The Education of a Coach
Listen to David Halberstam’s interview about the book with Dale Arnold & Michael Holley on Boston Sports Radio WEEI on Nov. 2, 2005.
Mr. Halberstam graciously acknowledged Laura London and this website in the Acknowledgments on page 276.
When the clock was finally winding down, the seconds ticking off, with the Philadelphia Eagles unconscionably slow in getting their plays off, Steve Belichick, always in the background whenever there were television cameras around, left his place behind some of the New England Patriots, back around the 35-yard line. Moving quickly, he headed toward the 50, wanting to share this glorious moment with his son, Bill, the New England coach, about to win his third Super Bowl in four years. Bill himself was puzzled by the almost languid way the Eagles were running their plays, as if they were the ones with the lead, and they wanted to burn the clock. He kept checking the scoreboard, which said 24-14, as if perhaps he was the one who had the score wrong. He called his assistants, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini, on the headphones to make sure the Patriots did indeed enjoy a 10-point lead. “Have I got the score right?” he asked, and they assured him he did. “Then what the hell are they trying to do?” His assistants did not know, either. The long, slow drive finally culminated in a Philadelphia score, on a 30-yard pass play, because of a blown defensive coverage. Seeing that his players were in the wrong coverage, Belichick had tried desperately to call time out, but he had been too late. Belichick was momentarily furious, mostly at himself, because he demanded perfection first and foremost of himself. But the Eagles’ touchdown would not affect the final outcome.
Steve got to his son’s side just in time to be soaked by Gatorade in the ritual shower of the victorious. That gave him his first great moment of celebrity, at the end of a six-decade career of playing and coaching football, and that moment was witnessed by much of the nation, live and in color. It was easy to imagine one of those Disney World commercials, generally accorded the young and instantly famous at moments like these, when a voice would ask, “Steve Belichick, you’ve been coaching and playing for 60 years. Where are you going now that your son has won his third Super Bowl in four years?”
It was one of the best moments of the entire Super Bowl extravaganza, filled as it so often is with moments of artificial emotion, but this moment was absolutely genuine, father and son drenched together, the feelings finally showing on the face of the son, usually so reticent, as if to show emotion was to give away some precious bit of control, to fall at least momentarily into the modern media trap. Father and son were bonded in this instant by the joy of victory and by the shared experience of a lifetime of coaching.
Steve Belichick was a lifer, viewed by his peers as a coach’s coach. He had never made much money and never enjoyed much fame outside the small, hermetically sealed world of coaching. Like most coaches he had lived, especially in the early part of his career, with the special uncertainty of the profession, a world without guarantees, except for the one ensuring that no matter how well things were going, they would surely turn around soon. There would be a bad recruiting year or a prize recruit who said he would come to your school and then decided at the last moment to sign with your archrival; there would be too many good players injured in the preseason (but only after the national magazines had looked at your roster and predicted a conference championship) or a change in athletic directors, the new one with a favorite whom he hoped to install in what was now his program. In the end, the head coach would be fired and the assistant coaches would have to leave with him.
Bill Belichick was born in Nashville in 1952, when Steve, already considered an exceptional coach—tough and smart, original and demanding, way ahead of the curve in the drills he devised and, in addition to everything else, a brilliant scout—was in the process of being fired as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, even though the team he was part of had done reasonably well.
Thus Bill Belichick entered a world rather typical for the son of a lifer. By the time he was a toddler, his parents had already given up the lease on their house and put their furniture in storage, and his father was waiting for word on a next job. The head coach they had followed to Vanderbilt, an immensely popular man named Bill Edwards (William Stephen Belichick was named both for Bill Edwards and for his father), was well connected in the world of coaching, liked by almost everyone, but it was late in the year, and there were not a lot of openings.
