There was, as the clock was running down in the final seconds of the Super Bowl this year and the New England Patriots were about to win their third NFL title in four years, a wonderful scene that might easily have been scripted in Hollywood. An older man, 86 years old to be exact, who always stayed in the background whenever there were television cameras around, moved from his spot on the sideline to be with his son, Bill Belichick, the coach of the Patriots, in that final sweet moment of triumph, arriving there just in time for the traditional Gatorade bath.
And thus did Steve Belichick, a classic lifer as a coach, 33 years as an assistant coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, who coached and scouted because he loved the life and needed no additional fame (and in fact, much like his son, thought fame more of a burden than an asset), get his one great moment of true national celebrity, the two men -- son and father -- awash in the ritual bath of the victorious.
Steve Belichick died of a heart attack Saturday night. He had spent the afternoon watching Navy play and win, in the company of some of his former players, and the evening watching another college game, USC against Fresno State, and almost surely rooting for Fresno State because Pat Hill, the Fresno coach, is a former Bill Belichick assistant, and thus an honor's graduate of what might be called Belichick University.
Steve Belichick viewed his son's extraordinary success, rightfully, I think, as nothing less than an additional and quite wondrous validation of his own life as a coach and teacher, not that he needed any additional validation of it in the game he loved (though as a college coach he always harbored a certain mostly covert suspicion of the professional game). Where the poverty of the America he grew up in had placed a certain ceiling on his own ambitions, his son, the product of a much more football-focused environment and a much more affluent, sports-driven society, attained the very highest level of the profession.
He was an exceptional coach himself, classically known within the hermetically sealed world of college coaches as a coach's coach and a truly great teacher. He was considered by many the ablest college scout of his era, first in the period before there was very much use of film and tape, and scouts had to do most of their work with nothing save their own eyes from the press box, to the coming of tape, where he still remained the master, someone who would run the tape back and forth countless times looking for one more clue about what an opponent was going to do.
"Steve had superior intelligence and intellect," Bill Walsh, the former San Francisco 49ers coach told me, "and he not only saw the game as very few scouts did, but as he was seeing it, he understood as very few scouts did."
He taught many younger men how to scout and how to watch film and how to prepare their teams for the next week's game, but his best pupil, fittingly enough for the Hollywood scenario, was his own son, who started watching film with him when he was all of 9 years old, and one of whose greatest skills as a coach to this day remains his ability to analyze other teams, figuring out both their strengths and their vulnerabilities, and shrewdly deciding how to take away from them that which they most want to do. In that sense, perhaps more than any other, Bill Belichick is his father's son.
An Extraordinary Era
Steve Belichick was active until the end, a crusty, zestful, honorable, amazingly candid man, someone uncommonly proud of his son's success. He both enjoyed it, and knew the limits and the dangers of it, and he was very shrewd when other coaches and writers spoke of his son as a genius. He knew the G-word was two edged, potentially something of a setup, that if they used it for you on the way up, they might just as easily use it against you on the way down. "Genius?" he would say. "You're talking about someone who walks up and down a football field." At the end of his life he still went down to the Naval Academy regularly to check in with younger coaches, active still, though somewhat irritated that a minor stroke now limited his ability to go surfcasting off Nantucket in the summer.
His life spanned an extraordinary era in American life, and in American sports. He entered the game after an exemplary career at Cleveland's Western Reserve University, enjoyed a very brief career -- one season -- as a professional player in 1941, playing the game when the rewards were, in the financial sense, at least quite marginal. He was paid about $115 a week during his brief tour with the Detroit Lions.
But even as he began his coaching career at the Naval Academy in 1956, Steve Belichick watched as television changed the nature and importance of football; both college and professional football moved to the very epicenter of American popular culture, and his son, as the most successful of contemporary professional coaches, eventually drew a salary of $4 million a year.
His was quite a remarkable American story. The name was originally Bilicic. But it was phoneticized, much to the irritation of his mother, by a first-grade teacher in Monessen, Pa., when his older sister entered school and the teacher seemed puzzled by how to pronounce Mary Bilicic's name. His parents were Croatian immigrants -- his father could not read or write in his native language -- who settled in the coal-mining and steel-making region of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.
Steve Belichick was the youngest of five children, and because of the Depression, his father was unemployed during most of his high school years. As a high school student, though he was obviously very bright and got very good grades, he did not take college-track courses. The principal of Struthers (Ohio) High once pointed this out to him and asked him why he didn't take physics or chemistry. "Why should I take them?" Belichick answered. "I'm only going to work in the steel mills anyway."
"Well," the principal answered, "you never know -- maybe there'll be something out there for you."
There was. He was a very good high school running back, a little small, playing at around 160 pounds, but fast with very good peripheral vision and exceptionally good hands. His parents never tried to stop him from playing football -- but the importance of sport in the process of Americanization eluded them and they never went to see him play.
By chance, a local basketball coach connected him with a football coach named Bill Edwards, an old friend of the legendary Paul Brown, the greatest of Ohio coaches; because Brown was legendary, Edwards, his pal, was at least semi-legendary and he coached at Western Reserve in Cleveland, where he had to recruit the kids that the Big Ten schools did not go after. Bill Edwards, for whom William Stephen Belichick is named, offered him a scholarship and in time he became a star running back there. In the process, Edwards became a great family friend and a lifelong mentor.
For a brief time right before World War II began, Bill Edwards coached the Detroit Lions, and brought Steve Belichick, then waiting to go into the service, to the team, first as an equipment manager and then as a fleet fullback who could handle the ball better than the all-American who was supposed to play fullback. Steve Belichick played on the same team as the famed running back Whizzer White. Belichick averaged 4.2 yards per carry, had his nose broken repeatedly, once quite deliberately by a player named Dick Plasman, who played for the Chicago Bears, "the last player to play in the NFL without a helmet, if that places him for you," Steve Belichick told me.
