By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Players and executives will call Bill Belichick “Coach.” Adoring fans will call him “Hoodie.” Detractors will call him “cheater” or “arrogant.” But ultimately, the Patriots head coach has a chance to be etched into NFL history as “the greatest.”
Many in New England have an understandable distaste for ESPN after how they handled the reporting of DeflateGate, and their vitriol may even go back to Spygate in 2008. But this month’s cover story in ESPN The Magazine on Belichick’s life and legacy in football makes about as deep, uncompromising, and compelling a case as anything for Belichick as not only the best coach of his generation but the best to ever grace an NFL locker room.
ESPN senior writer David Fleming gathered and curated dozens of quotes on Belichick from current and former NFL players, coaches, and executives who had their own personal experiences with the coach with help from several other reporters, including ESPN Boston’s own Mike Reiss. The result is titled “No More Questions,” a statement that may never actually be a reality for Belichick’s many detractors, but the fact is these people actually worked with Belichick and understand the greatness they witnessed in their time under his lead.
The entire article is worth a read, but here are many of the best passages from Belichick’s former colleagues that will tell Belichick’s doubters what New England fans already know and even offer insight into his personality that you may not have believed.
A “former NFL head coach,” one of only two people who wouldn’t put his name on his quotes, had a less-than-flattering description of Belichick’s image as a coach …
“Bill likes creating the image of an outlaw, the tough guy. I think he really relishes it. But who is he really? He was kind of a geeky kid. Not that athletic. A failed football player.”
Belichick’s former economics professor at Wesleyan University, Dick Miller, illustrated how Belichick was a coaching genius before he ever stepped foot in an NFL locker room.
“He was well-prepared, very focused and intense, and he looked in class then very much like he looks on the sidelines now, just with bigger girth and less hair. I don’t know what would separate him from other coaches, but it certainly wasn’t playing experience in college. He was not a starter as a sophomore, he didn’t play as a junior and when he was a senior, a freshman took his spot. But he was always regarded as a coach on the field, especially in lacrosse. Other players, if they didn’t know what the play was about, they’d ask Bill before they’d ask the coach.”
Former Patriots running back and NFL Hall-of-Famer Curtis Martin described a conversation where he and former teammates foreshadowed Belichick’s massive success in New England.
“We were at a lunch table, and Jimmy Hitchcock and Ty Law were raving about Belichick when he was an assistant under Parcells. ‘He’s on another level,’ they said. ‘He’s just a freakin’ genius, this dude. I’m telling you, he’s going to win a Super Bowl someday.’ They were in awe of his football knowledge. You could tell by the way they were communicating it, so passionately, they felt he gave them such an advantage. In their eyes, Belichick was playing a very strategic, intricate game of chess while everybody else was playing checkers.”
Former Cleveland Browns assistant Kirk Ferentz described an awkward time interviewing with Belichick, who wouldn’t let his true feelings shine through.
“One of my first experiences was the interview, how extremely uncomfortable it was. You’ve seen him in press conferences. No matter what I said, there was a real poker face there. I mean, I was not getting any feedback. I was dying a thousand deaths, especially in our first visit, which happened the first night I got there. That was hard, and then I got sent back to Maine. Didn’t think I had a chance at all. A mutual friend talked to him over the weekend. He called me back and said, “No, he liked you.” I was like, “Oh my god. That’s a funny way to show it.” It was uncomfortable.”
Martin explained how Belichick commands his players’ respect without being a loud, in-your-face kind of leader.
“I grew up in a tough neighborhood. It was never the guy who was talking tough that you feared or thought twice about. It’s the guy like Bill who’s very quiet and didn’t have much to say. Back in my neighborhood, they say the loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room. Belichick had that kind of factor to him, that quiet storm — quiet but powerful, almost like demanding your respect without saying too much.”
Phil Savage, a former Browns assistant under Belichick, spoke on how Belichick’s work ethic once turned the great Nick Saban into a puddle.
“Saban might be the greatest college coach ever, and I can honestly say in the last eight years at Alabama I have never once seen him tired. But in Cleveland, under Bill, he’d go slump down against a wall and stutter, “I gotta get out of here, I can’t function anymore.” Bill could outwork all of us.”
Former Patriots scout and current Tennessee Titans GM Jon Robinson showed a softer side of Belichick that most have never seen before.
“After my daughter was diagnosed at 6 with Type 1 diabetes, a week later on my desk there was a little teddy bear, with a Belichick hoodie on it. And he had written a little note: ‘I know this doesn’t cure it, but just something for Taylor to know we are thinking about her and praying for her.’ She knew it was from Coach. She named her bear Hoodie.”
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, one of Belichick’s biggest coaching adversaries in the past decade, expressed his gratitude for Belichick’s role in him getting the Ravens job in the first place.
“Bill called our owner at like 3 in the morning to recommend me for the Ravens job. I was just really grateful and I couldn’t believe it. I called Bill up and thanked him right away. He just said, ‘Ah, don’t worry about it, you should’ve had the job three days ago.'”
Savage praised Belichick’s uncanny ability to be both coach and GM of the Patriots and to play both roles effectively.
“To be great on the field, you have to be emotional. To be great upstairs in the front office, you have to be robotic. The way he can separate in his mind the deep, personal relationships he has to have with his players downstairs in the locker room, on the field and in games, versus the business reality of looking at the same exact players from a strictly financial standpoint, as commodities, when he switches hats upstairs in the front office — that’s not just incredibly hard, that’s almost impossible.”
Former Oakland Raiders CEO Amy Trask explained a big part of what makes Belichick such a great coach – and how he was able to guide the Patriots to a 3-1 start without Tom Brady and starting a rookie third-string quarterback for two-and-a-half games.
