FOXBOROUGH -- Leaning forward in his chair, Bill Belichick wants to make one thing clear up front. He agreed to this interview; he didn't ask for it. "The first thing I'd like to come out is that this is not something I initiated," he says, sitting behind his desk at Gillette Stadium.
What possible difference could that make?
"I wouldn't want anyone to think . . . this is some type of a campaign trail," he says.
That would hardly be Belichick's style. Can you imagine the poker-faced guy in the gray, hooded sweat shirt slapping backs, pumping hands, and kissing babies?
But if ever there were a time when Belichick could use a little positive PR, this would be it. Though he remains the Zeus of Patriot Nation, his football season last year was peppered with incidents that earned him bad press. Stiffing his former defensive coordinator Eric Mangini after the Pats lost to Mangini's New York Jets. Shoving a Globe photographer out of his way in an overly eager effort to embrace Mangini after the Pats' playoff win over the Jets. Brushing past a victorious Peyton Manning after losing the AFC championship to the Indianapolis Colts. Having his name dragged through the tabloids in a messy divorce case involving a New Jersey couple.
The New York Daily News ran a story headlined "The Rise of Bill Bully-chick." Sports analyst Boomer Esiason remarked that he was disgusted with Belichick, whose behavior with the media he called unprofessional. Bob Costas commented on Belichick's lack of maturity in ignoring Manning and snubbing a reporter: "Here's a guy who goes down already on the short list as one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. . . . I would hope Bill Belichick's personal graciousness could approach his personal greatness as a coach."
Then came Ted Johnson. The former Patriots linebacker said last month that postconcussion syndrome has ruined his health and marriage and left him deeply depressed and dependent on amphetamines. Johnson dates his troubles to back-to-back concussions in 2002, the second one occurring after Belichick sent him back onto the field before he had recovered from the first.
It has been said that athletes don't come to New England to be loved -- they come to win. Belichick seems to embody this truth. He is an unsentimental man in an unsentimental sport. His critics call him arrogant. His friends say he's shy. Evil genius or misunderstood mensch?
Questioned about the incidents from last season, the coach acknowledges some of the criticism is valid. On shoving the Globe photographer: "It was a mistake, and I'm not going to make any excuses." But he says he and Manning are friends now, having spent a week together in Hawaii last month at the Pro Bowl, where Belichick coached the AFC team to victory. And Belichick disagrees that the season was particularly painful for him: "I'll say this: I've had a lot worse seasons than 14-5."
In a wide-ranging interview in which he is alternately laconic and loquacious, guarded and engaging, Belichick, who will turn 55 next month , says he's looking forward to spending more time with his children, reading, golfing, and fishing in Nantucket, where he owns three pieces of property, including a $4.6 million lot bought a year ago with his then-wife, Debby.
There will be charitable events, with causes ranging from homeless shelters to children's programs. He is a supporter of Jim Brown's Amer-I-Can Foundation for at-risk youths and AccesSportAmerica for the disabled. And he has his own foundation, which awards college scholarships to students at Annapolis High School, his alma mater, and Struthers High School in Ohio, the alma mater of his late father, Stephen.
He may face a less pleasant activity this off-season. A New Jersey judge granted a motion in a divorce case that will allow lawyers for Vincent Shenocca to question Belichick about his involvement with Sharon Shenocca, whom Belichick met in the 1980s when she was a receptionist for the New York Giants and he was the defensive coordinator.
In court papers, Shenocca alleges that his wife has received thousands of dollars from Belichick that she has used to fund "an extravagant lifestyle," including membership in a health club, vacations, and a summer rental at the Jersey shore. She has responded that she and Belichick are just friends.
Under the judge's order, the coach could be asked to turn over financial records from the past five years that show payments to her -- or the case could be settled without Belichick's involvement. New Jersey is a no-fault divorce state, meaning it does not require proof of fault; either spouse can ask for and receive a divorce despite objections from the other.
"The whole Bill Belichick issue is not really relevant," says Mario Delmonico, the judge's law clerk. "It's just about trying to destroy a reputation. What it's really doing is wasting money" in attorneys' fees.
Belichick, known to be fiercely private, declined to comment on the allegations. He did volunteer that he and his wife divorced last summer. She lives in Weston, he in Hingham. The couple, who were high school sweethearts, have three children -- Amanda, 22, a senior at Wesleyan University; Stephen, 19, a senior at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Western Massachusetts; and Brian, 15, who attends the Rivers School in Weston. All three play lacrosse; their father was captain of the lacrosse team at Wesleyan and still likes to play, often with his children.
Friends invariably say Belichick is a great father. Indeed, one of his rare smiles in the two-hour interview comes when he speaks of his children. "What I try to do is be supportive, so whatever they want to do I'm behind," he said. "I don't want to run their lives. I want them to be themselves. You try to set an example and provide guidelines."
