CLEVELAND, FEB. 5 -- A few hours after he signed a five-year contract with the Cleveland Browns, months before his first game as an NFL head coach, Bill Belichick was being compared to Don Shula.
Belichick appreciates the long-term deal, but he'd rather do without the comparison.
"To be compared to Don Shula really is a joke," Belichick, 38, said today after becoming the youngest head coach in the NFL. "I mean, the guy's a Hall of Fame coach. I haven't coached one game in this league. I hope he's not insulted."
Belichick's age, his background as a defensive player and coach, and his northeastern Ohio roots all remind Browns owner Art Modell of Shula, who grew up near Cleveland and became an NFL head coach at 32.
Belichick, an assistant with the New York Giants the past 12 years, spent part of his youth in nearby Hiram, where the Browns used to hold their preseason practices.
"My father used to take me to Hiram College when I was a boy to watch the Browns practice. I remember seeing some of the greats like Jim Brown, Lou Groza and Gary Collins," Belichick said. "I'm tremendously proud to be here. The interest here is tremendous, as it is with the team I was with, the New York Giants."
Belichick replaced Bud Carson, who was fired Nov. 5 after the Browns opened the season 2-7. Offensive coordinator Jim Shofner finished the season as interim coach. He has moved to the front office.
Cleveland's 3-13 mark is the worst in the franchise's 41-year NFL history, a shocking turnaround from five straight playoff trips. Injuries and retirements depleted the offensive line while contract problems wrecked morale on the defense.
"I've been disappointed before, but I don't expect to be disappointed this time," Modell said. "We're not a 3-13 team, nor are we a 13-3 team. I think we are a competitive team. I will not give him nor myself a time frame. I tried that before and it doesn't work."
Belichick's prospects of becoming a head coach were enhanced by the Giants' defensive performances, highlighted by triumphs over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game and the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl. He also was a candidate for the Tampa Bay vacancy, which Monday went to Buccaneers interim coach Richard Williamson.
Modell chose Belichick over Los Angeles Raiders quarterbacks coach Mike White, ex-Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, Seattle special teams coach Rusty Tillman and Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher.
"Prior to taking this job I had very lengthy discussions with Art and other front office members," Belichick said. "I feel very comfortable with Art and how the organization works and I feel we can win with it.
"I want to be involved in all facets. I've coached offense, I've coached defense and I've coached special teams. Everybody is going to work together and we are going to get it done. I want an aggressive, hustling team with a good work ethic."
Modell recognized the danger in comparing Belichick to Shula, but he did not back away from it. "I hope the analogy holds up," he said.
A native of Nashville, Belichick is the son of Steve Belichick, a former fullback with the Detroit Lions and a longtime assistant coach at Navy.
The elder Belichick played football at Western Reserve University in Cleveland and coached at Hiram, and he got to know Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight at Navy. Knight called Modell to give an unsolicited recommendation for Belichick, Modell said. Knight is a friend of Bill Parcells, the Giants' coach.
The younger Belichick, who attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut, began his NFL coaching career as an assistant with Baltimore in 1975. He moved to Detroit as an assistant in 1976, then went to Denver in 1978 before joining the Giants under Ray Perkins in 1979. He remained in New York when Parcells took over in 1983.
Belichick is the eighth coach in Browns' history, not counting two interim coaches.
Until today, the Raiders' Art Shell, 44, was the youngest coach.