Coaches, Part 2: Belichick

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(Part One, about Pete Carroll and Nick Saban’s memoirs, is here)

The most interesting character in this book isn’t Belichick, it’s Ernie Adams.

Ernie Adams

Photo by Stu Rosner from this Northwestern magazine article: http://www.northwestern.edu/magazine/winter2008/feature/adams.html

Ernie Adams, it should be noted, was a coach even before entering Andover.  he had gone to elementary and junior high at the Dexter School, a private school in the Boston area (where John F. Kennedy had gone), and being more passionate about football than the teacher who had been drafted to coach the intramural team there, he had ended up giving that teacher more suggestions than the teacher wanted to hear.  Finally the teacher, in desperation, had turned to Ernie and said, “Well, if you know so much, why don’t you coach?”  That was an offer Ernie Adams could not turn down, and he ended up coaching the Dexter team quite successfully.

At Andover he had already befriended another football-crazed classmate, Evan Bonds, with whom he talked constantly and with whom he diagrammed endless football plays and with whom he jointly did the senior project breaking down and analyzing all of Andover’s plays from the their senior season…

Bonds felt that although his own life revolved completely around football, Adams was already a good deal more advanced in his football obsessions, going off on his own to coaching clinics where everyone else was at least ten years older, collecting every book written by every coach on the game, the more technical the better, and collecting films of important games: “Ernie already had an exceptional football film collection, sixteen-millimeter stuff, the great Packer-Cowboy games, Raiders-Jets, films like that, which he somehow found out about through sports magazines, had sent away for, and for which he had enough primitive equipment that he could show the films,” Bonds said.  “It’s hard to explain just how football crazed we were, but the year before Bill arrived, when we were in the eleventh grade, and it was spring, the two of us went down to Nickerson Field, the old Boston University field, because BU was having an intra-squad spring game.  We were up there in the stands, taking notes, these two seventeen-year-olds – can you believe it? – scouting an intra-squad game at BU on our own, and I still have no earthly idea what we would have done with the notes.  Anyway, pretty soon a BU assistant coach came up looking for us, to find what we were doing, and why we were doing it.  So we said we were from Northeastern, as if that would give us extra legitimacy, and the coach said what we were doing was illegal, and we had to get out then and there.”

And then at Andover arrived young Bill Belichick, doing a post-graduate year, a kind of bonus senior year after graduating from Annapolis High, in the hopes of getting into a better college:

Adams was already as advanced a football junkie as Belichick: he had an exceptional collection of books on coaching, including Football Scouting Methods ($5.00 a copy, published by the Ronald Press of New York City, and featuring jacket quotes from, among others, the legendary Paul Brown: “Scouting is essential to successful football coaching.”), the only book written by one Steve Belichick, assistant coach of the Naval Academy.  The book was not exactly a best seller – the author himself estimated that it sold at most four hundred copies – nor was it filled with juicy, inside tidbits about the private lives of football players.  Instead it was a very serious, very dry description of how to scout an opponent, and, being chockful of diagrams of complicated plays, it was probably bought only by other scouts and the fourteen-year-old Ernie Adams.

That year, just as the first football practice was about to start at Andover, Coach Steve Sorota posted the list of the new players trying out for the varsity, including the usual number of PGS – the list included the name Bill Belichick, and Ernie Adams was thrilled.  That first day Adams looked at the young man with a strip of tape that Belichick on his helmet, and asked if he was from Annapolis, Maryland, and if he was related to the famed writer-coach-scout Steve Belichick, and Bill said yes, he was his son.  Thus were the beginnings of a lifetime friendship and association sown…

..”Because we were such football nerds, it was absolutely amazing that Bill had come to play at Andover, because we were probably the only two people in the entire state of Massachusetts who had read his father’s book,” Bonds said years later.

Adams has more or less been at Belichick’s side ever since, “Belichick’s Belichick,” aside from interludes on Wall Street.  Here’s a good profile on him, with quotes from Andover classmate Buzz Bissinger.  (Apparently Jeb Bush was in that class too).

So you can never really tell what is going on in his head. But I did get Carlisle to call Adams on Monday and ask for his five favorite books, hoping to get a window into the places a man like him goes for inspiration. Here is the list:

  1. “The Best and the Brightest,” by David Halberstam
  2. “The Money Masters of Our Time,” by John Train
  3. Robert Caro’s three-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson
  4. Robert Massie’s biography of Peter the Great
  5. William Manchester’s two-part biography of Winston Churchill

Adams also seems to enjoy not only watching greatness work, but also seeing it fail. Carlisle thinks the central message of Halberstam’s Vietnam classic appeals to Adams: that people incredibly well-educated and well-intentioned could be so flat-out wrong about something. It’s a helpful notion to keep in mind about the conventional-wisdom-obsessed world of football, where pedigree and tradition dictate many overly conservative decisions. Indeed, when Adams agreed to participate in Halberstam’s Belichick book, he did so with this caveat: For every two questions the journalist got to ask Adams about football, Adams got to ask one back about Vietnam. Did that trait allow Adams to make sure the mistakes of Belichick in Cleveland were not repeated? Maybe.

