Patriots

20 years later, a look back at Bill Belichick’s first training camp

The local interest and anticipation for football season has intensified quite a bit over the years.

Head coach Bill Belichick looks on at practice. Tom Landers

Back on July 16, 2000, the biggest story in Boston sports was Red Sox outfielder Carl Everett, who a day earlier had headbutted an umpire in his rage over being told he was standing too close to home plate. That debacle dominated the front of the Boston Globe’s sports page, with five reporters filing stories from Fenway Park — though there were ample column inches and interest for plenty of other stories in that Sunday morning’s paper, too. 

Globe staffers were in Sacramento covering Olympic trials, London covering boxing, and Briancon covering the Tour de France. There were four headlines about the MLS, two more on golf, and a variety of stories across the sporting spectrum, including a couple stories about the Celtics’ summer league. 

But what didn’t seem to be of great interest was the Patriots, even with Bill Belichick’s first training camp as the boss set to begin the next day in Foxborough. 

The Pats did get a sliver on the front of the sports section. Two paragraphs, five sentences, and 67 words, to be exact, which comprised the lede to a feature on tight end Chris Eitzmann, a Harvard product hopeful of making the team. That story jumped to page C17 — so, past all the aforementioned coverage — and would there share the broadsheet with a pair of Bud Collins tennis filings from Newport and the weekly sailing column. On the adjacent page there was a “fan’s guide” to Pats training camp, but that was nothing more than infographic featuring maps to the facilities, a numerical roster, and general schedules. 

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Twenty years later, suffice it to say the local interest and anticipation for football season has intensified a bit as Belichick and the Patriots open another training camp this week. Looking back to the expectations and attitudes in place at the start of it all affirms what a course-changing tenure the coach’s two decades have been for the regional sports landscape — and also reveals some recognizable approaches to culture-building that speak to the systems and convictions Belichick has been breeding from those first two-a-days back in 2000, and which help to explain his program’s historic consistency.

The conditions – and the conditioning – at the start

The Pats were bumped up to the second page of the sports section on the morning of their initial practices, then coverage of that first day made the lower right quarter of the sports cover a day later. Still, the entirety of Patriots coverage in that day’s paper were two stories from the late Nick Cafardo; there were four reporters writing six stories to chronicle the events from Fenway the night prior, when the Sox improved to 47-42 on the season.

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While those first practices were in progress, construction crews were working on the new stadium in the background — and Belichick wasn’t leaving it up to that symbolism to let his team know that times were changing in Foxborough. He opened training camp with a message-sending conditioning test that seemed like a shock to the system for some of those players who’d grown accustomed to a more laissez faire lifestyle under former coach Pete Carroll.

Five players failed their conditioning run. Defensive lineman Ed Ellis was cut on the spot, and four others were forced to run laps instead of practicing that day. One of those was backup quarterback John Friesz, who was embarrassed, but whose reaction offered further evidence that Belichick was officially in charge, even by Day 1. “We’re not supposed to talk to the media about these things,” Friesz said, according to Cafardo. “I’d like to defer for my own well-being.”

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The players that day had to be careful not to make the coach any angrier than he already was. “He’s pissed off right now,” said safety Larry Whigham, who told the Globe that he was cursed out for being a couple of pounds overweight himself. Belichick wasn’t having it, reportedly fining players the union-negotiated $50 a day for every pound over their assigned weight, and $3,000 apiece for those missing practice.

“We have too many guys who are overweight and too many guys who are out of shape, too many guys who haven’t paid the price at this point in the season,” Belichick said, adding that too many players didn’t get the message he delivered in minicamp, and that at the NFL level there shouldn’t be anyone too out of shape to contribute.

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He harped on those concerns repeatedly, then used a phrase he’d reiterate time and again over the next 20 years. 

“Too many guys not practicing, and too many guys overweight,” said the coach. “We’re moving on. Whoever can keep up will keep up. We’re not waiting for anyone.”

What he walked into

Belichick’s approach isn’t surprising when seen with hindsight, though it did take some of his players aback. Even those who he’d coached before as a defensive coordinator — and even those who’d been part of the recruiting pitch to try and get him to New England. 

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According to a 2017 report in the Ringer, team owner Robert Kraft enlisted established stars Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy to help coax the coach’s interest. But five years into what became a Hall of Fame career, Law acknowledged right away that the transition from Carroll to Belichick would take some adjusting. 

“This is my sixth season and you’re showing me tackling drills?” the cornerback told the Globe at the time. “It’s kind of hard. You haven’t paid that much attention to smaller things, but Coach Belichick is the type to bring us back down to reality. We’re going out there right now in shoulder pads and we’re out there running and doing drills. He’s got a bus for guys who don’t make the conditioning. It’s something you desperately need. 

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“Sometimes you want to tackle Coach Belichick once in a while.” 

Belichick’s fourth day of practices drew about 4,000 fans, which the team said was the most of that opening week — but was only about a fifth of the more than 21,000 who went to Gillette Stadium to watch a single padded practice in July of 2016. When training camp transitioned to Smithfield, R.I.’s Bryant College, the most to take in the free workouts was about 3,500, per the Globe.

 (There was also supposed to be a scrimmage at UMass against the Giants as part of the ramp up to the preseason, though Belichick canceled it because by then his team had already incurred too many injuries. Such is life, it appeared, when an out-of-shape team is shocked with an increase in intensity.)

