What an NFL Films director learned from working with Bill Belichick and Nick Saban

Belichick and Saban go back almost 40 years.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (sporting an Alabama windbreaker) talks with Alabama football coach Nick Saban at the Alabama NFL Pro Day, Tuesday, March 19, 2019, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (sporting an Alabama windbreaker) talks with Alabama football coach Nick Saban at the Alabama NFL Pro Day. –(AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

Bill Belichick and Nick Saban are certified legends of football coaching whose stories are still adding chapters.

Belichick, who has won six Super Bowls (go ahead and say it … so far) with the Patriots, and Saban, who has five collegiate National Championships at the University of Alabama and another from his days at Louisiana State, are part of the sport’s history and still an essential part of its present.

They also happen to have been close friends for nearly 40 years, a fact that is well-known but not exactly well-documented given their mutual reluctance to share details on … well, just about everything.

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That changes in a remarkably candid way with the latest collaboration between NFL Films and HBO Sports. “Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching,’’ which premieres Tuesday, Dec. 10 on HBO at 9 p.m., reveals much more than their theories on the Cover 2 defense or some sort of jargon-laden football masterclass.

(Though there are plenty of football gems to be unearthed. Moments after meeting Saban for the shoot, and requesting that the camera crew leave the room for a few moments so they can ostensibly set the parameters for what they will and will not discuss, they instead dive headlong into a conversation about their teams. “We were [expletive] for two-thirds of the season,’’ says Belichick about his 2018 Patriots, also known as the Super Bowl LIII champions).

Filmed over four hours at Saban’s University of Alabama office and home this past spring while Belichick was in town for the Crimson Tide’s pro day, it is at its essence a conversation between two people who mutually respect each other and their achievements, but beyond that seem to have a genuine kinship that extends beyond football.

Belichick and Saban had so much to talk about that director Ken Rodgers, who has worked with Belichick on several outstanding NFL Films projects over the years, was initially worried how to distill it down to one tight, well-structured 90-minute show. Then he saw Belichick and Saban interact, and he knew what to do: Turn on the camera, get out of the way, and just let them go.

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“This was one of the problems of the film actually, in making it,’’ said Rodgers. “There’s going to be, at some point I’m sure, some 10-part documentary all-inclusive film about Coach Belichick’s career. And I’m sure there’s going to be a 10-hour film about Coach Saban’s career. So where do you start when you’re doing a film about both of them?

“I have so many things I want to talk about. I could I could hear Coach Belichick talk about his inability to work the radio in this car for an hour. It’s fascinating to me and there’s just so many little things that ‘Wow, I’m really fascinated by this little thing.’ So the challenge in this film was what do we actually talk about when both of these guys could be 10 hours each? So we ended up just saying, “Listen, whatever they speak about, that’s the film, like let’s give them the power and say, ‘We don’t know what’s important to you guys, so just go head and talk.”

Rodgers said he had a topic list that he could have used, such as asking Belichick and Saban about the time they worked together in Cleveland in the early ‘90s, or about Saban’s time with the Miami Dolphins as a brief would-be rival to the Patriots. But it wasn’t really necessary, Rodgers said. “I think you can tell there’s a familiarity and a comfort level between them that I think we ended up leaning into,’’ he said.

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That approach leads to some frank exchanges between Belichick and Saban, almost as if they forgot the cameras were there. One, early in the film, comes in a metaphor Saban uses to address their place at the pinnacle of the sport.

Saban: “There’s a lot of people in the world that would take the challenge to climb the mountain.”

Belichick: “Yes.”

Saban: “But when you get to the top of the mountain, you become the mountain. Because everybody is shooting at you, to be who you are.

Belichick: “But the great ones can get to the top of the mountain and say, “You know what? I can be even better.’”

Belichick’s respect for NFL Films is well-known. He was close friends with the late Steve Sabol, and he’s known Rodgers since 2001, when the young director at the company was given the assignment of following one of the projected worst teams in the league for the season. Rodgers was along for the ride – or at least there to film it – as the underdog Patriots went on from an 0-2 start to win their first Super Bowl.

This latest film is another terrific addition to the Belichick canon at NFL Films, which includes a documentary with Bill Parcells (also directed by Rodgers), a look at the Cleveland coaching staff, the post-championship docs such as “Do Your Job,’’ and much more.

“[Belichick] is not into thinking about his place in NFL history,” said Rodgers, “but he is cognizant of it, he understands it, and he is making sure that we have the access that, you know, we weren’t around to have in the early days of Paul Brown or other great coaches. He understands that our goal is to just capture what it actually is. A lot of people are surprised I think by how he opens up when he’s talking about something historical. It’s not that surprising to us because I think that’s who he really who he is.”

Belichick’s disdain for social media (“InstaFace”) is obvious and unsurprising. What NFL Films does is practically opposite of social media in its striving for depth, detail and authenticity.

“I think the American culture now is one of trying to define someone very quickly and easily through an Instagram post or something like that, rather, than actually exploring that complicated depths of someone,’’ said Rodgers. “Anyone that you were to feature — from me, you, a local teacher, a lawyer, certainly an NFL head coach -has a lot of different layers to them. I’m not sure we’re done peeling all the layers off Coach Belichick at all. We’re hopeful that we continue doing this for a couple more decades about him.”