Dad taught Belichick to run a tight ship
The dad of the coach was a coach. More than most, he can appreciate what he's been watching almost every Sunday of the NFL season for the last few years.
"This is what you strive for," said 86-year-old Steve Belichick, who retired in 1989 after 33 years of scouting and assistant coaching at the Naval Academy. "That's what you've got when you have everybody on the same page, with the same objective, and they don't care who gets the credit.
"Tom Brady doesn't give a goddamn whether he gets any credit, or Troy Brown or Corey Dillon. They're all interested in the objective, and that's to win. If they win, they all get credit. I don't see any of them thinking that they are the ones responsible for making the team go. Everybody recognizes that if we all pitch in and work like hell, and do what the coaches plan, we will succeed."
Bill Belichick's Patriots are all about preparation and execution. They are unselfish and they do what the coaches tell them to do. It's stuff that was expected of every player at Annapolis when young Bill was breaking down films at the age of 9. It's extremely rare at the professional level.
The dad of the coach is a humble man. Assessing his son's success, he credits Bill's natural intelligence and curiosity about all things. But he won't give too much credit to any head coach, because he was an assistant for so many years and he knows the staff rarely gets enough credit.
Still, as a football lifer, even Steve Belichick sometimes scratches his head when he sees some of the innovations that work for the Patriots.
"When you've got a goddamn linebacker playing safety, that's the one that gets me above all else," said dad Belichick. "I can see a linebacker playing tight end and catching the ball, but the things they've had to do with that personnel -- and be able to succeed -- it's impressive.
"I didn't expect they were going to shut down Indianapolis the way they did. We were up there for Christmas and it looked like that's who they'd be playing and I talked to Bill about it and he said, `We'll be all right.' And that was about the extent of it. I said to myself, `Well, if he feels that way, then they're going to be all right.' "
Steve Belichick thinks young Bill's exposure to the Naval Academy has much to do with the success of Bill Belichick as an NFL coach. At Annapolis, Bill learned about accountability, responsibility, hard work, respect for authority, and being on time. These were days when Navy was a national power and Billy Belichick was playing catch with Heisman Trophy winners when he was 8 (Joe Bellino) and again when he was 12 (Roger Staubach). Steve Belichick was friends with Paul Brown and young Bill met the football deity when he was 13. Something must have rubbed off.
Young Bill also learned how to break down film when other boys his age were assembling model cars with rubber glue. While his dad ran the projector featuring next week's Navy opponent, Bill Belichick would record the down, the hash mark, the formation, and the defense for each play. The kid had great penmanship. His pages were neat and helped Steve prepare his reports.
How does the old coach feel about characterizations of his son as "a genius"?
"I really don't know what a genius is," said the dad. "But I know this, and I've known it for a long time: He's a very intelligent person. We've always recognized that. He thinks things through. He likes to get by himself and look at things. But I think he throws a lot of it out to the other coaches, and he has very good assistants."
Bill Belichick is the only child of Steve and Jeannette Belichick. The fortunate son was born in Nashville when Steve, a onetime fullback for the Detroit Lions, was coaching at Vanderbilt. They moved to Annapolis a few years later and Bill learned to play golf on the course at the Naval Academy. That's how he wound up caddying for Maryland's governor, Spiro T. Agnew, who later was Vice President under Richard Nixon.
"Agnew was cheap as hell and a lousy golfer," recalled the dad. "Bill would come home and tell me about some of the lousy shots he'd hit. He'd say, `Dad, you won't believe what he did today. He hit the ball on No. 10 into the water.' Well, I told him that there was no water on 10, but he said, `If you stand on the tee and hit the ball 90 degrees from where you want to hit it, there's water.' "
Young Bill didn't talk much when he was around the Navy coaching staff. But he listened to everything; he was a sponge for strategy. And unlike a lot of young people in the 1960s, he had great respect for the regimented lifestyle at Annapolis. The Super Bowl Patriot roster owes much of its character to lessons Belichick learned at Navy.
"The academy and the people there influenced him greatly," said Steve Belichick. "The people that are there, you have to admire their mission and what they go through."
The dad of the coach taught his son a lot of football ("there aren't a hell of a lot of people who had seen more football than I have"), but made no attempt to steer young Bill toward coaching. He taught his son to think for himself, make firm decisions, and stand by those choices. Steve Belichick had opportunities to become a head coach, but he turned them down. The lifestyle of an assistant gave him more time to spend with his son. Now he's the dad of a coach with a playoff record (9-1) equal to that of Vince Lombardi.
Steve Belichick is not a meddler. He doesn't get on the phone and call in plays long distance. He doesn't second-guess based on what he sees on television. The old coach knows that you don't really know what's going on until you break down the film.
He'll be in Jacksonville next week, watching his son -- the onetime little kid taking notes in the dark while the 16-millimeter projector hummed -- making more football history.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.