Author and Historian
Tuesday, December 6, 2005 2:00 PM
In over three decades in the NFL, Bill Belichick has built a reputation for himself as a focused, prepared and highly successful coach. Leading the New England Patriots since 2000, Belichick has largely avoided the public eye while coaching the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles. Through interviews with Belichick himself, bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam examines Belichick's formative years and the impact of his father (Navy coach Steve Belichick ) had on his discipline, strategy and approach toward football. Halberstam was online Tuesday, Dec. 6, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss his new book, "The Education of Coach," and the life and career of Bill Belichick.
The transcript follows.
Brown's Town (Cleveland), Ohio: This question is about Bill's father Steve. I caught you the other night on PBS talking about him and being from the Youngstown, Ohio area, Croatian and graduated from Case Western Reserve I was a little surprised when you mentioned he was, well from eastern Ohio, Croatian and graduated from Western Reserve (a predecessor to CWRU). I was curious to know a little more of his back ground.
By the way you have long been my favorite author and despite the fact Bill Belichick is not the most popular guy in these parts, I still intend to get the book.
David Halberstam: I think Steve Belichick is part of an extraordinary American story, son of an immigrant from Croatia who was unemployed during much of the depression, a family with five children, was on very hard times. Steve did not think he would be able to go to college, even though he was very bright, because there was no money, so he did not take the college track courses. But he was an exceptional high school running back with great hands, good speed, and uncommon vision, and that got him a surprise scholarship to Western Reserve from Bill Edwards, who was a pal of the legendary Paul Brown. Steve maximized his one chance to get out of the steel mills, did well at Western Reserve, decided to become a coach, and was a protege of Edwards and spent 33 years as an assistant coach at the Naval Academy, where he was widely regarded not merely as a coach's coach, but as the best scout in the college game. He started teaching his son Bill how to scout and how to study film from the time he was nine years old, and as such Bill Belichick eventually ended up as Steve Belichick's star pupil. It's a great father-son story, and the culmination of it came at the last Super Bowl, when they both were doused by Gatorade in the ritual bath of the victorious.
Baltimore, Md.: Mr. Halberstam: I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the recent excerpt in the Post about Bill Belichick's dad. His was truly one of those "All-American" stories that would inspire anyone who read it, whether or not they knew a first down from a touchdown.
David Halberstam: Thank you. I think the book about Bill Belichick is really an uncommon American story. It begins with Ivan Bilicic coming here, soon joined by his wife Mary, and working in the toughest parts of America in order to have a shot at the American Dream. His son Steve, by dint of hard work, and athletic talent, gets a college education. He becomes a coach, not famous nor particularly well-paid but very proud and highly accomplished. Then his son Bill, starting at an even higher level, with a better education and more opportunity, goes on to become the signature figure coaching in the NFL. What's interesting to me is that the value system of the older Belichick's, including Steve, growing up in a much harder era-nothing is to be wasted and hard work has a value as an end in itself-are very much a part of Bill Belichick's ethic these days even though he's at the top of his game, makes $4 million dollars a year, and conceivably could begin to coast. Instead he's about the hardest working person I've ever met.
Beltsville, Md.: Hi David. I fell in love with your writing when a read The Fifties in college about 10 years ago. I like to watch the NFL Networks coverage of coaches and players' press conferences. Belichick seems much better at dealing and relating to the media than many of his peers. He gives good answers and doesn't seem overly dismissive of sports writers and always seems to be in control of the press conference. Any thoughts as to where this comes from?
David Halberstam: I am surprised to hear that because I always hear complaints from reporters saying he doesn't give good answers and holds back. I found my relationship with him was a bit unusual because of the nature of the book and his desire to have a book that would be a good deal about his father, is of someone who is very forthcoming and the better of a question I asked, the better the answer. In addition, the more the question was about football, and not about stuff that might go to People magazine, the better he was, the better the answers. It was interesting to me when I interviewed him to find what a born teacher he is, that again and again he would get up in the middle of the interview and try and draw a play or a coverage to explain it to me and I think that that is critical to his success, that he loves to teach and in a way it's not surprising because both of his parents were teachers.
Buffalo, N.Y.: Loved the Best and the Brightest. Bill is still relatively young. How much longer does he think he can stay with the Pats? Any chance of him moving to Buffalo? Also, he seems like he is a pretty progressive guy. Any interest in politics?
David Halberstam: I don't think he'd go to Buffalo, I think he really loves New England and I think when he was a young man from Annapolis when he was about 17 or 18 some high school friends brought him to Nantucket and he fell in love with it, and it's not by chance that he went to a year of postgraduate prep school at Andover Academy in Andover, Mass. and then to Weslyan College in Middletown, Conn. He has a house in Boston and a house in Nantucket and he really loves New England. I'm not saying he's going to stay in New England forever and I have no idea what he would do if he left the Patriots. I can easily see Bill, if he satisfies himself that he has done all he can do in the pro game (and that Tom Brady's about to finish his career), I can easily see Bill coaching at an Ivy League school or a small college like Weslyan and being very happy teaching, being in New England, and being with young people. As for politics, I think he's more on the liberal side than the conservative side but I don't think he would think himself good at the political game. I think he wouldn't like the exposure that the media demands; he's uncomfortable with it even as a football coach. And I think he would believe that the political world is full of land mines, none of which he would want to step on.