It was a difficult moment. On Steve’s tiny salary the Belichicks had not been able to save any money. The phone, which was supposed to be ringing with job offers, did not ring. There was talk that Bill Edwards might be offered an assistant’s job at North Carolina and that if he were, Steve Belichick might become a part of his team, but it was still just talk. Time was running out. Finally, with Jeannette Belichick’s help, a game plan was formulated: They would pile everything they had into the car and drive east. Somewhere along the way they would stop and call the Carolina people. If the job was there, they would continue on to Chapel Hill; if there was no word, they would leave the uncertain world of college coaching, and Steve would try to find a job in Florida coaching high school football.
In Knoxville, not quite halfway to Chapel Hill, the Belichicks pulled up alongside a restaurant, and Steve got out and called from a pay phone. The Carolina job was his. So they went to Chapel Hill, and the idea of coaching high school football was put aside, at least for the moment. The Belichick family loved Chapel Hill, and the job there lasted three years, 1953 to ’55, before they were all once again fired.
From there Steve Belichick managed to get a job as an assistant coach at Navy. Bill was three years old when they went to Annapolis, Md. Steve loved it there, loved coaching the Midshipmen, and decided he would stay there permanently if he could. He did not long to be a head coach—he had seen how quickly they came and went, even when they were talented, like his friend Bill Edwards. He did not need the title or the power. He decided everything he needed was right there: a solid program (Navy still had nationally ranked teams in those days), great young men, an attractive community, wonderful colleagues.
Steve Belichick was one of those rare Americans who, though ambitious and exceptionally hardworking, knew when he had a deal that suited him, and he had no urge for greener pastures, which in his shrewd estimate might in fact not be greener. Over the years he turned down countless job offers from other colleges and from the pros. And he did another shrewd thing: At Chapel Hill he had become close to the Carolina basketball coach, the legendary Frank McGuire, who had taken a special liking to the Belichick family and especially to its three-year-old son. Basketball practice always stopped when Steve and Bill showed up, and someone was ordered to find a ball, always brand new, to roll out to Bill. When McGuire heard that the Belichicks were going to Navy, he told Steve to do what his friend Ben Carnevale, the basketball coach there, had done, which was to try and move up on a tenure track as a physical education instructor in addition to coaching. This would protect him from the volatility and uncertainty of the coach's life. Steve took the advice and became an assistant professor and then a tenured associate professor. That gave him something rare in the world of coaching, job security, and he ended up staying at Navy for 33 years, under eight head coaches. Coaching at Annapolis, he said, “was like dying and going to heaven.”
Steve Belichick was an original teacher, and he had a rare skill in preparing players for a game, because he had no equal as a scout. “The best scout I’ve ever seen—the amount of detail and knowledge was unmatched,” said Mac Robinson, who had played for him at Vanderbilt. “If Steve said something was going to happen in a game, then it was going to happen in a game.” Other players agreed. “Best scout in the precomputer age that football ever had,” said Don Gleisner, who played defensive back at Vanderbilt. “Nothing was left to chance.” Steve did not prepare with broad generalities but with minutiae, detail after detail. Each player, he felt, should go into a game feeling he had a distinct advantage over the player he was matched up against.
Years later Bill Belichick would understand what made his father such a good scout: the absolute dedication to his craft, the belief that it was important, and the fact that so many people—the people who paid his salary, his colleagues and the young men who played for him—were depending on him. “What I learned,” Steve’s son would say years later, “was that it was not just a game, it was a job.”
Steve Belichick also passed on to his son—a far more privileged young man operating in an infinitely more affluent America—a relentless work ethic, one that had been part of his own boyhood as the son of Croatian immigrants who had settled in Youngstown, Ohio, and had survived the Depression. The lessons of that difficult childhood and young manhood were never forgotten. If you were new in the country and your name was Belichick (or Bilicic, as it had been until it was changed by a first-grade teacher in Monessen, Pa., who had trouble spelling it), you were likely to get the worst jobs available. But you always worked hard. You always did your best. You did not complain. You wasted nothing. You had to be careful in good times because bad times would surely follow. Nothing was to be bought on credit. As a high school fullback Steve had earned a scholarship at Western Reserve, but just to remind himself how lucky he was, he had taken a job in the mills during the months after graduation, turning coal into coke for 49 cents an hour, unbearably hot, unpleasant and dangerous work. Nothing else in his life would ever seem hard again.
