Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Books: Belichick, An Intimate Portrait Of The Hooded Genius

Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time
By Ian O'Connor
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; hardcover, $28.00; available Tuesday, September 25

Bill Belichick is arguably the most compelling figure, as he has coached the New England Patriots for nearly two decades, and teamed up with quarterback Tom Brady for a record five Super Bowl championships.

To some in New York, Belichick is still viewed with derision for leaving the Jets one day after he was named the head coach when Bill Parcells resigned.

To others, he is viewed as the defensive genius who partnered with Parcells to win two Super Bowl championships with the Giants.

One thing is certain with Belichick: everyone has an opinion on the stern, tight-lipped, hoodie-wearing leader of the Patriots.

Renowned sportswriter and New York Times best-selling author Ian O'Connor has written the definitive biography of the NFL's most successful, enigmatic, and coach in his new book,Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time.

In this revealing and robust biography, O'Connor looks at Belichick's full life in football, from watching college games as a kid with his father, a Naval Academy scout, to his successful time with the Giants, to his stint as a head coach with the Cleveland Browns, to joining Parcells with the Jets and his infamous departure, and his time with the Patriots.

There are many sides to this complex man, who has earned a place with coaching legends like Vince Lombardi, George Halas, and Paul Brown in the annals of NFL history. Belichick has shaped the people he has met and worked with in ways perhaps even he himself doesn't know.

Bill Belichick.

There is much more to the man than just being the hooded genius of New England, and that is revealed in the 350 people interviewed. From the hidden tensions and deep layers of his relationship with Brady to his sometimes tense dealings with team owner Robert Kraft to his ability to earn the unmitigated respect of his players, if not their affection, this is the full human portrait of Belichick.
Interestingly, stories of Belichick's acts of kindness towards friends, assistants, and former teammates that represent a softer side of him are kept hidden from public view.

"While with the Giants, Belichick visited the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, in Ossining, New York, and spent a couple of hours talking football with dozens of inmates," writes O'Conor. "In order to better understand the urban environments that produced many of his players, Belichick also rode along with Drug Enforcement Administration agents in impoverished pockets of New Jersey. In Cleveland, Bill and Debby funded a financially strapped homeless shelter for women and children, and the coach lent his time to Jim Brown, whose Amer-I-Can Program provided life skills to at-risk youths. Belichick had visited prison inmates with Brown and met with reformed gang members in Brown's homes and in hotel rooms.

"The coach was beyond generous with his assistants, too, giving them his TV and radio money and greeting low-level staffers with hundred-dollar handshakes. 'There were always two sides to Bill Belichick,' said one of his Cleveland scouts. 'He was an emperor who can be incredibly aloof, condescending, and arrogant, which was always in there. But fundamentally, deep down inside, there's a good guy who was raised by good parents.

"That person was alive and well in Foxborough, but living in the shadows by choice. Belichick's support of a young staffer, Mark Jackson, after Jackson's father died on Christmas Day of 2000 was something that the future athletic director of Villanova would never forget. In March 2002, after Williams College coach and future College Football Hall of Famer Dick Farley dropped him a congratulatory note on beating the Rams in the Super Bowl, Belichick replied with a handwritten letter that read, in part, 'Dick - my goal in coaching is to have your record! Congratulations on your continued success.' A couple of years later, after cutting Farley's son, Scott, Belichick offered to write Scott a letter of recommendation if he wanted to pursue a job in the industry."

Through it all, Belichick has created a notorious football dynasty. That is one of the words that has characterized his time in New England, as they have endured many scandals that have earned the suffix "-gate" to show its gravity.

"Deflategate" involved allegations that the Patriots lowered the air pressure, basically deflated, the footballs used in the 2014 AFC Championship Game. There is new material here, including the fact that Belichick initially had "serious doubts" about Brady's claim of innocence, and that Brady's camp was livid that Belichick dropped the case in his lap. Brady fought the NFL for over a year until he ultimately accepted a four-game suspension at the start of the 2016 season.

"Spygate" concerned the Patriots' filming the opposing teams' practices to get their defensive signals, including before Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams, Belichick and Brady's first trip there as a tandem. This scheme was exposed in 2007 by then-Jets Head Coach Eric Mangini, a former Patriots assistant. There is new material on this, including the emergence of an FBI agent and two New Jersey state troopers who refereed a Giants Stadium dispute between the Patriots and Jets as the teams fought over control of the confiscated camera and tape that started this scandal.