Reading, Mass.: Is there a sport where the coach is more integral to success than football?
David Halberstam: I don't think so. I think baseball managers are largely dependant upon the talent of their players. I think a basketball coach can have a bigger impact in the way that Phil Jackson was good at dealing with the superegos of superstars and getting them to play as a team. But it strikes me that football is the sport where the coach is most important, perhaps because there are so many more players, perhaps because he essentially chooses the players, perhaps because he chooses the assistant coaches. But after watching the New England Patriot operations I am inclined to think that the head coach, to an uncommon degree, sets the course of a team and determines whether or not it is successful.
Anonymous: Why did Belichick fail in Cleveland and ultimately get fired?
David Halberstam: I think the starts were not aligned properly. He was a new head coach and probably not ready for the non-football part of the job, he had a weak owner who was the poorest man among the NFL owners, and could not get a new stadium built in a football-mad city. In addition the owner wanted to be the pal of the players, which created an alternative authority system to the coach's authority system. You had a fan base starved for victory with exceptionally high expectations and a team that had not been in the championship game for some 25 years. You had a team that seemed to be on the threshold of breaking out but was in fact, by the time Belichick got there, an aging team, and you had a once-great quarterback, Bernie Kosar, whose arm strength was beginning to decline but who was immensely popular in the city, and you had a replacement quarterback, Vinnie Testaverde, who did well until he injured. And you had a coach just learning how to do the public part of the job. He was very good at the coaching part of the job, but the public part was harder. All in all it was a difficult situation that imploded particularly when the owner Art Model took the team, in Belichick's last year there, to Baltimore. And what had been difficult became a nightmare.
New York, N.Y.: Belichick was absolutely terrible in Cleveland and then he skipped town on the Jets. Is he just more comfortable in a city where he plays second fiddle or has he learned a lot from Cleveland that has helped him in New England?
David Halberstam: I don't think it's fair to say he skipped town on the Jets. I think when he left Cleveland he knew he would get one more shot at being a head coach and he was determined to make it the right one and to get the right owner and the right situation. The Jets did not turn out to be the right option-the owner, Leon Hess, had died, Belichick was not admiring of either group applying to buy the team--the Dolans, who have messed up New York's hockey and basketball franchises hopelessly, or Woody Johnson, a descendant of the Johnson&Johnson medical company, and in addition there was the fact that Bill Parcells seemed to be looming over his shoulder as the real boss of the Jets and thus if he became head coach, would he really be in charge. And because of that he decided that there were too many problems with the Jets job and he didn't take it, although he handled the press conference where he turned it down unusually poorly.
David Halberstam: But the key thing there is he wanted a good owner and a clear shot in his next head coaching job to do what he wanted to do the way he wanted to do it. He did not want to do something and feel restrained or constrained all the time. He did not want a replay of Cleveland.
Ocala, Fla.: Belichick might have gotten his masters from his father, but his PhD was earned at the school of Bill Parcells. How much does he credit Parcells with his success?
David Halberstam: I don't think he would think that he think that he got his Ph.D from Bill Parcells. I think he would think that they gave each other equal amounts. Parcells gave him the defense and he had some great players to work with (Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Carl Banks, Pepper Johnson), but I think he would believe that he gave back to Parcells highly original defenses which made adjustments week after week for the differing teams they were gonna play. Certainly Parcells was the head coach but underneath it there was a feeling that in terms of coaching ability and strategy they were equal partners. Whom he does credit with being an influential force with turning the Giants around was someone who made something of a cameo appearance in New York and who brought in both Parcells and himself, that is Ray Perkins, who took the job and then left a bit soon because he was offered the job to succeed Bear Bryant in Alabama. But Belichick believes that it was Perkins who turned around the losing culture of the Giant clubhouse and locker room, which had gotten ingrained after almost 20 years of losing.
Reading, Mass.: The Patriots defense is ranked 31st of 32 teams this year. How would you rate the coaching done this year by Coach Belichick?
David Halberstam: It might be his best job. He's taken a very badly banged up team, particularly in the defensive secondary, and patched it together as best he can. He was playing without one or two of his best down linemen, and without some of his best linebackers, for much of the season. So the pass rush was inadequate and they were playing with two rookies in the starting offensive line, and yet it looks like they will go to the playoffs in a relatively week division. The reason I say it might be his best job is for a good team to have so many injuries and start slipping the way the Patriots did, it could have easily gotten out of control and he could have easily lost the team but he hasn't and the team continues to play hard and probably will make the playoffs even though there are severe limits to how far they can probably go in the playoffs.
