When Bill Belichick walks up the steps toward the plush, green practice fields behind Gillette Stadium tomorrow morning, the sights and sounds will hardly resemble what he remembers about his first NFL training camp.
Assuming the weather cooperates, he'll hear music blaring, see spectators packed into the bleachers, corporate sponsors being entertained in VIP areas, and players joined on the field by trainers, coaches, interns, equipment men, and ball boys.
A lot of people. A lot of hubbub.
This wasn't the way it was back in 1975 when Belichick was breaking into the league as a special assistant with the Baltimore Colts.
"It's become a mini event," Belichick said of training camp, which officially begins for the Patriots tomorrow.
Of course, Belichick has no plans to get caught up in any such hoopla as he prepares the Patriots for a much-anticipated 2007 season. The atmosphere at camp might have changed over time, but Belichick's approach hasn't.
That's why he's already shifted into another gear, reminding players that while offseason camps were geared toward teaching, training camp is focused more on competition.
"There are always a lot of questions to be answered," he said. "At this point I think we've done the best things we could with the opportunities we had, and now is the time to go out and start playing, time to see the product on the field. We saw some of it at minicamp and that was good."
But what Belichick didn't see in June was a crucial piece toward preparing any football team: contact.
"Ultimately you need that to complete the circle," he said.
In recent years, Belichick has operated with a schedule that included a full-pads practice once every three workouts. The pad-crunching session has usually been reserved for the day when there are two practices, and is held in the morning.
"You want to make sure you get enough contact, but it's a fine line," said Belichick, who enters his eighth season with the Patriots, making him the NFL's sixth-longest-tenured coach with the same club (continuous service).
"It's important to get the team ready for the physical aspect of the game, to compete well with it, but at the same time not beat them up. It's not the same for everybody. Some of the young players need contact, while the older players don't always need it as much."
And therein lies what Belichick believes is an important part of managing a training camp: balancing the needs of a variety of players. While veterans such as linebacker Junior Seau (18th season) and receiver Troy Brown (15th season) might be OK without contact, rookies adjusting to the pace of a faster game, such as unsigned first-round draft choice Brandon Meriweather, must experience it to be successful.
Another aspect that requires a delicate balance is mapping out a schedule that addresses short-term and long-term goals.
"You're trying to get the team ready for opening day, and also preparing the team for a 16-game regular-season schedule," Belichick said. "You spend time on your opening day opponent, as well as fundamental stuff, scheme stuff, execution, conditioning, situational football; things you have to cover on that basis have to carry you through the year. They may or may not come up opening day, but you have to be ready for them.
"You're picking your roster, structuring your practices, deciding how you will approach preseason games. There is a fine line to getting the team ready for the first game, which is a big one for everybody, and for a 16-game season. If you put all your eggs in one basket in the opener, it's easy to come up short along the way with other problems."
While some of those principles remain the same from Belichick's early years in the league, one significant change is the length of time to accomplish those tasks.
"It's a lot shorter [now]," he said. "There are only two weeks before the first preseason game, and a few days before your first game you want to take time to prepare the team to go play it. So when you're looking at training camp, it's somewhere between a week to 10 days of true training camp, as opposed to 3-4 weeks of just practices [in the old days]."
They'll start that process tomorrow, with one of the most-anticipated seasons in Patriots history opening another chapter. Training camp might have barely registered a ripple on the NFL calendar 30-plus years ago, but these days, in this region, it's become a mini event.
With Belichick set to experience his 33d training camp, it would be natural to wonder if he gets tired of the monotony. No chance.
"A certain part of it is routine," he said. "[But] the stories change every day and you have to adjust and adapt to new situations. That's what keeps it fresh. You try to take advantage of your experiences, and if you feel like you have a fairly solid program, you follow it through."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.