While he's been refreshingly engaging here in the buildup to Super Bowl 46, it's fair to say Bill Belichick has a well-established reputation for keeping even the most fundamental information close to his hoodie.
But the Patriots coach has never masked his affection for his time with the New York Giants, most evidently during the NFL Network's "A Football Life: Bill Belichick'' documentary that debuted in September.
Visiting the soon-to-be-demolished Giants Stadium for the final time, Belichick became downright wistful outside the coaches room where his first great successes in the NFL percolated.
“It’s a small room,’’ said, his voice trembling. “As I stand here . . . it’s surprising how small it is. Damn, I spent a lot of hours in that room. I loved it here. I loved it here.’’
One of the coaches who spent considerable time in that room as a fellow assistant on Bill Parcells's staff is Belichick's sideline rival this week.
Tom Coughlin was the Giants' wide receivers coach from 1988-90, a time when Belichick was building his name and his resume as the mastermind coordinating the fearsome defense of Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks, and Leonard Marshall.
Knowing how Belichick feels about his Giants days, it comes as no surprise that he was effusive in his praise of Coughlin during his press conference Monday when he was asked to compare him to Parcells.
But it's not just because of their shared experience in those heady days at Giants Stadium that Belichick respects him.
"I respect a lot of things about Tom – his evaluation of talent, the way he attacks teams, his consistency, his discipline, his team’s toughness, their resiliency – I would say all of those things. Bill [Parcells] has a lot of those characteristics as a coach. I don’t know who rubs off on whom. That was the way Tom was as an assistant coach. He was very disciplined and very detail-oriented. He demanded a lot from his players. He was fair, but firm, like he is now.
"Tom is a good guy, and he has a good sense of humor. He is a good guy to be around. On the practice field and the game field, you have a job to do. He was demanding of them in a good way. There is a lot of Bill Parcells in that, too. He is demanding. He can shoot the needle in there to you a little bit, and get a little dig in. He expects a lot. He has high expectations. There is a different style, but some similarities as a coach. I don’t know how much one rubbed off on the other, as much as it’s kind of the way they are.”
When Belichick talks candidly and in anecdotal detail about football -- his experiences, why certain things work, why specific players are effective -- it's a fascinating football clinic that could make a lot of money if tickets were available. It's been a treat to listen to him in that mode during the first two days here. He spoke at length on so many topics today -- one question about what he learned between his head coaching stints in Cleveland and New England brought forth a nearly 10-minute answer -- that one wished the press conference lasted another hour.
On what he learned working with the Giants' coaching staff back in the day: “It was awesome. We had a great staff and great players. One of the biggest things I learned, that I can’t do today, but I know, is how tough those players were. We practiced every day in pads, every single day in pads. There were years that we practiced every single day on the turf before we had the grass practice fields up there on the hill, or it was being rebuilt or something happened. How we did 9-on-7, which is a good-tempo running drill, and how we did that on a regular basis. In training camp, we went out in pads every day. We hit every day. We did 9-on-7 every day. There was no way Bill [Parcells] would go out on the field without doing 9-on-7. We’d skip stretching before we’d skip 9-on-7."
On the toughness of those Giants teams compared to today's players: "Going back to last year, and even this year, going out in pads, working on 9-on-7, having more contact work in practice, we’d get that look a little bit like, ‘I don’t know if the players can do it.’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘Can’t do it?’ We were in pads on Fridays with the Giants, and nobody said anything. That’s the way it was. You went out there and practiced. I know what players are capable of doing because of how demanding we were with them from a physical standpoint, and that certainly didn’t lessen their aggressiveness or their toughness in games. That was a physical defense. That was a physical offensive line.
"Even getting ready for the Super Bowl against Buffalo [in 1990], the way we ran the ball in that game. That started on the practice field with the tempo in practice. When you get those guys crashing into each other – Jumbo Elliott and Mark Bavaro blocking Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks, Jim Burt and all them – they just lined up and played football. I know it was a different era, but it will never be like that again.''
Belichick was particularly introspective when he talked about taking the techniques he learned with the Giants to his first head coaching job in Cleveland.
"When I got [to New York] in 1979, relative to what the Giants had done previous to that, it was kind of a country-club atmosphere, from what I understood.
It was a little bit different than what I had been used to. I learned a lot from the mental and physical toughness standpoint that [former coach] Ray Perkins and then Bill, built their teams with. Maybe I took it a little too far in Cleveland, I don’t know. It was kind of the same thing when I got there. People said that we were too demanding and we were doing too much. I was thinking to myself, ‘I was with the Giants for 12 years. I saw this every day for 12 years. Don’t tell me we can’t go out there and have 9-on-7 two days in a row. I know we can.’ ”
After he was fired in Cleveland during a 1995 season in which Art Modell's plan to move the storied Browns to Baltimore turned the team into the ultimate lame duck, Belichick joined Parcells's staff in New England, where his lessons in being a head coach at hte NFL level continued.
"I certainly learned a lot that year being around Bill for three years with basically the same staff that had moved down to New York,'' Belichick said, mentioning Romeo Crennel, Dante Scarnecchia, and Al Groh. "All of the things that you do as a head coach, when you become an assistant coach again, you understand more what the head coach is going through when you have been a head coach, than when you are an assistant coach and you haven’t had that responsibility. It was a great learning experience for me."
In "A Football Life,'' Belichick had some chuckles at Parcells's expense, such as remembering how Parcells would "light into four cigarettes" after they would play racquetball. The relationship of course grew more complicated with Belichick's infamous resignation as the HC of the NYJ in 1999, a day in which he was considerably less articulate than he was Monday. But during the past two days, he's been quick to praise Parcells, who affectionately called Belichick and Coughlin "my guys" earlier this week.
"Bill was very generous in some of the information and experiences he shared with me during those four years from 1996 to 1999 – the situations he was dealing with, the things that would come up with the team and how you would handle this and how you would handle that,'' Belichick said. "Our relationship is a little bit different because I had been a head coach. He would say, ‘Look, you’ve been a head coach. Here is the situation. How would you handle this or that?’ And I would watch him handle it. I have a little different perspective on it than I had during those years with the Giants when I wasn’t a head coach, and I probably didn’t fully understand some of the dynamics of various decisions, whether it was personnel decisions or – as it was in the 1990s – salary-cap decisions, strategic decisions and logistics and planning.
"It was certainly a great learning experience for me from a different point of view."
Funny, the same could be said for those fortunate enough to hear Bill Belichick elaborate on his football life Monday.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.