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Belichick learned well from dad

FOXBOROUGH -- Steve Belichick was a football man -- specifically, a college football man -- and on Saturday he did what college football men do. He went to see his beloved Navy Midshipmen defeat Temple in the afternoon and then he settled in front of his television set to watch another football game Saturday night. It was, his son explained, ''what he normally does Saturday night."

But this Saturday night was different. ''His heart just stopped beating," said the son, Bill, who is the head football coach of the New England Patriots. ''So I'm sure that's the way he would have wanted it to end."

Steve Belichick was 86. As much as any man could, he had lived the life he wished to live.

His son is also a football man -- specifically a professional football man -- and yesterday afternoon he did what professional football men do. He directed his team to a 24-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints. His players were not aware that their coach had done his duty with what he would later describe as ''a heavy heart."

''None of us had a clue," said Adam Vinatieri. ''He kept it inside. He didn't let it distract him."

That Bill Belichick would be stoic in a moment of personal sorrow comes as no shock. The coach is legendary for his ability to compartmentalize his life. Coaching a football game is the best possible way for Belichick to honor his father. Anyone who knows even the slightest thing about them is aware that a love of football was their great bond.

''Obviously," said Belichick, ''he had a tremendous influence on my life personally and, particularly in the football aspect, it was great to be able to share the tremendous memories with him and some of the recent successes, as I did when he was successful as a coach of the Naval Academy and that program."

Steve Belichick was a familiar figure in the Patriots locker room the past few years. Bill Belichick made sure his father was able to savor his team's Super Bowl triumphs. ''He had some great stories," said Vinatieri. ''He was just a great guy."

''He was always here, kind of funny," said Willie McGinest. ''I used to joke with him and stuff."

''I always had a great relationship with him," added Tom Brady. ''He had great perspective. He had coached football for a lot of years. He always had words of wisdom."

The players had even grown so comfortable with him that he was treated to the ultimate insiders' tribute at Super Bowl XXXIX. ''I dumped ice water on him at the Super Bowl," recalled Tedy Bruschi. ''I was coming up with the bucket and I saw he and Bill embracing and I said, 'Ah, I'll get them both.' "

Steve Belichick was no general household name, but in the world of football he was a guru and he was Steve Belichick a lot longer than he was Bill's Dad. He was a fine all-around coach, but his great reputation was for scouting. 'Twas said that no one could break down film to spot flaws in opponents better than Steve Belichick, at least until his son came along. It is a well-established part of the Belichick family lore that little Billy was first taken into the film room at age 9. Simply put, it took.

But Belichick got a lot more from his dad than an ability to dissect football film. Belichick is an unfrilly guy, and that is hardly surprising given that long ago his father chose stability and family over glory. Though the elder Belichick's football acumen was undeniable, he made a decision that he did not need the headaches that come with authority, nor did he wish to subject his family to any more of the nomadic existence that is the lot of the typical coach. And so, at age 36, he settled down at the Naval Academy as an assistant coach for the next 33 years. Steve Belichick made eight Naval Academy head coaches look pretty good.

Steve Belichick could have been a coaching star, if that's what he truly wanted. He could have continued on a path that already had taken him from Hiram College to Vanderbilt to North Carolina, but when he landed an Annapolis he saw the light. ''He was one of the rare Americans who, though ambitious and exceptionally hard-working, knew when he had a deal that suited him and had no urge for greener pastures, which, in his shrewd estimate might in fact not be greener," wrote David Halberstam in his must-read, ''The Education of a Coach."

Continued Halberstam, ''He taught thousands of players and younger coaches, many of whom went on to more prominent jobs, but in the end his greatest pupil was his son."

Steve Belichick came from classic football country -- Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio. He was the youngest of five children born to Ivan (known as John) and Mary Barkovic Bilicic. Yes, the name is Croatian and it was Anglicized, not at Ellis Island as so many others were, but by a first grade teacher in Monessen, Pa., where all the Belichick children were born. It was an Old World existence. His father had arrived on these shores with a double handicap: He spoke no English and was illiterate in any language. But being illiterate doesn't mean someone is stupid or lazy. In this case it simply meant that a man had been denied opportunity. John Belichick was good with his hands and he was hard-working. He was quite capable of raising a family.

When Steve was 5, the family moved to Struthers, Ohio, near Youngstown. When he came of age, he was immersed in a football culture. Football would do for he and his brother John what could not be done for his elder siblings. Football would get him to college, in his case Case Western Reserve University.

Combine what he learned at home with what he learned at school and you have the special human being that was Steve Belichick. ''The values of that era and of that particular ethnic culture were basic," wrote Halberstam. ''You worked hard. You saved. You did not waste anything. You did not complain. You did not expect anyone to do anything for you. Discipline was not so much taught as it was lived, as an essential part of life for which there was no alternative."

There was one other thing. You followed good advice when it was offered. While at the University of North Carolina, Steve Belichick had become a friend of basketball coach Frank McGuire. When McGuire heard that Belichick was heading to Navy, he advised him to do what his friend Ben Carnevale, Navy's basketball coach, had done -- take steps to become a physical education teacher in addition to coaching to protect himself from what Halberstam refers to as the ''volatility and uncertainty of the coach's life." That is how Steve Belichick came to retire from the Naval Academy as a tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Education.

It was a tough day at the office for Bill Belichick, and it was a rare shared solemn moment between a normally unemotional coach and the team he has led to three Super Bowl championships when he informed them that his father had passed away. ''He didn't break down," said Richard Seymour. ''But it was clear the weight was on him."

Steve Belichick had gone his professional way and the son had gone his, and a lot more people know about the son than the father, which is understandable when the son has won three Super Bowls and the father has remained in Annapolis for more than three decades. But does this mean the son has been a greater success than his dad?

The son who now mourns him knows better.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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