Steve’s son would eventually have two childhoods: a normal American childhood and then a football childhood. As a boy he spoke two languages: English and coach-speak, football version. (At 13, he would talk to his coach about whether his team should use a wide-tackle-six defense—that is, a six-man balanced front, with two linebackers—or, against teams that had a better passing attack, the Oklahoma, a five-man front with two linebackers and four defensive backs arrayed like an umbrella.) Other kids had their hobbies: Some collected postage stamps, and others had baseball cards. Bill studied football film. It seemed natural to him, and he had a great aptitude for it—plus, it allowed him to spend a good deal of time with his father. He was about five when he saw his first game, and when he was taken at that age to what he was told was the William and Mary game, he wondered aloud if William would beat Mary.
He started hanging out with Steve at Navy practices when he was six or seven, and by the time he was nine he would make a scouting trip with Steve once a year—compensation for the fact that his father was away so much on weekends scouting. Bill loved making that annual trip; his father seemed so important a figure in a world that the boy admired and was gradually coming to understand. On Monday nights, after his father had scouted an opponent, Bill was allowed to go with him (if his homework was finished) to do the breakdown of the upcoming opponent for the whole Navy team. He would sit there, transfixed by the serious way these wonderful athletes listened to his father and the respect they showed him.
In a way it was as if Bill were part of a larger family. When Ernie Jorge, the Navy line coach, did the final game plan on Friday night, he always made an extra copy and put it in an envelope with Bill Belichick’s name on it. “He’d get the report and go up to his room and study the plays,” Steve Belichick said years later. “I think he was nine at the time, but he knew 28 was a sweep, 26 was off tackle. He knew all the pass plays, the banana and the down-and-out.” What Bill remembered best about his father in those years, perhaps the most important thing of all, was that he seemed to come home from work happy each night and always seemed eager to go to work, and that the men he worked with obviously respected him greatly.
Very early on, Bill Belichick, not surprisingly, started seeing the game through the eyes of a coach. Studying the game and scouting off film is exhausting, repetitive work that can quickly turn into drudgery, as there is no shortcut: You have to run the film forward, run it back, run it forward again and run it back again two or three more times. To most people, a quick view of what another team did was enough. But for Steve Belichick and soon enough for his son, that quick view was a ticket into a secret world, in which you could find so much more than what was on the surface: the way players lined up for different plays, the difference in cadences for running and passing plays—all the things that might give you an edge.
Football was always on young Bill’s mind. When he was in class—and he generally got good grades—he was thinking football and drawing up plays. Some 35 years after he left Annapolis High, Jeannette Belichick found some of her son’s old notebooks, including one from French class. She opened it to find not very much in the way of French verbs, but a lot of football plays that had been diagrammed, his secret world of X’s and O’s.
Steve Belichick taught thousands of players and younger coaches, many of whom went on to prominent jobs, but in the end his greatest pupil was his son. He taught him many things, including how to scout and to study film and what position to play—center—because the boy was smart and strong for his size but was not going to be very big, not on a football-player scale, and because, even more important, he was not going to be particularly fast. Steve knew that early on because Bill had heavy ankles. That was the first thing he looked for when he was recruiting, the ankles, because they were a tip-off on speed. Center was the right position for Bill because he would know the game, and a smart center who knew how to read a defense was always valuable. So, as a result, a particular repetitive sound, a kind of thud, filled the Belichick house in Bill’s teenage years: the sound of him centering the ball against a mat hanging on a wall in the basement. If anyone had helped create the extraordinary coach who stood there, soaked in Gatorade, that evening of his third Super Bowl win, it was Steve Belichick. At that moment his son stood at the pinnacle of his profession.
What football men—coaches and players alike—admire about Bill Belichick more than anything else is his ability to create a team in an age when the outside forces working against it seem more powerful every year and often the more talented a player is, the more he needs to display his ego, to celebrate his own deeds rather than team deeds. A fan can now watch truly bizarre scenes on Sunday: a player, his team down by four touchdowns, making a good catch and dancing as if he'd just won a championship. Belichick, as much as anyone in football, tries to limit that and to make New England win and behave at all times like a team.
