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Bob Ryan

Another title would be perfect fit

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / September 9, 2010

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Does Bill Belichick care about his legacy?

Let’s answer the question with a question. Do you think a man who owns what might be the largest private collection of football books on the planet, a man steeped in football history, a man who can talk Bronko Nagurski as well as he can talk Brandon Jacobs, cares about his legacy?

You’ve probably noticed that he’s not Rex Ryan. He’s not going to blab about personal desires and/or ambition in public. Only on the rarest occasions will he allow himself to show even the teeniest hint of real, live, human emotion. Big wins generate, at best, moderate praise (e.g. “He carried his assignments out well’’). Bad losses are framed along the lines of “There were letdowns in all three phases of the game.’’

That’s just his nature. He is very comfortable in his own skin. His methods work. He’s got the three Super Bowl championships, a fourth Super Bowl appearance, an historic 2007 regular season and two additional Super Bowl rings as a defensive coordinator as proof of his coaching worth.

If he retired this evening, he’d be assured of induction at some future date into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The résumé is air-tight. The speech would be poignant, paying tribute to various mentors, most notably his father, Steve, a college career assistant who passed up opportunities for head coaching jobs to provide a stable home life for his family. The Naval Academy suited him, and so he remained there for 33 years. He rubbed elbows with assorted football luminaries during summer camps. People in football knew who Steve Belichick was, and his son Bill is proud of his dad’s place in collegiate football history.

The speech would reveal his deep and abiding love for football, which for Bill Belichick is far closer to an endlessly fascinating science than it is a collision game in which artistry and violence maintain an uneasy truce. The speech would provide some intriguing football insight and it would surprise many, given that it would be laced with evidence of Belichick’s sly humor. Yes, humor. Many a Patriot has testified to the coach’s surprising wit.

He began watching film with his dad before he reached his teens, and now in this digital age he still thoroughly enjoys dissecting images of football, always seeking that teeny-weeny edge that could conceivably make the difference between victory and defeat. It’s often a handy cliché to say that so-and-so was “born to coach.’’

Bill Belichick was born to coach.

Only Chuck Noll has won more than three Super Bowls (Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs have three; Vince Lombardi has five NFL titles, and two were Super Bowls). Bill Belichick is already in exclusive company, and he has a further distinguishing marker in that he is the only coach to have won three Super Bowls in the era of free agency. There was significant roster turnover between Super Bowl XXXVI and Super Bowl XXXIX, three years later.

But there is one very big reason Bill Belichick needs a fourth Super Bowl championship.

That reason is the little matter of Spygate.

Many Patriots fans become very upset when someone brings up Spygate. They act as if Bill Belichick did nothing wrong, and as if the commissioner was out of line in imposing the unprecedented punishment for the Patriots’ transgressions. These denial diehards actually buy the coach’s explanation that he was somehow unsure just what was, and wasn’t, allowed in terms of filming what a rival team does. Few outside of New England do.

The point is not the acceptance level of the Patriots’ fans. Bill Belichick enjoys their support; most of them, anyway. The point is that much of the outside world regards Spygate as a major scandal, even if they don’t really understand exactly what allegedly transpired. They just point to the commissioner’s reaction to whatever it is Bill Belichick did as clear proof that he was a “cheater.’’ They will go to their graves believing there was a taint to those three Super Bowl titles.

It’s equally clear from Bill Belichick’s take-no-prisoners approach to the entire 2007 season that he was determined to demonstrate, once and for all, in the immediate aftermath of Spygate, that he could coach like no one else. We know there was no hanky-panky in ’07, nor has there been any since. Coach Belichick was caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and he has been on the straight-and-narrow ever since.

Anyone believing in bad karma or divine retribution, or some such thing, would cite the bizarre nature of Super Bowl XLII’s ending (Asante Samuel’s botched interception, Eli Manning’s inexplicably aberrational escape, David Tyree’s miracle reception, etc.) as proof that Belichick was getting payback for his brazen envelope-pushing. For all we know, that might have been his last best shot for a fourth Super Bowl championship, the one that would further enhance his legacy.

That would be unfortunate, but he brought it all on himself.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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