What went in to Bill Belichick becoming coach of the Patriots
You know what?
Willie Shaw interviewed for the job. Yup, and so did Gary Crowton. Steve Sidwell was the defensive coordinator, and he also got a formal interview. Oh, and you’ll love this one. Marvin Lewis was likewise interrogated.
Wait, there’s more. Famed defensive guru Dom Capers was an 11th hour interviewee.
Things were sure hopping around here in January 2000. Pete Carroll had been given a needed heave-ho, and the New England Patriots, a wounded, deteriorating team that could hardly believe it had been playing in a Super Bowl three years earlier, were looking for a head coach.
The search ended on Jan. 28. Bob Kraft had said he’d never give up precious draft choices in order to obtain a head coach, but on that date he shipped a 2000 first-rounder, a 2001 fourth-rounder, and a 2001 seventh-rounder to the New York Jets, who, along with a 2001 fifth-rounder and a 2002 seventh-rounder, gave Mr. K the right to sign as his new head coach their defensive coordinator, a guy named Bill Belichick.
New England did not exactly rejoice en masse. Yes, aware local pigskin fans knew him as the defensive coordinator for two Super Bowl champion Giants teams, as well as the defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells here in New England. But they also knew him as the somewhat controversial, flinty, and only partially successful head coach of the Cleveland Browns. But that wasn’t the only problem. This was the guy who had just created confusion by first accepting, and then rejecting, the head job with the Jets, doing so by submitting a hand-printed note saying he did not wish to be the “HC of the NYJ.” Who does that?
It was like, whoa, wait a minute. Bill Belichick?
I know I was right there. I believe the word I used to describe the new mentor was “unhinged.”
That’s the guy Kraft wanted, all right, but getting him wasn’t easy. The process took three long, bizarre weeks to run its course. Belichick’s exit from the Jets was anything but smooth, and a few feelings were surely ruffled. As usual, the main beneficiaries were the attorneys, who were able to pile up some delectable billable hours as Belichick’s agent filed a lawsuit questioning the legitimacy of his contract with the Jets.
The story began on Jan. 3, 2000, when Parcells announced his resignation as head coach of the Jets. It was widely known that it was in Belichick’s contract that he would automatically succeed Parcells as head coach upon the latter’s departure. So it was that the Jets scheduled a news conference for Jan. 4 to announce the uncomplicated transition. There would be no nationwide search. The new coach would be checking in from down the hall.
Except . . . except that on Jan. 4 presumptive head coach Belichick stunned the known universe with his terse rejection of the Jets. The man was changing his mind, and that’s that.
Not having been born the day before, and apparently suspicious that something might already have been going on between the Patriots and representatives of their defensive coordinator, Jets executive Steve Gutman issued a stern warning to the rest of the NFL: Bill Belichick was still under contract to the New York Jets, period. So those of you looking for a head coach, don’t get any funny ideas.
And we were off and running.
The issue landed in the lap of commissioner Paul Tagliabue. On Jan. 13 he heard arguments from the respective lawyers. It was bare knuckles stuff, legally speaking. Belichick’s attorney, Jeffrey Kessler, threatened an antitrust lawsuit if his client were not freed from his Jets contract.
Tagliabue’s efforts on Jan. 20 to resolve this with a head-to-head meeting were not successful, and the following day he gave his ruling. The contract was valid at least through 2000. Anyone dealing with the Jets would have to provide compensation if they were to hire Belichick. A day after a judge denied Kessler’s request for a restraining order that would allow Belichick to negotiate with other teams. Kraft would have to make nice with the Jets.
Well, he did. But what was he getting, exactly?
Belichick had pretty much led a scorched earth existence in Cleveland. The players were basically commodities, not people. The media was pretty much an Enemy of the State.
Mike Baab was a center on that first Cleveland team. “I don’t think he was interested in becoming your friend in any way, shape or form,” Baab recalled. “He didn’t endear himself to anyone at all. There was nothing to love there, except the hope we would win.”
No one doubted Belichick’s expertise, especially with regard to defense. But they have to buy what you’re selling, and one big problem was that he didn’t seem to trust anyone but himself to implement anything.
And this he acknowledged when he took the Patriots job.
“Previously, I think I maybe tried to do too many little things; too many things that maybe took away from the bigger-picture things that I should’ve been doing,” Belichick said. “I’ve learned that as much as the game is played on the field — and it’s extremely important to do everything right when you reach the football field in order to win in this league — there are also a lot of things on the periphery and outside, off the field, that are also important toward winning, and I’ll put more time and effort into making sure those things are right for the organization than maybe I did previously.”
Now, I don’t know if someone got to him, or if he somehow figured it out himself, but he did alter his approach to the players, as well as the media. There have been many times over the years when I sat down there in Foxborough listening to him in his relaxed news conference mode — never on Sunday, of course — and was thinking to myself, “If the people in Cleveland could only hear him now. They’d never believe it.”
He got off to a good, common-sense start by retaining Dante Scarnecchia. Since then, the whole thing has worked out pretty well. We can all agree on that.