Belichick network in action

College connections useful at draft time

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / April 22, 2010

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Nick Saban walked by the sign in the Cleveland Browns complex every day. So did Kirk Ferentz. And Pat Hill. And Al Groh. And the gaggle of young assistants and go-fers destined to become football power brokers.

Do. Your. Job.

The phrase’s brilliance is in its simplicity.

By now, yes, it’s almost cliché.

But in a business where each step of building a team, a game plan, even a play is shrouded in nomenclature and complexity, those three simple words explain best how Bill Belichick worked to create an environment where roles and tasks were clearly defined and distributed from the head coach all the way down to the ball boys.

“Everybody knew what was expected,’’ said Saban. “And then through that systematic organization, philosophically, this is how we want to play offense, this is how we want to play defense, this is what we’re looking for and how we’re going to bring players to the team.

“It’s relatively simple, but it’s also brilliant, in that most organizations don’t do that. I’m not just talking about football here. I’m talking about any organizations.’’

The word has gotten out.

Over the last few months, it has often been said that Belichick’s job in finding players has gotten more difficult, since the Patriots’ success has led to the poaching of coaches and personnel leaders, who in turn have brought their methods elsewhere.

It’s clear that Belichick’s network at the NFL level is now vast. But a closer look reveals that the major-college level is just as loaded with those connected to him, and the benefits that he reaps at this time of year — all year, really — outweigh any problems in the NFL.

Saban is the most well-known member of this group. Ferentz is now at Iowa. Hill is at Fresno State. Groh is Georgia Tech’s defensive coordinator. Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, an assistant of Saban’s at LSU and with the Dolphins, has built a meaningful relationship with Belichick, too, as have Florida coach Urban Meyer and Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. And so on.

Plenty of players from those programs, and others Belichick is connected to, will be on the Patriots’ radar as the NFL conducts its draft in the next three days. In a process so marked by uncertainty, there is comfort for him in that.

“I just know in those programs, what they ask of their players is similar to what we ask our players,’’ Belichick said. “Not the same, but I’d say it’s similar. And so to know how a player handles situations in their programs, similar to ours, is part of the evaluation of that player.’’

In the draft, there are few certainties. But should Texas’s Sergio Kindle, Florida’s Maurkice Pouncey, Fresno State’s Ryan Mathews, or Alabama’s Kareem Jackson become Patriots, chances are New England will come close to being sure about them.

Inspirational moment
When Meyer gathers his players in the team meeting room, a quote hangs on the wall behind him.

When is a team ready to go? When everyone knows what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

The quote is from Belichick, just one of the many things the Florida coach has taken from the Patriots and applied to his program. The two met when Belichick called and asked to visit Meyer in Gainesville shortly after Meyer was hired five years ago.

Belichick wanted to talk about the empty-set offense. Meyer, sorting through discipline problems from the old regime, wanted to ask about managing people. They spent all day together, and it has become a tradition, one Meyer calls “my favorite day of the year.’’

Soon after the first meeting, Meyer visited Patriots minicamp. On the last day, he saw Tom Brady commanding the offense, Tedy Bruschi running the defense, Mike Vrabel covering a scout-team kickoff, and it hit him.

“The last practice — this is before they go on vacation — they did a two-minute drill and it was Tom Brady against the first-team defense,’’ Meyer said. “And they scored right at the end. It was in shorts, and it was like they won the Super Bowl. They’re all jumping around, and I’m thinking, ‘Now I know why. Everything they do, they compete.’ Someone says that about Florida and we’re in good shape.’’

There isn’t a great deal of carryover from Florida’s schemes to New England’s, but to focus on that would be missing the point.

“I don’t know that we’ve taken a lot of scheme from him, but we’ve taken fundamentals,’’ Meyer said. “We’ve taken some of his drills — which I couldn’t write down fast enough, because it’s all fundamentals — and the ‘esprit de corps.’ When you see Vrabel running down 50 yards on the last day of minicamp, and he’s a scout kickoff guy, that’s the way I want my team to be.’’

Meyer says his players have told him they’d take less money to go to places like New England. It’s because they’re used to the “alignment’’ in the program, with all roles clearly defined and all soldiers marching in the same direction.

Those Gators aren’t the only ones who feel that way. Three of Hill’s ex-players — Logan Mankins, James Sanders, and Ryan Wendell — are on the Patriots roster, so the Fresno State coach can say it with certainty.

“They have to practice hard, practice physical, it’s a disciplined program here,’’ he said. “So when Bill gets them, he knows they’re going to practice hard, take direction, and understand their role. They’ll understand that everyone has a job to do.’’