"You've seen his fashion," says Byrne, now a senior vice president for the Baltimore Ravens. "Imagine him at 6 in the morning. I'd suggest he comb his hair and put on a sweater, and he would just stare at me. Debby [Belichick] would send in sweaters for me to get him to wear. But usually he went on just like you see him on the sidelines."
The money Belichick made from the television show was divided among his assistants "because he felt they were working as hard as he," Byrne said. The coach would also slip $100 bills into the hands of young scouts who didn't earn much.
After Patriots owner Robert Kraft hired Belichick in 2000, Kraft got a call from Browns owner Art Modell, who had fired Belichick in 1995 for reasons that included a losing record and differences in style. "You're not getting Prince Charming," Modell warned Kraft, "but give him some leeway and he'll deliver for you."
Modell says Belichick may be the best coach in NFL history, "but the other stuff, the human and public relations, is as important as a 3-4 defense."
Modell has often said he felt "like Rex Harrison in 'My Fair Lady,' " trying to get Belichick to clean up his act. "The media coverage was not good," he says. "There was no connection with the fans, and the fans are our customer base. He was a good man, but his off-field personality, his deficiencies -- when it came to running a football team, he did it his way and only his way."
Sometimes his way has been unorthodox. In October 2001, after the Pats lost 30-10 to the Miami Dolphins and dropped to 1-3 overall, Belichick staged a funeral for the Miami game ball in which the players buried it and kicked dirt over it. That game was over, he told them; focus on the future. Twelve games later the Patriots won the Super Bowl. The night before the 2004 Super Bowl against Philadelphia, Belichick showed the team the parade route the Eagles had planned if they won, every street and turn. The Pats won, 24-21.
Despite the Patriots' loss in the AFC championship game this year, many people still consider the team a dynasty, and Belichick remains on Mount Olympus, but it's a hot seat.
Asked whether he feels the heat, he replies, "I do think the expectations are high now." Does it stress him out? "I can't worry about what everyone else thinks. . . . If I did, in 2001 Michael Bishop would have been our starting quarterback." Bishop was a fan favorite the few times he played in 2000, but the Patriots released him in August 2001, which paved the way for Tom Brady.
Though Belichick is often terse -- or worse -- with reporters, Kraft said he respects his "understated manner" in a field of outsized egos.
"One of the reasons I like him as a coach and human being is that he is never boastful and self-important," Kraft says. "He's not a phony, and to me, at this stage of my life, that's important. I'll say this: I've never known him to lie to me. He might not tell me something, but he's never told me a lie." He adds, "I'm not saying he's always forthcoming."
As far as the tabloid accounts of Belichick's role in the New Jersey divorce case, Kraft says he hasn't spoken to him about it. "I also try not to sit in judgment of anybody, because no one knows anyone's personal life," Kraft said. "All I can say is I think Bill's main focus after football matters are his children, and I have a great deal of respect for that."
He also applauds the coach's famous work ethic. Comedian Lenny Clarke was on a plane headed to Los Angeles two years ago, wearing his Patriots golf shirt, when Belichick took the seat next to him. They spoke a little, but mostly Belichick had his head in his laptop, studying plays and players. Clarke, on his way to an audition for a television show, decided to follow suit.
"The more he worked, the more I worked on my script. I was never so well prepared. I went in and nailed the show that day. It's usually, 'Thank you very much. We'll call you.' And I owe it to Bill Belichick. He's a stickler," says Clarke whose new show, "The Winner," premieres tonight on the Fox network.
Says Belichick: "Do you know why I chose that song? It was the shortest one. It's like two minutes and three seconds."
Ingraham believes Belichick has evolved over the years: "As he's gotten older, he's more willing to show his emotions. . . . He has a better grasp of what's truly important in life."
Belichick has been wonderful with his children, Ingraham says, giving them a puppy from his English golden retriever's litter and taking his son, Tucker, on the team plane to the Super Bowl in 2004. The two share a regular e-mail correspondence in which Tucker, 11, critiques each Patriots game, and Belichick responds.
"I hope you are off to a good start at school," Belichick wrote Tucker in one exchange three years ago . "Be sure to sit in the front row and pay attention to the teacher. That is what our best players do when we have meetings. Tom Brady always sits in the front row with his notebook open when the meeting starts. He also does his homework and turns it in when he comes to the stadium in the morning. Just like you, right?"
But the warm-and-fuzzy Belichick is not someone the public knows. With his players he can be brutally profane. Asked about his relationship with them, he replies: "Some of them I love. I can't say I love 53 guys. I respect all of them, and I hope they respect me."
Team captains Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi did not respond to the Globe's request for interviews. But sports radio host Michael Holley, a former Globe sportswriter who spent two years following the team for his 2005 book, "Patriot Reign," spoke of the relationship.
"Even the guy who hates his guts will tell you he's a great coach," Holley said. "He's not interested in being buddies with them, and they're not interested in being buddies with him. All they expect from him is, 'Give us a chance to win.' I don't think people would say Bill Belichick is a great man. He's a great coach. He's an interesting man."