O'Connor talked to Patriots players about how Belichick succeeded in his attempt to connect with them, and conversely, with Cleveland players about how he failed miserably in his attempts to connect with them.

There is a new look at Belichick's relationship with Nick Saban when they coached together in Cleveland, where Pro Bowl defensive end Rob Burnett said that Saban, the defensive coordinator, "was so pissed with Bill" over the head coach's conservative philosophy.

There are never-before told stories from Belichick's time at Wesleyan University from players and coaches who witness the most painful day of Bill's football life, one so violent he left the sport for more than a year.

During World War II, Belichick's fathe, Steve, was the only white man who didn't walk out of the Officers' club on Okinawa when Sam Barnes, one of the Navy's finest black officers, walked in. They became friends, and Barnes' daughter likened their relationship to that of Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo of the Chicago Bears, which was depicted in the film "Brian's Song."

O'Connor also reveals one of the bigger questions in Belichick's career, why he never returned to coach the Giants. Longtime Giants GM George Young was no fan of Belichick, and Giants personnel man Chris Mara recalls, "I was there when (Young) said it. He said, 'He'll never become the Giants' head coach."

A Conversation With Ian O'Connor (provided by Hoghton Mifflin Harcourt):

Why did you feel compelled to write a biography of Bill Belichick? I think he is the most fascinating figure in American sports, and I don't know if there's a close second. Deep down, fans in other parts of the country who despise the Patriots are still intrigued by the mystery that is their head coach. That mystery means a little something more to me. In 2000, I wrote a newspaper column predicting Belichick's demise as a head coach in New England based on his failure in Cleveland, on his bizarre escape from New York (the Jets), and on conversations I had with Giants officials who thought what many around the NFL thought - that their former defensive coordinator lacked the public and human relations skills to lead a franchise. What Belichick has accomplished with the Patriots defies logic in a sport that sees parity as a virtue. The fact that I was so wrong about him 18 years ago inspired me to examine the hows and whys of the staggering success.

What was your goal in writing the biography?
I simply wanted to penetrate the walls Belichick built around himself and his Kremlin-like program and paint a full portrait of the man and his dynasty.

How did you gather all the material in this book?
Belichick declined to be interviewed or to cooperate in any way, which wasn't a particularly surprising or insurmountable development. I interviewed more than 350 people for this project, including Belichick's past and present players, coaches, colleagues, friends, executives, owners, and opponents, and mined countless news conference transcripts, published profiles, and books while piecing together the puzzle. I thought the only way to tell a worthy story was to work like the Patriots work, and to treat every detail with game-shaping urgency.

What was your favorite part of researching Belichick?
I loved talking to the old timers who played for Belichick's father at Hiram College in Ohio in the 1940s. I also thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Belichick's football and lacrosse teammates and fraternity brothers at Wesleyan; those four years of college in the 1970s were formative and had never been explored like they are explored in this book.

Why do you feel Belichick is the greatest NFL coach of all time?
It's just so much harder to win consistently now - in an age of free agency and constant player turnover - than it was when the likes of Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown did it. Belichick's record five Super Bowl titles and 15 division titles in the last 17 years is a run that will never be matched as long as the NFL uses the salary cap, the draft to try to prevent such dominance. His transition from defensive stopper to offensive innovator also bolsters his case as the greatest ever.

Readers only know the Belichick they see at the news conference podium. What don't they know about him away from that podium?
His friends swear he's an entirely different man away from football, capable of a compassion and kindness that would shock many who only know the one-dimensional character they see and hear on TV. Belichick is so often hailed for his strategic moves, the Malcolm Butler benching in the Super Bowl aside, that his behind-the-scenes motivational skills are underrated. Never a practice-field screamer, Belichick uses biting sarcasm and self-deprecating humor in the film and meeting rooms to connect with players and, ultimately, to inspire them to play at a higher level than any other team in the league.

Is yours a positive or negative portrayal of Bill Belichick, the human being?
It's a fair portrayal of Bill Belichick, the human being. Fair and honest and exhaustive.

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