PHOENIX - Stern, stoic, short on conversation, keen on detail, a meticulous notetaker, and a classic multitasker, a man able to, wait a second . . . break down game film while getting in his daily workout on the treadmill?
"That part really impressed me," said Chris Landry, reflecting on the two years he was a scout on Bill Belichick's staff in Cleveland. "I mean, OK, break down film, sure, I can do that . . . but not while I'm running on the treadmill."
Who is Bill Belichick, the one so few of us see? In some ways, according to those who have spent time around the highly successful Patriots coach, he is precisely the guy in those oft-painful press conferences, when he says little, smiles less, and reveals next to nothing about his team, his thought process, or himself. That's the Bill Belichick who looks as if he followed his morning swig of cod liver oil with a Listerine chaser.
But in other ways, the real Bill Belichick reflects nothing of the tight-mouthed, sweatshirt-tattered, dour curmudgeon seen standing at the podium or along the sideline.
According to Kirk Ferentz, coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes the last nine seasons, the 55-year-old Belichick is not only "warm and genuine," he is also a "great conversationalist." To top that - gentlemen, you might ask your spouses to leave the room right now - Ferentz adds that his old boss "might be the best listener I have ever been around."
Not that Ferentz figured that out the first time he interviewed with Belichick, when the former University of Connecticut standout was fresh off coaching three losing seasons at the University of Maine and Belichick was entering a third year of coaching the Browns. Belichick was in need of an offensive line coach and, by Ferentz's count, he was Belichick's 12th or 13th choice for the spot.
"Truth is, I don't know how he got my name," said Ferentz, reached by telephone early last week. "He never told me, and I never asked. But knowing him as I do now, I'd bet he asked someone for names, got mine with a bunch of others, filed it away on one of his cards, and a couple of years later when he had the opening, he pulled out his cards and called me."
The day he arrived for his first interview in Cleveland, Ferentz recalled, Belichick was forced to delay their afternoon meeting to attend a funeral. When they finally met up in the evening, Belichick conducted what Ferentz today describes as "an interrogation," one that had Ferentz back on his heels like some stumbling free safety.
"These interviews are usually short and sweet," said Ferentz. "But, boy, did I ever get beat up. I mean, you talk about getting worked over. Wow! Right from the start, he was asking me details . . . 'What about this, and what about that' . . . boom, boom, boom. You have to understand, he is the king of not giving you feedback. He'd ask a question, and I'd be there talking, and talking, and all he gives you is this blank stare. Nothing else. Just a stare. So he's staring, and I'm there thinking, 'Am I doing OK here, or am I getting killed?' "
The next day, no job offer in hand, Ferentz was on his way back to the Cleveland airport in a team van, with Browns office staffer Scott Pioli at the wheel - the same Pioli who today is the Patriots' vice president of player personnel and co-architect of the New England football dynasty.
"Don't worry," Pioli told him as they neared the airport, "you didn't do that bad."
A week later, Ferentz was called back for another two-hour interrogation, and when it was over, Belichick offered him the job.
"It was painful," said Ferentz. "But it all worked out, and I'm glad it did. What an opportunity it was, to land on that staff. I never went to grad school, but I liken my time there as having gone to grad school."
Belichick, now wrapping up his eighth season as Patriots coach, for the most part is known as a focused, efficient taskmaster with a flawless eye for evaluating talent. By tonight, he also could have his legacy defined as being the only coach to win a Super Bowl (his fourth) with a perfect 19-0 season.
Contrary to his long-held image, Belichick arrived here last week with a relaxed approach, at times smiling slightly when answering the unrelenting tide of questions from the media. He openly kidded with Channel 4 veterans Bob Lobel and Alice Cook in one of the sessions, which, in part, led Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy to label him "Belichuckle." It was a striking, if subtle, change in approach.
"Every once in a while," acknowledged cornerback Asante Samuel, "you get his personality coming out. When [it] does, everybody's laughing and smiling because you know he's happy. You'd better enjoy it, because you don't see it that much."
"There are certain things that he just won't give you that he gives us," added veteran linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "I think the way [the media and public] perceive him is understandable [given] you guys' relationship with him, but that isn't our relationship with him as players. We have a relationship that goes beyond that."
Experience and success, especially among the corps of linebackers, allows for an exchange of humor between the coach and the crew.
"Our relationship can be somewhat fun at times," said Bruschi.
In Cleveland, Belichick's relationship with the media in particular was often strained, if not excruciating, in part because of a 20-28 record his first three seasons. It took Belichick until his fourth season, 1994, to inch the Browns into the playoffs, and the following season after a collapse to 5-11, the Browns were on their way out of town, and Belichick soon headed to New England as an assistant head coach under Bill Parcells.