Information exchange
Muschamp met Belichick on one of the coach’s scouting trips to LSU, during Muschamp’s tenure as defensive coordinator there. The openness of conversation struck the young assistant, as did the stark similarities in player evaluation.

“I know one thing we all seem to have is big teams, regardless of position,’’ Muschamp said. “Speed will overcome a lot of things, but if you look at the traits, they’re all big teams that run well. I remember one of them, Bill or Nick, saying, ‘Nobody pays to watch a lightweight fight. They pay to see the heavyweights.’ There’s a lot to that.’’

Maybe most valuable, though, to Muschamp was the philosophical discussion. Everyone was learning, and everyone was gaining an edge.

So when ex-Patriot David Thomas was in Austin last year, and told his old Texas coach Mack Brown that he felt like having Belichick gives the team an edge, Muschamp wasn’t surprised, because he has that edge. In fact, Muschamp, who has been designated Brown’s successor in Austin, carries his volume of lessons with him like a playbook.

One stemmed from a story Belichick told about a win over the Colts in which Peyton Manning threw for more than 300 yards but struggled to finish drives.

“His story about that game was neat,’’ said Muschamp, “because going into a game, I’d never say that I knew the offense was going to gain yardage. But he wanted to get them in the red zone, because he knew [the Patriots] could control the line of scrimmage there and the passing area would be condensed.

“It was a great illustration. He convinced me that stats mean nothing.’’

And when Belichick can help these college coaches, they can reciprocate, and the Patriots can benefit.

In September 2008, the Dolphins unfurled the Wildcat on New England, using the package David Lee brought with him from Arkansas to gash the Patriots for 216 rushing yards. Belichick knew where to turn.

“He called and said, ‘What did you guys do against this?’ ’’ said Saban, who had seen it coaching against Arkansas’s Felix Jones and Darren McFadden. “We talked about it, and philosophically, I told him a couple things we did and how to adjust it. Because we talk the same language, it’s not like we had to have a meeting about it.’’

Same as when he went to study the empty-set at Florida, Belichick learned something and applied it, and Miami rushed for 66 yards in the second meeting.

Answers on intangibles
At Alabama, there’s a tower that Paul “Bear’’ Bryant used to occupy that’s been rendered a monument in the Saban Era. The new Tide coach lives on the fields underneath it, jumping from drill to drill, just as Belichick would, rather than climbing the tower. Meyer nods when he hears the story, and says he’s always been like that, as well.

Most of these coaches are.

Ferentz remembers from those Cleveland days that Belichick “really had an organized grip on everything in the building.’’ And as he demanded that his assistants get a similar handle on things, the ways were passed on naturally.

“I think all of us know what the mode of operation would be in New England,’’ said Ferentz. “The bottom line, for a college guy going into the NFL, is having the right things in mind, being focused on performing at the highest level, continuing to develop and not being knocked off by the distractions.’’

That’s why, in the end, it’s vital for Belichick to have the correct information on what a kid can’t show on film.

“It isn’t about, ‘Why is this kid’s stance like this?’ ’’ Meyer said. “ ‘Is he a winner?’ ‘We’re in the national championship game, why did you give him the ball?’ ‘Is he a tough kid?’ ‘Is he a good kid?’

“It’s what you have to win, and what kind of character the kid has. It’s unbelievable. I get so fired up talking about it, because it’s the same questions I ask high school coaches.

“We’re knee-deep into these kids. When a guy like Coach Belichick walks through that door and says, ‘Tell me about this kid,’ he’s getting A-to-Z, no-nonsense.’’

It doesn’t always work out — Chad Jackson was one pipeline failure — but more often than not, Belichick feels most comfortable with these kids, because he has the best information on them.

Those coaches know what Belichick’s looking for, because they learned it from him. Their players know, because it was passed on to them. And more coaches know now, because the tree keeps growing.

“When I worked with Bill, I used to say, ‘This is really hard,’ ’’ said Saban. “And sometimes you thought, ‘Do we really have to do it this way?’ [Tennessee coach Derek] Dooley, [Florida State coach] Jimbo Fisher, Muschamp, they say the same things when they’re working for me, but they did the same thing I did.

“Soon as I left, I wanted to do it exactly like Bill did it, and that’s what all those guys I mentioned say now.’’

If you can sum up what they’re all doing in three words, it would be those Belichick posted and preached all those years ago in Berea, Ohio. And because so many have learned to adhere to that simple phrase, it’s now helping everyone do their job better.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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