The most obvious example of that old-fashioned emphasis on team came before the first of New England’s three Super Bowl victories. The league asked Belichick, according to tradition, whether he wanted to introduce his offensive or defensive team to the crowd and the nation at the start of the game, and he said, Neither—he wanted to introduce the entire team. The league officials argued against it, because that was not the way it had been done, and they told him he had to choose. Belichick is nothing if not stubborn—stubborn when he is right and sometimes just as stubborn when he is wrong—and he refused to budge, so, finally, the league caved.
Out they came, all the Patriots, joyously and confidently, and it was not just other players and coaches who got it immediately, that this introduction was something different, designed to show that this was a team and everyone was a part of it. It was also undoubtedly understood by much of the vast television audience, exhausted not merely by players' excessive egos but also by broadcasters who failed to blow the whistle on them. The Patriots were not necessarily America’s Team, but they were an easy team for ordinary football fans to like in the new era of football.
Bill Belichick was a star who did not want to be a star, a celebrity in search of privacy and the right to do his job without any public interference. He feared the celebrity culture, which was particularly dangerous to football, a sport based entirely on the concept of team, where as many as 40 players might play important roles in any given victory, but the television camera might celebrate the deeds of only one or two. Thus a great deal of time and energy in the world of the New England Patriots went into selecting players who were not prone to displays of ego and self. This did not mean Belichick was without ego—far from it. His ego was exceptional, and it was reflected by his almost unique determination. He liked being the best and wanted credit for being the best. But his ego was about the doing, it was fused into a larger purpose, that of his team winning. It was never about the narcissistic celebration of self.
He was about coaching; he did not exist in a world of 100 new friendships, created instantly by his success, or friendships with other celebrities. His friends were people he had known in grade school, high school, college and his early coaching days. His friendships were based on trust, and they were kept private if at all possible. He shielded family and friends alike from public scrutiny. He did not do particularly well with the media, lacking the desire and skill to create artificial intimacy. He did not do small talk well. He did substance much better.
Belichick had done very well academically at Annapolis High and had been the starting center on the football team. He wanted to play some college ball, but he and his father were well aware of Bill’s physical limitations, so they decided that he should go to a good, small private school. A lot of hard work and planning had gone into putting aside the money for his college expenses, and the game plan was this: In his senior year he would apply to four colleges—Yale, Dartmouth, Amherst and Williams. If he got into one of them, he would go to college immediately. If he didn’t, he would do a fifth, or postgraduate, year of high school at either Lawrenceville in New Jersey or Andover in Massachusetts, where the family had connections. It turned out he did not get into any of the four colleges (his combined SATs were about 1200), so he set out for Andover, his choice because one of the assistant coaches at Navy, Dick Duden, had been a great player at Andover and then Annapolis, and because the head coach at Andover was Steve Sorota, a man who was himself a quiet kind of legend.
Steve Sorota coached for 41 years at Andover and was much loved by several generations of men who competed under him in football and in track. He had been a blue-collar kid, growing up in the nearby mill town of Lowell, Mass. His family roots were in Poland. Sorota’s father had worked in the Gillette factory in Andover, and the family had been quite poor. But, like Steve Belichick, Sorota was fast and strong, and he was a talented, if not very big, running back at Lowell High. His services had been coveted by several college scouts, including one working for Jim Crowley, the coach at Fordham, then a rising football power. In those days—the early 1930s—Crowley had put together several great teams, which played before sellout crowds in the vast Polo Grounds in New York City. Sorota’s time at Fordham overlapped with that of Vince Lombardi, who would be a star on teams that featured the famed Seven Blocks of Granite.
