Tony La Russa shares the lessons he’s learned from Bill Belichick

"I was wrong in that I actually could learn a lot."

Tony La Russa Bill Belichick
Tony La Russa Bill Belichick –New England Patriots/Dave Silverman

Former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said he was “intimidated” when he first met Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

“I had known Bill just from watching him on the sidelines and listening to his press conferences,” La Russa told Boston.com. “And I thought, ‘This guy is a tough guy. He doesn’t have any personality. He’s not very warm — probably boring to be around.'”

But, from a coaching perspective, La Russa was interested in spending time with Belichick because he figured he could learn a thing or two from the now seven-time Super Bowl champion. After the pair met through a mutual friend, “Friday Night Lights” author and Belichick’s high school classmate, Buzz Bissinger, La Russa soon realized he was mistaken on both accounts.

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“I was wrong in that I actually could learn a lot,” La Russa admitted. “But I was wrong about everything else, too.”

Belichick, 66, and La Russa, 74, have remained in touch through the years, forging a friendship La Russa calls “one of the most fortunate things [he’s] experienced.”

“He’s got a great personality,” La Russa said of Belichick. “He’s a coach, so in press conferences, you have to be careful with what you say, so it doesn’t end up on the blackboard. But he’s intelligent, he’s smart, [and] he’s got a great sense of humor. The other thing I love about him, that was really impressive, is that his ego is totally in check. When he’s around anybody, he’s always asking them questions [and] wants to know about them. He doesn’t want to talk about himself.”

Despite being stationed in different pockets of the country — Foxborough vs. St. Louis and then Phoenix — the two coaches frequently found opportunities to visit each other on the job. La Russa said the first time they really got a chance to know each other was “years and years and years ago” in Jupiter, Florida, where the Cardinals hosted spring training and Belichick spent the offseason. During the day, Belichick would come by workouts — often inquiring about various drills — at Roger Dean Stadium, and, during the evening, they would enjoy dinner with other sports figures in town, including former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, former Patriots head coach Bill Parcells, and former Celtics forward John Havlicek.

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“That’s when you really got a feel for how quick he is to laugh at something funny and his wide range of interests,” La Russa said.

Belichick has also been spotted at spring training for the Arizona Diamondbacks, where La Russa worked as chief baseball officer for three seasons; he’s strolled through the Patriots locker room wearing La Russa’s old No. 10 jersey; and he showed up in a Cardinals jersey to Game 1 of the 2006 NCLS at Shea Stadium.

“The fans were just booing the crap out of him,” La Russa said. “But he was just smiling, looking at them.”

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La Russa, who has made his fair share of visits to Gillette Stadium, was hired by the Red Sox in November to serve as a special assistant to president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski — a move that made hanging out with Belichick all the more possible. The duo will be coming together Friday for the Bill Belichick Foundation’s fifth annual “Hall of Fame Huddle.” Hosted at the Seaport World Trade Center, the event will feature a sports-themed discussion with Belichick, La Russa, former Yankees manager Joe Torre, and former MLB All-Star Jim Thome.

“It’s going to be something that we enjoy doing, which is talking philosophy and how it relates to real life,” La Russa said.

Ahead of Friday evening, La Russa shared a few of the more salient coaching takeaways he’s gleaned from getting to know Belichick over the years:

1. It’s all about the fundamentals: “What a coach or manager needs to bring to his players, as far as putting them in a position to succeed, are the basics. There are no shortcuts. You really have to identify what the fundamental is that you’re trying to make a part of your game, break it down into its elements, and then, in pain-staking practices, you repeat it and repeat it, and, after quality repetitions, pretty soon you have a skill. That was really imprinted over me, and that was kind of the way I was taught to teach our game of baseball.”

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2. There’s value in forming personal bonds: “The thing that Bill really made the biggest impression on me was how important it was to build relationships — connecting you and your coaches, and you and your staff, with the players, like true connecting, not just professionally, but personally. That was a very eye-opening thing — how much time Bill and the staff spend connecting on a personal as well as professional basis. … It’s just remembering that they’re a player for a certain portion of the day, and then they have their personal life. As Bill eloquently says, ‘Many times what happens off the field impacts what happens on the field,’ so you have to be aware and you have to show you care.”

3. Demonstrating leadership isn’t limited to the coaching staff: “What are some of the ways you get some people to respond and take responsibility? How do you build team leadership? Your players have to co-sign. It can’t just be the manager or the coach and the staff. The players have to control that locker room.”

As for what La Russa taught Belichick?

The three-time World Series champion laughs.

La Russa doesn’t think there’s much, but he noted Belichick would often ask questions about how the team was defending against aggressive base running or how they were implementing situational hitting, As La Russa put it, Belichick wanted to know how the team was breaking the “intrinsic elements” of baseball.

Through his work with the Red Sox, La Russa said he still carries some of Belichick’s lessons. But if Belichick had it his way, La Russa would still be applying them in the dugout, rather than in Boston’s front office.

“Bill, for one, if you ask him today, he says I should go back to managing tomorrow,” La Russa said. “He was the most vocal the day I decided to retire. He said to me, and has said many times since, ‘Why’d you retire? You should’ve never quit.’ Because you’re doing something you love, and when you’re downstairs, you’re hands-on. … When you’re not down there, with the decision-making at game time, it can be very frustrating, and it’s helpless.”

La Russa, however, says he’s content with his new gig with the Red Sox and, like many, is in awe of the performance by rookie manager Alex Cora. La Russa lauded Cora for several of the qualities he sees in Belichick, including his ability to connect with his players, his ability to keep his ego in check, and his high baseball IQ.

“He’s the real deal,” he said.

La Russa said he doesn’t know when Belichick might retire himself, saying he’ll keep going until “he feels he’s losing what he brings to head coaching,” and he’s confident Belichick will never lower his standards.

What impresses him the most about his friend is his ability to instill a certain “freshness” ahead of each season — no matter how the previous year ended. There’s no marveling at Super Bowl victories if they win, and there’s no loss of interest or focus if they lose, he said. There’s consistency, focus, and a “relentless desire to compete” every year.

“The continuing success year after year, and I’ve got a lot of coaching friends, that’s really hard to win once,” La Russa said. “But to do it year after year after year is really special because your fighting against human nature. … Bill’s smart enough to know that unless you start at zero and build everything — whether it’s strategy, competition — you’re not going to be as good.”

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