“In 1998 I recommended to Al Davis that we hire Bill as the Raiders head coach. Al decided to go with Jon Gruden, an offensive-minded coach, which surprised no one in the league. But Al liked Bill very much. Bill made it clear he would always tailor his schemes to maximize his players’ talents. That’s what the best coaches do, the best business people do and the best leaders do: They put their people in the best possible position to succeed. And that’s what Bill does. I was always tickled pink years later when Al would say to me, ‘Well, you sure can pick a coach, kid.'”
Former Patriots lineman Rich Ohrnberger gave a player’s perspective on how different the culture is in New England and how it really does translate to winning and consistency.
“That’s not the easiest environment to be in. It was stressful. It separated you sometimes from your immediate family, but you felt an obligation to this organization to really give your all. At any other place there was a focus on football and winning but never quite to the level of New England. And it really was attributed to how Bill ran the show over there.”
Former Browns defensive coordinator under Belichick Rick Venturi talked about Belichick’s unsurprisingly dark humor and love for classic rock.
“He has a very dry, cynical sense of humor. A couple of times we’d hit the parking lot at the same time in the morning, and on the way into the facility he’d comment on The Howard Stern Show. ‘Was that hilarious or what?’ he’d say. He’s a real closet rock ‘n’ roll nut. He traveled with the Rolling Stones for a few weeks through Europe one summer. Bon Jovi used to come to Cleveland and catch passes in practice. He had a suite in Cleveland and we all went to Pink Floyd together as a group. I didn’t see him with his lighter out, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I did.”
Venturi also gave Belichick credit for recognizing what he had in Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick who could have easily been cut loose if Bill didn’t see his great potential.
“When you get a guy like Brady that late in the draft, that’s just lucky. But the Patriots kept four quarterbacks in 2000, which is pretty rare. So maybe the brilliance wasn’t in drafting Brady but in Bill’s recognition right away that he had something special when no one else knew it.”
Former Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin told a story illustrating Belichick’s ability to rezognize everything happening on the field at all times.
“At practice, Bill twirls that whistle around his two fingers, watching everything, seeing everything. He could be on another field, I’m not kidding now, he could be on another field and come running over because he saw that the key guy on a kickoff return missed his block.”
Former Patriot and current Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib told a story of Belichick chewing out Tom Brady and showing how no player is above his tough treatment.
“Once, in practice, Brady threw a seam ball that was intercepted, and Bill, man, he chewed Tom out, saying, ‘You got 130 career interceptions,’ or whatever it was, ‘and half of them are on this route. You keep doing the same [expletive] over and over and this is what happens.’ Right then you know two things about the Patriots and Bill Belichick: Everybody is treated the same, and you better get your [expletive] together.”
Former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel explained how Belichick gets the Patriots to know their opponents even better than they know themselves.
“Every Tuesday during the season, the quarterbacks would sit down with him and get his scouting report. He’d go through, in a detailed report, the strengths and weaknesses of every opponent that we were going up against. Mainly DBs, sometimes linebackers. But also we’d talk about the defensive coordinator, his philosophy, where he came from, his background, and he’d give you, basically, a great understanding of who your opponent is going to be.”
Heath Evans on how Belichick is portrayed in the media as a completely different person from how he really is.
“I never had greater admiration for a man besides my father than I had for Bill after the Super Bowl XLII loss. To the 53 men in that locker room and the coaching staff, he delivered a heartfelt apology. He felt like he had really let us down. Despite 18-1 being the most bitter pill I think you can swallow in sports, when I walked out of that Super Bowl locker room that night I still left with kind of a shining moment in my mind about Bill Belichick, how a man that everybody swears is so arrogant and so self-centered is really the exact opposite.”
There’s a whole section dedicated to Belichick’s propensity to push the limits of the rules, which of course have had him labeled a “cheater” by those who want to doubt his accomplishments. Colvin spoke on his efforts to leave no stone unturned when it came to the rulebook without overstepping his bounds.
“He knows all the gray areas and knows most of, if not all, the rules, and he wants to gain an advantage the best way possible. If the rule says you can inflate a ball to 15 psi … Bill is going to inflate that thing right to exactly 15 psi. I’ve never heard him say we’re going to deliberately break the rules or cheat. He just tried to be on the edge, the cutting edge, of what can and cannot be. It’s like this with Bill: Is this the limit? OK, then let’s go to the limit.”
And there goes that “former NFL coach” again, this one basically calling Belichick a cheater. It’s curious that anyone was even included who didn’t have the guts to put their names on comments like this one …
“He will step across the line at any point he thinks he can get away with it. That [stuff] happens. It absolutely fits with the culture and the mindset there. It’s all about winning, and when you’re working 23 hours a day looking for every advantage and you have your whole life invested in the outcome of a football game, honestly, how long before you start to think, ‘Well, if I go just a little bit further with pushing the envelope, what’s the difference?’ The harder you work and the more you’re invested in it, the more you start to think like Bill and the easier it becomes to justify it.”
Unfortunately, many fans who have made their minds up on Belichick’s legacy may not change their minds after reading these quotes. It’s also sort of awkward timing that this story comes out after the Patriots got shut out at home for the first time in Belichick’s tenure. But going 3-1 without Brady is impressive enough, and most of these stories will not surprise most fans of his. Hopefully, some of Belichick’s detractors who didn’t know much about the coach will find this eye-opening and gain respect for the Patriots head coach and what he’s accomplished in his four decades in the NFL.
These stories about Belichick paint a kaleidoscopic picture of a complex man that may not be perfect and may have done things that overstep boundaries. But it also illustrates Belichick’s unparalleled football genius and the incredible amount of time he has put into making himself the greatest coach of his time and giving himself a chance to top them all. If these stories don’t make you bow at the altar of Belichick, none will.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.