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CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

Bill Belichick’s team-first approach is rooted from his playing days at Wesleyan

Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University

Bill Belichick was a captain on the Wesleyan lacrosse team in 1974.

By Globe Staff 

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Scouting reports are the currency of Bill Belichick’s profession. They must be both reliable and revealing, rooted in careful consideration and meticulous observation. If there is one thing Belichick knows it’s evaluating football players in unsparing detail.

So, how would Bill Belichick, legendary NFL head coach, evaluate Bill Belichick, Wesleyan University football player of little playing time and even lesser distinction? The question brought a wistful smirk to Belichick’s face before he delivered a trenchant assessment.

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“Uh, you got a long way to go, buddy. Maybe you ought to try coaching,” said Belichick. “Quite a few people told me that actually, so it’s probably good advice. I got that from a couple of coaches, football and lacrosse: ‘You got a better career in coaching than you got in playing.’ I’m sure that’s true.”

It’s definitely true, as Belichick leads the Patriots into Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, seeking his sixth Super Bowl title as a head coach and the eighth of a decorated 43-year NFL coaching career. If anyone was born to be a football coach it’s Belichick, the savant son of a revered football scout at Navy. He seems both genetically and preternaturally predisposed to prowling the sidelines, strategizing game plans, and dissecting opponents.

By his own admission, he was considerably less inclined to have been a football player.

However, his playing days at Wesleyan provide a window into some of Belichick’s coaching tenets and tactics. They echo his insistence on a team-first philosophy in Foxborough and illustrate why he is adept at convincing players to subjugate their egos and accept their designated, if not desired, role on the Patriots. His time donning a helmet before a headset also might explain where he got the idea to have Patriots players run sprints up a hill at the end of practice.

As Belichick attempts to join sepia-toned coaching icons George Halas and Curly Lambeau as the only coaches to capture six NFL championships, it’s not a coincidence that a player who had many weaknesses developed into a coach who is exceptional in his ability to maximize players’ strengths while masking their limitations.

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There is an old bromide that those who can’t do, teach. No one teaches the game better than Belichick. At Division 3 Wesleyan, Belichick didn’t do much playing. He played — using the term liberally — center, defensive end, linebacker, tight end, and, to no one’s surprise, did some long-snapping.

“Bill never really was much of a player. He was a jack of all trades and master of none,” said Dr. John McVicar, a teammate of Belichick’s on the 1974 Wesleyan team and now a transplant surgeon at the University of California, Davis Medical Center. “He could play a bunch of different positions, but was not physically gifted enough to really compete.”

Belichick was a senior in 1974 when McVicar arrived as a freshman and beat him out for a starting defensive end position. Instead of being bitter, Belichick did all he could to help McVicar and the team. There was no sulking, whining, or complaining that he wasn’t getting playing time. Belichick just did what was in the best interest of the team. Sound familiar?

It does to retired Wesleyan athletic director John Biddiscombe, Wesleyan’s defensive line coach in 1974 under the late Bill Macdermott and the bearer of bad news to Belichick.

“I would think the thing that has some correlation from his experience at Wesleyan to what his coaching philosophy was is that it’s all about the team,” said Biddiscombe. “I know you often read about the way he stresses that and tries to mitigate the emergence of individual stars.

“My sense is that this is all about the same type of person that he was when he wasn’t a starter his senior year. He was glad to be on the team. He was a very loyal member of the team and not a complainer because he wasn’t playing, and that’s unusual for seniors, even in those days.”

Biddiscombe said Belichick was a great practice player and a very inquisitive pigskin pupil. Young Belichick asked questions that were more common for a coach than a player. That’s because Belichick was already thinking the game like a coach.

In a 1974 game against Amherst College, McVicar recalled that Belichick pointed out to him that an Amherst player going into motion was a tell for a particular play. McVicar registered a tackle for a loss because Belichick tipped him off.

“He would whisper little secrets that he had noticed like when a team sets up in this formation it’s going to be this play,” said McVicar. “Then next time I see it I know it, and I’m the hero. But he is the one that noticed it.

“It was just so easy to play with him because he would just tell me what I should do, very logically, very calmly. ‘When you see this then this is going to happen.’ He would see things and just kind of give me a head’s up.”

McVicar, who went on to become a two-time All-America defensive end, said he never sensed any rivalry with Belichick or resentment from him. Belichick actually recruited him for the Wesleyan lacrosse team, which Belichick captained.

McVicar admired Belichick’s undismayed preparation to play. That preparation paid off in the final game of Belichick’s senior season, against Trinity College. McVicar had sprained his ankle the previous game. Belichick got the start in his final collegiate contest.

“It was pretty special,” said McVicar. “I can remember the coaches talking amongst themselves about whether Bill Belichick on two legs was faster than John McVicar on one. Bill may have been short, but he was slow. Great guy. It’s hard for me to say anything negative about him as a person.”

Perhaps, there is more than a schematic reason that Belichick obsesses about setting the edge defensively in the run game. It was a task he struggled with as a player, due to a lack of footspeed. Belichick played the correct technique, but teams just ran around him, relayed McVicar.

If he couldn’t set the edge as a player, Belichick was determined to give his players every edge as a coach.

Patriots players said that Belichick doesn’t reference his playing days. Center David Andrews knew that Belichick played center at Wesleyan, but said it has never come up in conversation or preparation.

There is a chasm between being a Division 3 college player and an NFL player, but Belichick’s playing experience does provide him with perspective on what players go through, from injuries to individual disappointments.

At Wesleyan, Belichick lost out in competitions for starting positions twice and was forced to sit out the 1973 season after suffering a knee injury in practice.

His friend and former football and lacrosse teammate Bob Heller, a two-time All-America center who beat out Belichick and two other players for the center job in 1972, recalled that Belichick blew out his knee blocking on an extra-point drill. (Belichick can compare extra-point injuries with tight end Rob Gronkowski.)

But Belichick stayed involved with the team, attending practices and film sessions.

“Certainly, he is able to really empathize with [player setbacks] because he has experienced it first-hand,” said Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater. “I think he understands how tough it is as a player and the demands that are put on us, so I think him knowing that and experiencing that and continuing to buy into the [Wesleyan] team allows him to create the foundation for our team mentality and putting the team first. That’s a huge part of who we are.”

Something Belichick took from Wesleyan that his players probably wish he had not is finishing off practices with punishing sprints up a hill near the practice field.

According to Heller, now a lawyer living in Seattle, Macdermott used to have his players finish practice by running up nearby Foss Hill on the Wesleyan campus in Middletown, Conn. Macdermott would tell his players as he exhorted them up the hill, “This is where it counts, boys. This is where the difference is made in the third and fourth quarter.”

Belichick has borrowed that exhortation.

Belichick’s experiences as a marginal college player at Wesleyan didn’t form him as a coach, but they informed him.

The Wesleyan program from Belichick’s final collegiate football game mentioned he and another little-used senior had “significant sideline roles this season.”

That laudation foreshadowed Belichick’s imprint on pro football — playing arguably the most significant sideline role in NFL history.


Christopher L Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.