Sorota graduated from Fordham in 1936, and in the spring of his senior year Phillips Academy in Andover, near his hometown, was looking for an assistant football coach. Those were the worst days of the Depression, and jobs were hard to come by. Sorota went up to Andover that spring, stayed for a week and in effect auditioned for the job before they finally gave it to him. The offer was thrilling because it meant that Sorota and his fiancée could get married. He started at the school in the fall of 1936 at, she remembered, a salary of about $1,000 a year, and he became head coach three years later. He coached there through three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In that time the school changed dramatically, and perhaps more important, so did the attitude of the young men toward authority. By the late 1960s, when a dean or a coach made the rules, it was no longer a given that the young men would automatically obey them. In those years Steve Sorota barely changed at all; he had always been a formidable authority figure, but luckily, given the dramatic social changes taking place around him, he wore his authority lightly. His power came from his intelligence, his subtlety and his kindness. He was uncommonly sensitive to the emotional vulnerability of adolescent boys, who were often dealing with all kinds of problems and doubts, almost none of them readily visible to a coach. He tried to lessen the pressure that competing in football might bring. He coached by persuasion, not orders and yelling. He would always explain to his players, in a calm voice, what they needed to do in a given game, and which part of their mission he expected them to figure out and execute on their own.
When he had first arrived at Andover, the school’s headmaster, Claude Moore Fuess, had given him marching orders very different from those given to most new coaches: “Your job is to teach, not to win a lot of football games.” That, Sorota would later say, was the perfect message for a young coach, because it meant that his job depended not on his won-lost record, which actually turned out to be exceptional, but on his teaching, which he did with great skill, and on his effect on the young men, which was exemplary, for he reached into the deepest part of them, their character, and helped shape it. The headmaster’s challenge allowed him to let his young players find their own way. He did not, like so many high school coaches, call the plays for his quarterbacks; instead he allowed them to make these decisions on the field. That was something that might have gotten him fired elsewhere.
In the years right after the war he received a tantalizing offer from one of the area’s better colleges to become the head coach. It was a big program, and it would mean more than twice as much money as he was making, and he spoke of it at some length with his wife, but, in the end, he turned the offer down. He already had everything he needed, he told her.
He was protective of his kids; he did not want college recruiters or scouts or media people around. There was, he suspected, already enough pressure on them. He wanted to create an atmosphere in which football was played well, where excellence was valued, but where the game was always fun. There was never to be too heavy a price to be paid if you made a mistake.
His practices reflected his personality. His players did not do a lot of hitting. His philosophy was that a great deal of the hitting in high school ball was wasted, that you only wore the kids down and detracted from their ability by having too many scrimmages. Why increase the possibility of injuries? He expected his players to be in good shape and to listen to their coaches—if they did, they would do it right. He never belittled a player and never, as far as many of his assistants and former players could remember, needed to discipline one. The rules were set, they were clear, and no one fooled around on Steve Sorota’s time.
None of this escaped Bill Belichick, who was already intent on coaching. As one of his Andover teammates, Bruce Bruckmann says, “You could tell from the start that he lived and breathed football, nothing less than 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Indeed, Belichick was determined to reach the pinnacle of his profession, and in that lifelong journey the victory against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI on Feb. 3, 2002, was the high-water mark, the best job of coaching he had ever done, Belichick would later say. It is important to remember the context of that victory: The Rams were already the Rams, one of the NFL’s golden teams. They had won Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000. They had a brilliant quarterback in Kurt Warner and a group of shockingly fast receivers—Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Az Hakim and Ricky Proehl—who seemed wired to Warner by some kind of extrasensory perception. And they had Marshall Faulk, a great running back at the height of his game, with power and speed, balance and excellent hands, which made him a multiple threat in a dangerous and unpredictable offense.
The Patriots, by contrast, were not yet the Patriots, a dynasty in the making, and Belichick was not yet the genius that he was later accused of being. (The genius talk made everyone in the Belichick family a little nervous. When writers began to suggest in print that Bill might be a genius, Steve Belichick wisely demurred. “You are,” he said, “talking about someone who walks up and down a football field.”) Serious football fans simply did not think the Patriots belonged in the Super Bowl, that most sacrosanct of games—it was almost as if they were seen as intruders. For those betting on the game, the spread was two touchdowns.