Santa Barbara, Calif.: Mr. Halberstam: Thank you for your consistently excellent work. Once coaching was dominated by men of character and accomplishment (Rockne/McCarthy/Wooden, et.al). Today, it seems that personality and style (Jackson/Knight/Lasorda/Valentine) trumps quiet character (i.e. Sciosia) When did this shift begin, and do you forsee the return of more men like Belichick to the ranks of professional coaching? Thank you.
David Halberstam: I don't know that there's a chance in the quality of coaching from less to more character, or from more to less character. I think television changes everything. It makes the sport more important, the rewards for winning are greater, and the price of losing is greater. And you are given fewer chances to lose before you are fired. It also emphasizes your face and your personality as a signature, and some coaches who might not be that brilliant as coaches do well because they are good on the media, or look good on the sidelines. I think Belichick is something of an anomaly in the sense that he is almost media immune, the unadorned man. He doesn't dress up, he wears his gray sweatshirt and he looks, as David Letterman once said, like a sherpa guide. He warns his team about the dangers of ego and of playing for the camera, and he knows that the camera, the coming of television, is an addiction that can destroy the concept of team and so he works against it and tries to discipline himself not to play for the camera and to control his own ego, even as he is asking his players to control their egos. The last player he would have signed on would have been Terrell Owens.
Washington, D.C.: Is it correct to assume that Coach Belichick's "no excuses" mentality is derived directly from his father, who coached at a service academy for decades? I was particularly struck by how his team refused to fold last season, even when they were having play wide receivers at defensive back due to injuries.
David Halberstam: Good question. Yes, I think the value system, the straightness, and the unwillingness to make excuses comes out of that household, not only of his father and mother but also of his grandparents. You don't make excuses. You work hard. You don't waste anything, least of all time. You do the best you can, and you don't complain because no one ever said it was going to be easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it. And I think that has worked very well for him, and gradually he has gotten the kind of players in New England who buy in and accept it, and you have the senior players there demanding that the younger players buy in on the culture and those rules and that attitude.
Alexandria, Va.: Will you share with us your current/next project? A return to political commentary?
Also, I'm an old, out of touch friend of your daughter from Cape Town, South Africa. I hope she's doing well.
I look forward to reading "The Education of a Coach."
David Halberstam: She's doing very well. She's teaching and getting her masters degree in education and we are inordinately proud of her.
I've just handed in a book on the Korean War, the entrance of Chinese troops into that war, what the war was like, and what it did to this country politically. The book is now being edited and with luck (and I feel it is a major book) it will be out in the fall of 2006.
Albany, N.Y.: You wrote, "I am inclined to think that the head coach, to an uncommon degree, sets the course of a team and determines whether or not it is successful."
A very good assistant can have a tremendous impact as well. Bum Phillips and the expansion Houston Oilers: 1-13 their first year; 7-7 their second year with Bum Phillips as defense coach. Did Belichick serve as an assistant coach at the pro level? I can't remember. If so, where?
David Halberstam: Bill Belichick worked his way up step by step by step. First he had begun by doing film with his father and studying how the Navy coaches did it from the time he was nine years old. He just hung around and he was always learning. There were those who knew him when he was at Weslyan and before that at Andover, and before that at Annapolis High, who though that he was a coach on the field even then, particularly going back to Annapolis High. And then when he want into the NFL beginning I believe in 1975 in Baltimore he did a classic apprenticeship-Baltimore, two years in Detroit, and then a tour in Denver, before coming to New York where he soon was coaching the linebackers and then became a brilliant defensive coordinator who was considered by the time he left the Giants the best defensive coordinator in the game.
Raleigh, N.C.: What is the relationship like with Robert Kraft?
David Halberstam: I think it is a good relationship. I think right now there is a feeling that the Patriots have the best-run organization in pro-football or at least one of the two or three best. Kraft is a very smart owner, and he has a shrewd sense of what he knows and what he doesn't know, what part is about football and what part is about business. Belichick is not just an accomplished football coach, but he's an extremely shrewd student of economics and he is not about to get capped out on players who don't deliver for him. He and Kraft tend to agree on most economic evaluations of players, which regrettably is something you have to do in the age of the salary cap. And the third part of the management team is an immensely talented young man named Scot Pioli, who is the player personnel person who is the first graduate of what I call "Belichick University," that is the younger men that were drawn to him and whom he has mentored, and who shares his vision of what kind of player they should get and how they should spend their money, and has a very good instinct for talent. Right now that team of Kraft, Belichick and Pioli is working very successfully.
David Halberstam: Thanks for joining me. It's been fun talking about the book. It goes to #11 on the New York Times bestseller this week so I'm very pleased about how well it's doing and reader response to it has really been quite wonderful.
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