John Powers, I hate you.
Well, no, not really. That’s my way of saying I am envious. John Powers may very well be the single best pure writer to grace the pages of the Boston Globe in the past 50 years, and I’m not just talking about what appears in the sports pages.
John Powers knows more about more than any of us, which is why he has swung effortlessly from writing about schools and colleges to covering the Celtics (and writing an excellent book about the experience) to expounding on hockey to overseeing the world soccer scene to being as good an Olympic writer as any newspaper has ever had.
So, yeah, I’m only kidding.
I am envious because he has done what I always thought should be done. He has taken advantage of a phenomenon known as Bill Belichick’s Friday press conferences, presenting excerpts in book form. “Fridays With Bill: Inside the Football Mind of Bill Belichick” (Triumph Books) is the book I have long thought should be written. But I haven’t done it. John Powers has. He has combed through the transcripts of those many Friday sessions and collected some of the best excerpts for our edification.
It is well understood that the Bill Belichick on public display following any Patriots game is Bill Belichick at his worst. Curt, sullen, uninformative, and bored only begin to describe his performance at the podium, even in victory. Sadly, this is the only Bill Belichick most of the world ever sees.
The next day, he’s better. He has seen the tape, he has cleared his mind, and he may even have had a few hours of sleep. As the week goes on, he’s better and better, until he gets to Friday, when, if you know how to get him going, there is a very different, and, for anyone interested in learning about football, an almost ebullient Bill Belichick. He’s in his wheelhouse: football for football’s sake.
I’m not sure anyone can love football more than Bill Belichick loves football. He is the son of a football coach, and he has been studying this game since childhood. He loves everything about it, including its history. I have long maintained he knows more about Paul Brown than Mike Brown does. There is no nuance involving football he hasn’t considered or mastered. “Fridays With Bill” invites you into a football mind like no other.
The man loves football, for sure, and what’s long been evident to those who have covered him is that he loves sharing that knowledge with anyone who cares to learn. That would not include inside info such as a player’s injury status, of course. That’s privileged information, and he even addresses his attitude toward the injury report itself on Page 161:
“Just because a guy is on the injury report and whatever he’s listed as, that doesn’t really mean anything . . . Honestly, I don’t even care what’s on the injury report. I really don’t even look at it.”
So now we know why he has been playing games with it for 20 years.
You know that famous Patriots mantra “Do your job”? On Page 42 you get the full explanation: “You’d rather do something that you’re good at but you have to do something that the team requires you to do. That’s what team sport is, that’s what football is. You put the team first. You do your job.”
On Pages 81 through 84, we get a fascinating insight into roster composition. Surprisingly, he even invokes the name of Mel Kiper. This may be the highlight of Mel Kiper’s career. Be assured that when a new player joins the team, especially during the season, it is the end result of a long (and perhaps long-distance) tracking and evaluation.
We learn about his early days, when he was a glorified gofer with the Baltimore Colts, who often practiced at Eastern High School, across the street from the old Memorial Stadium.
“The whole team walks out of Memorial Stadium, hits the WALK button, goes across 33rd Street, and walks over to Eastern High School, which had two blades of grass — dirt, glass, rocks.”
One team that made a huge impression on the young Belichick was the Pittsburgh Steelers:
“When you’re a young coach you’re (thinking) ‘Okay, who does things in a way that you admire or respect or want to emulate?’ Or, ‘What can you take from a good program to help you as a coach?’ Or, ‘If you ever get a chance, what would you do that they do?’ They were one of those teams. From the first year the Steelers had a very strong impact from the outside on my philosophy as a coach.”
He doesn’t exactly rank his contemporaries, but it’s rather obvious which one he respects the most:
“At Kansas City you don’t really know what personnel group they’re going to be in. You don’t know what formation they’re going to be in . . . We watched all of Kansas City’s games from last year. Some games they’re doing more of this, some games they’re doing more of something else, so what are you going to get?”
Andy Reid, take a bow.
We learn that scouting isn’t restricted to evaluating players. On Page 157, there is a very interesting discourse on coaches:
“Any time a coordinator changes, you go back to your notes for that coordinator, with the team he was at and what he did there. That travels with the guy . . . Depending on who the head coach is, you just have to look at it. Sometimes it matches up pretty cleanly. Sometimes part of it matches up, like maybe it’s the third-down package but their base defense is different or vice versa . . . The same thing in the kicking game, offense, defense. I think you definitely want to track those guys.”
Makes sense, but who knew?
You will not be surprised to learn that a cold heart is necessary at times.
“What I try to do is make decisions that are the best for our football team,” he says on Page 13. “And some of them are hard, some of them are pretty obvious, but in the end I try to do what’s best for the team and that excludes personal feelings and relationships.”
No surprise there.
But here’s a surprise. The great man gets nervous. I did not expect to read the following on Page 33:
“Every year I walk out on the field before the game and I think ‘This will be a little better this year,’ and it never is. I think everybody has them (butterflies) and then the ball is kicked off, you start playing, and you kind of settle into it. It’s good to get that first play over with and just get into the game. But the buildup, the anxiety, and the butterflies — that’s the perfect word for it because that’s what they are.”
Football fans, you’re going to love it. But I confess there was just one thing missing, one aspect of Belichick football I wanted to glean. Sorry, John, I kept turning those pages and it wasn’t there.
I wanted to read about Bill Belichick’s infatuation with left-footed punters.
Perhaps in Volume II, OK?
Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.