When Belichick flew to New Orleans for the game, he was accompanied by his assistant Ernie Adams, an enigmatic, almost mysterious figure in football circles. He had been a close friend and adviser of Belichick’s since 1970, when they were both seniors at Andover. Not even all the people who understood the Belichick operation knew exactly what Adams did, and that included some of the Patriots’ players. Once during a team meeting, a giant photo of Adams had been punched up on the immense screen, and under it was written, what does this man do?
The answer, of course, was that Ernie Adams was Belichick’s Belichick, the film master’s master of film. He was supremely knowledgeable about the history of the game, no play ever forgotten, and his brain was like a football computer, always clicking away, remembering which defense had stopped which offense, and who the coaches and the players had been. He was in a class with his boss in breaking down film and finding little things that no one else saw, and just as good at understanding the conceptual process that drove another team. He shared Belichick’s views and his passion.
He was one of the very few men against whom Bill Belichick liked to test his own view of a game, trusting completely Adams’s original mind and his encyclopedic knowledge of the game; if they differed on a strategy—which happened rarely—then Belichick took Adams’s dissent seriously. He might not ultimately adopt Adams’s view, but he would always weigh it carefully. They had been through a great deal together, playing next to each other on an unbeaten Andover team (for which, as his senior project, Adams did a study breaking down Andover’s tendencies on offense) and then coaching together with the Giants, Browns and Patriots.
Adams, the son of a career Navy officer, was in his fourth year at Andover when Belichick arrived. Adams was already as advanced a football junkie as Belichick; he had an exceptional collection of books on coaching, including Football Scouting Methods, the only book written by one Steve Belichick, assistant coach at the Naval Academy. It was a very dry description of how to scout an opponent, and, being chock-full of diagrams of complicated plays, it was probably bought only by other scouts and the 14-year-old Ernie Adams.
That year, just as the first football practice was about to start, Coach Sorota posted a list of the new players trying out for the varsity, among them Bill Belichick. Ernie Adams was thrilled. That first day Adams looked at the young man with a strip of tape on his helmet that said belichick and asked if he was from Annapolis and if he was related to the famed writer-coach-scout Steve Belichick. Bill said yes, he was his son. Thus began a lifelong friendship on the playing fields of Andover.
Adams had already befriended another football-crazed classmate, Evan Bonds, with whom he talked football constantly and with whom he endlessly diagrammed football plays. Bonds had also read Steve Belichick’s book and was thrilled that the scion of such a distinguished football family was about to become a teammate. “Because we were such football nerds, it was absolutely amazing that Bill had come to play at Andover, because [Ernie and I] were probably the only two people in the entire state of Massachusetts who had read his father’s book,” Bonds said years later. Bonds felt that although his own life revolved completely around football, Adams was even more advanced in his football obsessions: “Ernie already had an exceptional football film collection, 16-millimeter stuff, the great Packers-Cowboys games, Raiders-Jets, films like that, which he somehow found out about through sports magazines, and had sent away for and for which he had enough primitive equipment so that he could show the films,” Bonds said. “It’s hard to explain just how football-crazed we were.”
The connection among the three of them—Belichick, Adams and Bonds—was immediate and lasting; they were a club, although it became increasingly clear that Belichick and Adams were more committed to becoming football coaches and that Bonds, by their standards, was a bit soft and given over to interests in other things. They were inseparable that year. “Others would be at the library doing trig or history, and the two or the three of them would be off to the side in a corner, and you’d look and they’d be X-ing and O-ing,” said Bruce Bruckmann, the halfback on that Andover team. For a time Bonds thought about trying some coaching. When he graduated, he went off to Duke, but he discovered that he was just as passionate about music as he was about football. Eventually he became a music professor at nearby Chapel Hill.