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It’s hard to blame the fanbase for its lack of excitement, however. After reaching the Super Bowl under Bill Parcells in the 1996 season, the Pats slid to 10-6 … then 9-7 … then 8-8 under Pete Carroll. They’d lost the momentum of Kraft’s early years and were backsliding.

 In fact, the Pats had been 6-2 a year earlier, but a 2-6 record over the second half cost Carroll his job. It also cast some shade on the shine of Drew Bledsoe, the former first-overall pick on whom the franchise had pinned their hopes, and even with Belichick at the helm New England had fallen off the list of teams considered on the cusp of contention. 

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Asked for a response to all the pundits who saw the Pats as no better than a .500 team, Bledsoe told reporters early in that camp, “I think we have the talent to have a very good year” — but the prognosticators were more correct than the quarterback. Belichick’s first training camp led into an 0-4 start, and by mid-November they were 2-8.

It was never pretty, or particularly encouraging in spite of the coaching change. The headline to Michael Holley’s Globe column after an opening-day defeat against the Bucs read, “Coach’s first day on the job couldn’t have been worse.”

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 Belichick, of course, wouldn’t categorize the day in such extremes. Rather, his response to the loss was something straight out of 2019. Or 2014. Or 2008. Or any year, after any loss.

“Tampa Bay outplayed us,” Belichick said, classically eschewing excuses. “We didn’t make enough plays.”

The consistency of Belichick

The soundbites aren’t all that was established at the very start, then became part of Belichick’s persona with the Pats. Contract talks with first-round pick J.R. Redmond lingered into training camp, and it was already being noted in the press that the Belichick administration was developing a reputation as tough negotiators. A decade-plus before his dealings with Tom Brady’s trainer, Alex Guerrero, caused a stir, he dismissed a member of the training staff who’d been popular with some of the team’s key players. 

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Most recognizable, however, was the expectation of professionalism. Based on the players’ takeaways from Belichick’s first meetings, before they’d even reached the field for real, it’s clear that Belichick wasn’t comfortable with the shape things had taken under Carroll, and he quickly and purposefully sought to install his own version of the Patriot Way. 

“With Pete Carroll,” one player told Cafardo, “guys would still be talking even after he’d come in. With Bill, he walks in and everyone shuts up and pays attention. It reminds me of college a little bit, where the players didn’t say anything when the coach was about to speak.”

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“Serious,” defensive back Tebucky Jones said in the same report. “He’s a very serious coach.”

“Vacation’s over,” said Tedy Bruschi. “It’s time to win games.” 

Bruschi and Belichick would go on to win plenty of games together, of course, with the linebacker becoming one of iconic leaders and playmakers of the first half of the Patriots’ dynasty. “The dessert comes later,” Belichick told reporters at the time, simultaneously warning players that “personal sacrifice” was going to be a prerequisite if the Patriots were going to be the team they wanted to be.

That’s remained such a tenet of Belichick’s time that in most cases it’s a non-negotiable. There are exceptions to everything, but those accounts indicate that from those first days the demand of putting the team first and making football the No. 1 priority have been guiding principles in New England. Those who don’t buy in to Belichick’s beliefs on those fronts don’t often survive here for long. 

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At times, that has cost them talent or caused criticism. There are strong indications that Rob Gronkowski didn’t want to put up with the rigidity of playing for Belichick anymore, so he retired. Before that, there was Eagles lineman Lane Johnson squawking about the perception that the Patriots don’t have any fun. 

Carroll, on the contrary, has built a reputation for being on the opposite end, as a player-friendly coach whose USC and Seattle Seahawks teams have since seemed to feed on his positivity. Yet back at the start, the members of the 2000 Patriots who were in a prime position to compare the styles of those two coaches, expressed an understanding of the need for a change.

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And even used the word Johnson claimed nobody would associate with life in Foxborough.

“We had a great offseason and it’s been a lot of fun around here. Everyone is real excited. You just want to play under the guy,” lineman Todd Rucci told the Globe.

 “It’s hard to have fun when you’re losing,” he added while speaking just before training camp. “You get a bad taste in your mouth. We haven’t won any games yet. He put a big challenge to the guys on offseason workouts. It’s been fun taking on a challenge.” 

Clearly not everyone agreed with Rucci’s perspective on keeping up with offseason workouts, and when reflecting on that camp, the failed conditioning tests were still on Belichick’s mind in 2017. He noted the way that got things off to a bad start, but that hasn’t been a persistent issue since then. “Yeah, I don’t think there was a lot of commitment with that group,” he said during a press conference three years ago. 

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“We obviously made a lot of changes from 2000 to 2001, and a lot of the guys that we stuck with from that team became pillars of the program, the organization in later years. That was a pretty slow start. I mean, it wasn’t a very good football team on a lot of levels. So, we’ve moved past that hopefully.”

We’re well past that now, 20 years and six Super Bowl championships removed from the week when Boston’s sports consciousness cared far more about the brim of Carl Everett’s helmet than the fact there were 90 Patriots about to put on theirs.

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Things really started to noticeably change about a year and a half later, when Adam Vinatieri split the uprights in the Super Dome — but, two decades later, we can look back at that week in the middle of July 2000 and see a divergent turning point. Everett’s career with the Red Sox was never the same after that incident. 

And in the meanwhile, Belichick was out to blow the opening whistle on a Patriots career that has ensured his franchise, and the formerly baseball-dominated New England sports hierarchy, would never be the same.

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