Most articles on Adams will include this detail:

When Belichick and Adams were together when the coach was in Cleveland, Browns owner Art Modell once said, “I’ll pay anyone here $10,000 if they can tell me what Ernie Adams does.”

Or:

A few years back, during a team film session, the Patriots players put up a slide of Adams. The caption read: “What does this man do?” Everyone cracked up. But no one knew.

Mysterious, rigorous, intense, scholarly dissection of football — that seems to be the Belichick way.  “Unadorned,” as Halberstam puts it:

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Belichick doesn’t seem like the kind of dude to write a book, least of all a peppy all-purpose motivational paperback like Pete Carroll’s.  This is the closest thing, a kind of biography starting with the arrival of Bill Belichick’s grandparents in America.  They came, like Belichick apprentice Nick Saban’s grandparents and Pete Carroll’s maternal grandparents, from Croatia:

FullSizeRender (1)Bill Belichick grew up in football.  His dad, Steve Belichick, spent the bulk of his career (33 years) as an assistant coach at the Naval Academy.  (As a young guy, a fellow coach advised him to get a tenure-track job as an associate professor of physical education, so he had job security even as eight head coaches passed through.)  Belichick’s mom seems like a great lady — she’d done graduate work in languages at Middlebury, and during the war she translated military maps.  She learned Croatian so she could speak to her in-laws more easily.

Though he never worked at Oakland, Belichick apparently picked up several things from the way Al Davis ran the Raiders:

There were important things that [assistant coach Rich] McCabe told Belichick about the Davis system that would one day serve Belichick well.  The first thing was that Oakland looked only for size and speed.  Their players had to be big and fast.  That was a rule.  If you weren’t big and fast, Oakland wasn’t interested.  The other thing was about the constancy of player evaluation.  Most coaches stopped serious evaluation of their personnel on draft day – they chose their people, and that was that.  But Davis never stopped evaluating his people, what they could do, what you could teach them, and what you couldn’t teach them.  He made his coaches rate the players every day.  Were they improving?  Were they slipping?  Who had practiced well?  Who had gone ahead of whom in practice?  The jobs the starters had were not held in perpetuity.

This is similar to stuff Carroll talks about — everyone is competing every practice.  After a stint in Denver:

That summer [Belichick] came home and visited with his boyhood friend Mark Fredland and told him he had found the key to success: It was in being organized; the more organized you were at all times, the more you knew at every minute what you were doing and why you were doing it, the less time you wasted and the better coach you were.

Halberstam likes Belichick, obviously.  They had become friendly because they both had houses on Nantucket, and Halberstam suggests that the gruff Belichick we see is part presentational strategy:

That persona – the Belichick who had never been young – was one he had either created for the NFL or had evolved because of the game’s needs.  Part of the design was more or less deliberate, and part of it was who he was.  For when he had first entered the League, he had been a young man teaching older men, and he had needed to prove to them he was an authority figure.  Thus, he believed, he had been forced to be more aloof and more authoritarian than most coaches or teachers working their first jobs.

Compare this to the young guy at Wesleyan with his frat brothers, sneaking a case of beer into a showing of Gone With The Wind (why that movie?  even Halberstam is baffled) under his parka.

Belichick

The best parts of this book are about Belichick’s relationship with Bill Parcells, when they were at the Giants.  The biggest issue there was how to handle Lawrence Taylor, who was supremely excellent at football, but semi-out of control on drugs and women, prone to nodding off in meetings though he would somehow intuitively understand what he had to do in complex plays.  A great anecdote — LT has injured his ankle:

So on his own, without telling the coaches, he went to a nearby racetrack and somehow managed to find someone there who was an expert in horse medicine, who had some kind of pill – a horse pill – and he took it and played well.

Belichick’s takeaway from dealing with LT was, apparently, never to bend the rules for anyone.

Parcells and Belichick needed each other, but they weren’t friends exactly:

There was one terrible moment, during a game, when Belichick called a blitz, and Parcells seemed to oppose it.  They went ahead with it and the blitz worked – the other team did what Belichick had expected, not what Parcells had – but Parcells was furious, and over the open microphones in the middle of a game, he let go: “Yeah, you’re a genius, everybody knows it, a goddamn genius, but that’s why you failed as a head coach – that’s why you’ll never be a head coach… some genius.”  It was deeply shocking to everyone who heard it; they were the cruelest words imaginable.