Adams went to Northwestern, a Big Ten program then enjoying some of its better years under famed coach Alex Agase. Agase was a little surprised when he received in the mail, unsolicited, an unusual document, beautifully bound as if it were a college senior thesis. It turned out to be a treatise on the importance of the drop-back quarterback in T formation football. It was written by a young man then 18 years old named Ernest Adams, who had been one of the team’s managers earlier that fall. He mentioned in the letter that he would like to help coach at Northwestern in some form or other. Most coaches would have thrown it away, but Agase gave it a quick glance and then handed it to Jay Robertson, a young assistant on his staff, who read it and thought it could have been written by any number of rather distinguished college or professional coaches. When Agase told Robertson that it had been written by one of the managers, Robertson remembered a very young-looking freshman with curly hair who always seemed to edge his way close to the huddles so he could hear everything that Robertson said. Agase told Robertson to go out and talk to the kid and find out the depth of his knowledge. “That was 33 years ago, and he was 18, I think, and I still don’t know what it is, what the bottom of his knowledge is, what it is that he doesn’t know, because he knows so much,” Robertson said recently.
They decided to let him break down film, which he did with great skill in the catacombs of the football offices in a dark, grim little converted ticket room they called the Dungeon. But it was one thing to analyze film in the Dungeon with the luxury of time and quite another to scout a game live. Soon they sent him out on the road to scout an upcoming opponent and found, to their delight, that he could get it all down quickly, accurately and perceptively. That made Adams, at only 18, a full-fledged scout for a big-time team. For the Andover trio it was a marvelous moment: The first one of them had gotten his foot in the door in coaching. Adams was a very successful scout and was soon a de facto coach as well, coaching the scout team as it ran opponents’ plays in practice—in effect coaching his classmates.
By his senior year it was clear that all Adams wanted to do was be a football coach, that nothing else interested him. In those days it was part of the Northwestern assistants’ responsibility to do some recruiting in the Chicago region, and something that Robertson sensed the shy Adams was extremely uncomfortable with. He was not a person who liked to go around selling anything, particularly himself or his school. Football to him was a great chess match. One Friday they had visited a local high school, and, driving back to Evanston, Robertson saw that Adams, normally quite ebullient, seemed rather depressed. Robertson finally said, “It’s the pro game or nothing, isn’t it, Ernie?”
“Yes,” Adams answered.
Adams finally landed a job in New England, even though it was without pay. The Patriots’ head coach at the time was Chuck Fairbanks. The way Steve Belichick, with his ear to the ground in the coaching world, understood it, someone had told Fairbanks that Adams was really smart, and he would work for free, and Fairbanks had replied that he had coached for some 30 years and that anyone who would do anything for no pay was not worth a goddam. But what Fairbanks told Adams was that they were glad to have him, and while they were not going to pay him, they were not going to carry him either. If he could do the work, he could stay; if not, he would be out of there very quickly, because no one had the time to teach him.
By chance it was mid-June, the one time in pro football when almost everyone takes a vacation. Adams had the Patriots’ facilities all to himself and spent the next two weeks studying their playbook and their films, so that by the time they returned, he knew it all, as if he had photographed it and then computerized it. Soon after, Fairbanks called Adams up to the blackboard and asked him to draw up one of their more arcane coverages. He did it flawlessly, of course.
When Adams was hired by the Patriots, he immediately called his pal Bill Belichick. At that moment Belichick, newly graduated from Wesleyan, was living with his parents and hoping to get a job as a graduate assistant in the college ranks. Adams suggested that Belichick try for a professional job, which he did, ending up as a virtually unpaid assistant with the Baltimore Colts.
Now, 30 years later, Adams and Belichick were flying south to play the Rams in the biggest game of the year. The two teams had met earlier in the season, and the Rams had handled the Patriots easily. The score was relatively close, 24-17, but the game was not.
Afterward Belichick believed that he had coached badly. He had been preoccupied with too many other issues that week, his game plan had been flawed, and the Rams had parried it all too easily. The Patriots had blitzed, but because the Rams had picked up the blitzes, nothing had broken Warner’s rhythm, and he had enjoyed something of a free-fire zone. Belichick had gone back and looked endlessly at the film of that game and of all the other Rams games, looking for a way to throw them off stride. Forty-two Patriots blitzes, he saw, and they had handled them all.
