said defensive line coach Brendan Daly. “He absolutely loves it. He’s really good at it and he enjoys working hard at it. That mentality permeates throughout everything we do, I think.”
|Coach||Age in last coaching year||Years as head coach|
|Pete Carroll||65 (active)||11|
The theme echoes among those asked about Belichick: He loves his work, in a way that is not age-bound. Indeed, in his 17th season running the Patriots, it becomes clear that he views being a head coach less as a profession than a vocation.
“I don’t really see it as work. This actually beats working,” said Belichick. “You get to do what you love to do dealing with a lot of great people. I have a great staff. Players work hard and are very cooperative and compliant. They have a great attitude about teamwork, playing unselfishly and working unselfishly. [It] really doesn’t feel like work.”
That outlook not only runs counter to Belichick’s dour sideline persona but also helps to explain why he continues to add to a resume that has him in the Super Bowl for the 10th time. In some ways, his perspective has altered with time – he’s mentioned the uniqueness of this championship game as the first when he’s had both of his sons (Steve, the safeties coach, and Brian, a coaching assistant) on his staff.
But in the commitment to master the details of his profession, and the time it takes to do so, he remains unchanged.
“He’s still Bill. He’s still Bill. He’s still Bill,” said Fears. “I think it burns just as bright now as it did back in [his first Super Bowl]. I still think he’s as young inside as he’s ever been.”
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.