But complications arose on Holtz’s staff, and Belichick wrote to the Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins volunteering his services. Friends interceded, and Belichick landed a $25-a-week job with the Colts that was really an internship in football. After that, he never went back to economics, though he claims his training in it comes into play today in understanding the NFL’s salary cap.
“It was a great opportunity for a guy with no coaching experience,” he says.
“I started breaking down film like I’d done with Dad, but they gave me more and more responsibility. I worked diligently, so they kept giving me more.
“I didn’t have a place to live, so I slept on a sofa. It was a 7-to-midnight shift every day. It was like a tutorial in coaching, listening to those guys. But Ted [Marchibroda, the Colts’ head coach] asked what I thought. He treated me with the same respect as the others, even though I was 24. Socially, it wasn’t always the most comfortable situation for me and Debbie [his wife, who had been his high school sweetheart], but it was my chance.”
That experience was a searing one for Bill Belichick. Many years later, he, too, has given young, untested people chances, but he always demands they pass the same kind of test he did in 1975.
“I must get three or four letters a month, 40 to 50 a year, from young guys looking for a break,” Belichick says. “They all say, `All I want is a chance.’ But I have a prescription for what I believe makes inexperienced people successful.
“Are they intelligent? Do they have a work ethic? Can they work with others? Can they do five or six things at once and be self-motivated? When I hire young people, it isn’t like I haven’t done the jobs I’m asking them to do. There really isn’t a job I haven’t done. I made the airport runs and picked up the towels and all that crap. I know what `entry level’ means.
“So when I hire those kind of guys, I try to make it as bad as possible. I fight with my coaches all the time because they say we can pay these guys more so they could be more comfortable. I don’t want them to be comfortable. I don’t want them to make ends meet. Will you make the sacrifice? I don’t know what that sacrifice is for you, and I don’t care. I just want to know if you’ll make it. Are you willing to make the commitment this job takes?”
It is a muggy afternoon at the Patriots’ summer camp at Bryant College in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. Bill Belichick has come full circle, back to New England three decades after he first arrived at Andover and began to view football as a physical science as well as a sport. Despite the heat, he’s wearing his usual outfit, a blue Patriots sweat top with cutoff sleeves over a T-shirt and team shorts.
A whistle dangles from his neck, but he wears no sunglasses, as his predecessor Pete Carroll often did. No cap. No clipboard. Usually, his hands are behind his back, and he is all eyes as he puts the players through their paces. It won’t be long before the season opener against one of the best teams in football, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and that game is already on his mind.
“One thing they’ll learn up there is he sees everything, and he knows more than you think he knows,” says Kevin Byrne, a vice president of the Baltimore Ravens. Byrne worked for Belichick for five years during Belichick’s first head coaching stint, in Cleveland from 1991 to ‘95.
It is obvious that this is true as Belichick stalks behind the huddle, observing, commenting, at times profanely, about what he sees. He is not perpetually cheery, as Carroll was, but neither is he boisterous like his longtime mentor, Bill Parcells, whose shadow still haunts anyone who coaches the Patriots.
Belichick is a small man in a big man’s game, but clearly he is the players’ general. He has taken over a team that slipped from Super Bowl status in 1996, when Parcells was the boss and Belichick his chief aide, to an 8-8 noncontender last season, losing six of its last eight games and getting Carroll fired.
Pepper Johnson, who is working this summer as a coaching intern under Belichick, who was his coach with the Giants and Browns, recalls his first encounter with Belichick when he was a rookie in New York and Belichick was running the defense for Parcells.
“We were in preseason, and we didn’t play our technique right on a defense, so the next time we go in, I look to him for the signals, and it’s stack defense, cover 2,” the former linebacker says. “We play it and stop them, and I look for the signal for the next play, and it’s stack defense, cover 2. We weren’t in situations for that defense, but he kept calling it because we hadn’t run it right. After a few plays, I kept looking over, but I knew what was coming: stack defense, cover 2. And finally we stopped ‘em. We were jumping around like we just won the Super Bowl. When we get back to the sidelines, he says, `You SOBs don’t want to run it right, we’ll play it the whole [expletive] game.’ We got the technique right after that.”Continued...