This time Belichick intended to make it different. He was all too aware of the vast imbalance in talent between the two teams. The key, both he and Adams decided independently, was stopping Faulk. That Adams agreed with him was comforting to Belichick, but stopping Faulk was much easier said than done. The game plan was to key on him on every play and wear him down. They were going to hit him every time he had the ball and hit him every time he didn’t have the ball. The phrase they used was “butch the back,” which meant, as Belichick later said, “knock the s--- out of him.”
And so that week—a short one-week preparation because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—was given over to practicing how to stop Faulk. It began with Belichick’s telling his players that he had screwed up and done a poor job of coaching the last time. “I’m not going to screw up again,” he promised them. The first and most important thing they were going to do, he said, was know where Faulk was at all times. So all week the scout team lined up and ran Rams plays and a player would imitate Faulk, and there would be Belichick standing behind his defense and yelling, “Where is he? Where is he?” It was a constant all week, that yell before every practice play: “Where is he?” Finally one of the defensive players turned around and yelled, “Shut the f--- up!” which even Belichick appreciated, because it meant that they had it down.
There were other things the Patriots worked on, but the primary one was dealing with the Rams’ speed, so Belichick lined the scout-team receivers about three yards ahead of the normal line of scrimmage to give his defensive backs a sense of how quickly it all would happen.
The X’s and O’s are fine, but the X’s and O’s don't always work like they do on a blackboard. The X’s don’t get to where they’re supposed to get to, and the O’s turn out to be smarter than you thought. But on game day it all worked for New England. Faulk gained only 76 yards. The Patriots’ X’s stopped the Rams’ O’s when they were supposed to. New England led for almost the entire game, then held off a late St. Louis charge just enough for Adam Vinatieri to kick a field goal in the final seconds for a 20-17 win.
Watching that day was Stan White, a talented linebacker who had been just three years into the pro game in 1975 when he worked with Belichick, newly arrived at his first job with the Colts. “I was sure he was going to try and take Marshall Faulk out of the game,” White said. “He would want to stop Faulk and throw the timing of those great receivers off just a bit. Make Warner throw to places where the receivers had not yet arrived. Even back in Baltimore, when he was a kid, he was thinking of what the offensive teams were going to do and how to stop them.”
Of the media people covering the Super Bowl that day, the person who understood most clearly what Belichick and his staff had done was ESPN’s Ron Jaworski, who had spent 15 years as an NFL quarterback. After eight hours of screening the Patriots-Rams film, he said Belichick had done “the best coaching job I’ve ever seen.” Not just that season, not just in a Super Bowl, Jaworski said, but in his 29 years of playing and watching football.
Jaworski also broke down the Rams-Patriots game of the regular season and was fascinated by the difference between it and the championship game. By his count (which was slightly different from Belichick’s), in the first game the Patriots had sent five or more players after Warner 38 times, or 56% of the time. In the Super Bowl they had done it only four times. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jaworski. “Here’s the key: The Rams rely on timing and rhythm, but everyone thinks that rhythm runs through Warner. Belichick and [defensive coordinator] Romeo Crennel decided that the Rams’ rhythm depended on Faulk. So they hit him and kept hitting him.”
The Patriots, Jaworski also noted, had used five or more defensive backs 74% of the time. Sometimes they used seven defensive backs. “Think about that—there are teams that don’t carry seven defensive backs,” he said. With all those defensive backs out there, the Rams would have had better success running the ball more at the smaller backs, but they had failed to do that. In that sense, Jaworski believed, Belichick had outsmarted the very bright Rams coach, Mike Martz. “I talked with Ricky Proehl after the game,” Jaworski said, “and he told me that the Rams players were all on the sideline during the second half, screaming at the coaches that the Patriots were playing five and six defensive backs, that they had to run the ball, that the run was there every time. But Martz was telling them, ‘F--- it, I’m going to win it my way.’ Chalk that one up for Belichick.”
What had happened, Jaworski added, was not a fluke. “Belichick is the best in the game today, maybe the best ever.”
Excerpted from The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam. Published by Hyperion. Copyright © 2005 The Amateurs Ltd. All rights reserved. Used with permission.