Not true, though.  Belichick got to be head coach at Cleveland, where he didn’t really get on with owner Art Modell or QB Bernie Kosar and had a tough time, going 36-44 there.  Halberstam almost seems to admire how bad/stubborn/unhelpful Belichick was with the media there.

And then he got to New England (taking over for the fired Pete Carroll).

As his friend Ernie Adams said, “The number one criteria for being a genius in this business is to have a great quarterback, and in New England he had one, and in Cleveland he did not.”

The stuff in Halberstam’s book about Belichick’s decision to go with Brady over Drew Bledsoe is pretty great:

But among those most impressed by Belichick’s decision to go with Brady was his father.  Steve Belichick thought it was a very gutsy call, perhaps the most critical call his son had ever made, because the world of coaching is very conservative, and the traditional call would be the conservative one, to go with the more experienced player in so big a game.  The way you were protected if it didn’t work out, because you had gone with tradition and experience, and no one could criticze you.  That was the call most coaches would have made, he said, under the CYA or Cover Your Ass theory of coaching. Many of his old friends disagreed with what his sone was doing, he knew, but he was comfortable with it himself.  When friends who were puzzled called him about it, he told them that Bill was right in what he was doing.  “He’s the smart one in the family, and I’m the dumb one,” he would say.

Steve Belichick

Brady seems like he earned it, surely, and he had the special thing Belichick needed:

There were some quarterbacks who were very smart, who knew the playbook cold, but who were not kinetic wonders, and could not make the instaneous read.  That was the rarest of abilities, the so-called Montana Factor: the eye perceiving, and then even as the eye perceives, transferring the signal, eye to brain, and then in the same instant, making the additional transfer from brain to the requisite muscles.  The NFL was filled with coaches with weak arms themselves, who could see things quickly on the field but who were doomed to work with quarterbacks who had great arms, but whose ability to read the defense was less impressive.  What Brady might have, they began to suspect, was that marvelous ability that sets the truly great athletes apart from the very good ones.  Or as one of the assistants said, it was like having Belichick himself out there if only Belichick had had a great arm.  In the 2001 training camp Brady would come off the field after an offensive series, and Belichick would question him about each play, and it was quite remarkable: Brady would be able to tell his coach what every receiver was doing on each play, what the defensive backs were doing, and explain why he had chosen to throw where he had.  It was as if there were a camera secreted away in his brain.  Afterward, Belichick would go back and run the film on those same plays and would find that everything Brady had said was borne out by the film.

There’s no secret in this book.  Belichick is obsessed with analyzing football, has been since he was at least seventeen, probably younger.  Even with that intensity it took luck and circumstance to get him five Super Bowl rings.  A lesson from the coaching careers of Carroll and Belichick might be perseverance, but I don’t think that’s even the word for this — it’s not like it’s any kind of choice with these guys, it’s nature.

I read one other Halberstam sports book a few years ago, The Amateurs, about Harvard rowing.  The theme of that book is similar: obsessive characters irresistibly driven, almost forced by their nature to be completely devoted, single-minded, unrelenting.  There was no end of it.  “The kind of guys whose idea of a day off is to drive up to New Hampshire and cross-country ski until you couldn’t stand up,” as a rowing coach put it.

The Amatuers

Most of us (me) aren’t this kind of guy, certainly not about football or rowing.  The compelling thing about the Pete Carroll book is that he seems semi-human.  He seems to find joy and fun in this pursuit.  Not that he’s any less competitive than Belichick, and who knows what eats him up in private.  But he can explain what he’s doing to others in a way that seems born out of enthusiasm and positivity rather than just some incomprehensible inner nature. Just being willing to try to explain it is something.

That’s not typical:

“Don’t do it, don’t go into coaching,” the famed Bear Bryant had counseled young acolytes who were thinking of following him into the profession, “unless you absolutely can’t live without it.”

There was a constant loneliness to the job, a sense that no one else understood the pressures you faced.  Each year, before the season began, Belichick would tell his team that no one else would understand the pressure on them, not even the closest members of their families.  The person in football who knew him best and longest, Ernie Adams, thought Belichick had remained remarkably true to the person he had been as a young man.  Adams was a serious amateur historian, and he was not a coach who threw the word “warrior” around to describe football players, because they were football players, not warriors, and the other side did not carry Kalashnikovs.  Nonetheless, he thought the intensity under which the game was now played and the degree to which that intensity separated players and coaches from everyone else, even those dear to them, was, in some way, like combat, in that you simply could not explain it to anyone who had not actually participated.  It was not a profession that offered a lot in the way of tranquility.  “My wife has a question she asked me every year for ten years,” Bill Parcells said back in 1993 when he was still married, “and she always worded it the same way: ‘Explain to me why you must continue to do this.  Because the times when you are happy are so few.’  She has no concept.”

(A good roundup of Belichick stories here.)  



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