Amid the troubled times in Cleveland, however, Belichick at times showed his softer side, albeit sometimes intertwined with his penchant for efficiency. To wit: According to Landry, Belichick routinely had a barber come to Browns headquarters, all scouts and coaching personnel offered free haircuts.
"It made a lot of sense, because it saved time . . . you didn't have guys driving all over the place for haircuts," said Landry, these days a coaching and scouting consultant, as well as a regular on Fox radio. "Bill paid for all of it. And there were times I remember, especially one time after a game against Houston, he'd leave guys an envelope with a little sum of cash, kind of a bonus for a big win. He'd take the money he got for doing a TV show and things, and spread it around to the staff that way . . . a very generous guy, with a big heart."
Also with a developed appetite and accompanying sweet tooth. Pizza was a staple in the Browns' coaching offices, recalled Landry, and his boss was not one to spend time dining.
"Bill is a very meticulous guy," said Landry. "Perfect example, his notetaking . . . coaching notes were always in blue ink, and scouting notes were always in red ink. But at the same time, this is a guy who is probably the sloppiest eater I have ever seen. Sometimes, I'd be like, 'God, get some utensils, Bill, please!' His dietary habits could drive you crazy . . . pizza, lollipops, candy. He worked out every day on that treadmill, and that was good, because he needed to work it off."
Pat Hill, who recently completed his 11th season as coach of the Fresno State Bulldogs, was among Belichick's first wave of assistants in Cleveland.
"I started at the bottom of the pecking order, scouting and going over tapes," said the 56-year-old Hill. "You know, I was at the bottom, like a graduate assistant, and I'll be honest, I didn't like my job description, and I told Bill that. And his response was, 'Hey, this is what you do, and if you don't want to do it, you don't have to stay.' "
Hill hung in, moved up the coaching order, and was in charge of Cleveland's tight ends when he left four years later.
"I wasn't anything fancy," he said, "but my knowledge increased immensely working for Bill. It's not always the job title, but what you absorb while you're there."
Detail and program structure, much of it now incorporated into the Bulldogs' program, is what Hill figures he learned most under Belichick.
"That's an amazing program he has there with the Patriots," praised Hill. "This could be their, what, fourth Super Bowl championship? In this day and age, with free agency and the salary cap, and the ability players have to move around . . . a lot of those guys stay, and that shows they obviously believe in it. Free agency has developed it into a business, but you look at them, you can tell that organization, top to bottom, is tied together tight."
There were many nights in Cleveland, said Ferentz, when Belichick worked through the night and into the morning, opting to sleep on the couch in his office. But unlike many coaches, he said, Belichick "didn't broadcast that fact," and he also didn't try to guilt the rest of his staff into working the same hours.
"He's intense, and he's not a guy who cuts corners, that's among the compliments I would pay him," said Ferentz. "All he asked of everyone else was to put in whatever time they felt necessary to get the job done. No guilt that way. If you got the job done, that's all he asked."
Ferentz, who fondly recalls teaching English literature at Worcester Academy for two years in the late '70s, remembers the hours immediately after the end came in Cleveland. It was Valentine's Day 1996, and with Ferentz sitting in his office, Belichick immediately got on the phone to promote his offensive line coach for openings around the NFL.
"I missed his first two years in Cleveland, and when I first got there, people around town would tell me he was arrogant," said Ferentz. "I have to tell you, arrogant is the last word I would use to describe Bill Belichick. He is private. And while he is a great conversationalist, he's not that way with everybody. Small talk's not his thing. But I know him as a warm and genuine guy. He's a deep thinker, very intelligent, and he's got a very healthy sense of humor."
According to Landry, Belichick is not a joke teller, but he is funny, his humor more of the one-liner variety, and sometimes whimsical and cutting.
"You'd hear it in meetings when he'd talk about a player," recalled Landry. "Like talking about a defensive back, and he'd say, 'That guy wouldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat.' "
Ferentz said he knew Belichick, sensing that his next coaching job could be his last if things turned out like Cleveland, would be very particular about where he coached after the Browns. He said Belichick also left there wanting to eliminate any shortcomings in his coaching game, allowing him the best chance to succeed in that next job.
Shortcomings, in Belichick?
"None that I ever saw," said Ferentz, noting that "no one has mastered the approach to coaching" like his old friend. "But he does have one vice."
Ah, finally, what we've all been waiting for . . . the deviant twist to blow wide open the inner secrets of the unknown Belichick.
"Popcorn," said Ferentz. "And not just any popcorn . . . but Johnson's popcorn, from a little stand on 14th Street in Ocean City, N.J. He loves the stuff. When we'd have coaching meetings in Cleveland, he'd sometimes bring in tubs of it and set it out on the table. Let me tell ya, it's as good as Ben & Jerry's ice cream."
OK, fine, a little corny, but it's not every day we find out New England's killer coach has direct links to a popcorn stand in the thick of Giants country. The stuff of New York tabloids. That ought to get a laugh out of him.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.