He scored two touchdowns in one game against the New York Giants, and then in a game against Green Bay, a play he never forgot, and the details of which he could recount to his last day on this planet, he took a punt, got it on a perfect bounce, one he said that you dreamed about getting because you did not have to break stride, slipped to the outside with all the Green Bay defenders clustered in the middle of the field, and ran it back 77 yards for a score. During the war, he served with the Navy on merchant marine ships that made Atlantic crossings and then repeated trips from England to France after D-Day.
Finding a Home
After the war, Bill Edwards helped him get a job as a coach at Hiram College in Ohio. There he met a young, vivacious instructor in Romance languages named Jeannette Munn. He asked her out and for their first date took her to a Western Reserve game. The date was not a great success. She thought she might learn a great deal about football, which seemed extremely important to everyone else in Ohio. But he did not talk very much during the game, and instead spent a lot of time smoking cigars.
After the game they went out for a sandwich, but all sorts of people kept coming up to their table -- and he repeatedly failed to introduce her. At first she thought he had exceptionally poor manners, but it turned out that he simply did not know their names -- they were fans who recognized him. He was, she realized, something of a local celebrity. He persevered with her. She did not think him particularly handsome, but there was something about him -- his obvious raw intelligence, his fierce sense of purpose and his innate honor that she did admire.
In 1950 they were married, much, as he liked to say, to the surprise of all her friends who were not necessarily football fans and a bit more raffine, and he suspected looked down on him and his world.
As they grew older and they spoke of their Hiram days, it was like hearing two great comedians who had a routine down perfectly on the question of whether he had tried to get her to give his football players a break on their grades. "I never asked for anything for them," he would say.
"Yes, you did," she would answer, "but you did it subtly -- you would ask about how the player was doing, but I knew what you wanted. You didn't fool me a bit."
"Okay, maybe I did," he would answer, "but you never helped any of them."
In 1949, Bill Edwards took the job as head coach at Vanderbilt and brought Steve Belichick along as an assistant. At Vanderbilt he was viewed as a tough, smart, extremely original coach and a brilliant scout -- he always gave his players an edge with his scouting reports.
If anything, some of the players thought, he might have been a better, more gifted coach than the more laid-back Edwards. There was always something original in the way he went about his work. For one quarterback who did not keep his throwing arm high enough, Belichick built special wooden sawhorses, so that if the quarterback's hand ended too low at the end of his throw he would bang it on the sawhorse. He tried to get some of his running backs and receivers to improve their peripheral vision by first walking and then running down the field alongside them, and holding up different numbers of fingers, getting them to see more even as they ran.
Edwards and Belichick did reasonably well there, but Vanderbilt's coaches do not last a long time, and they were fired after four years. From there he went to North Carolina with Edwards, where they were part of another ill-fated coaching team before being let go.
With that, in 1956, he took a job at the Naval Academy. He and Jeannette loved Annapolis, the value system of the academy, the exceptional young men who went there and were so receptive to coaching, the feel of the entire community. He was, he remembered, paid about $7,000 a year when he started -- assistant coaches did not get rich back then. He was shrewd about it, and in some way he sensed when he first arrived that he had found a permanent home; he had been shot down in two previous jobs and he was wary of the life of a coach, the abundant pitfalls and the ever-tricky politics that went with the game itself and above all with the job of head coach.
Within the profession his talents were hardly a secret and there were repeated offers to go elsewhere for a good deal more money, either in the college world or as a pro scout. But he had everything he wanted, and he was content to be an assistant and a scout; he had an absolute sense of the value and the quality of his work. He was also shrewd enough, on the advice of a friend, to get tenure as a physical training instructor. That meant that, as a family, the Belichicks had a permanent base, one that gave them immunity from the normal viruses that struck at men in the coaching world. He coached there until 1989.
Nothing to Be Wasted
For the shadow of that hard childhood, being an immigrant's son in the Depression, always fell on their home, even in Annapolis in an ever-more affluent America. In the home of Steve and Jeannette Belichick, the values were old-fashioned and came right out of Monessen and Struthers. Nothing was to be wasted. Nothing was to be bought on time. Anything that could be repaired was repaired. He ran a summer football camp each year, and the money saved from it went to Bill's education. When he scouted at another school and the trip was 1,000 miles, which he drove in his car, and the government was paying eight cents a mile, then the $80 expense check went into a separate bank account to be used for the next Belichick car.
One of his best players of the Vanderbilt era, Don Gleisner, was a farm boy in Ohio and recalled for me the day that Steve Belichick showed up to recruit him.
"I was," Gleisner told me, "very cocky back then and when Steve came to the farm, I said something like, 'Coaching, that sounds like a pretty good deal -- is there any money in it?' "
Belichick proudly pointed to his brand new car and said, "That's a '49 Chevy, son, and there's not a penny owed on it."
That extraordinary work ethic was passed on to his son, and is one of the reasons he has done so well in the same profession. Nothing with the son, as with the father, is ever to be wasted, least of all time.
In every book a writer does, there are side benefits -- the bonus of dealing with people whom you come to like more and more as the book progresses. So it was with Steve Belichick for me with this book. If he had been a crusty man with a rather tough interior when he was younger, then the interior had long ago softened, in part because of both his own success, and that of his son, and the sheer richness of his life. I loved talking to him -- there were always stories, and each story begat another story. We became, as my work on it continued, the most unlikely of pals.
In the months I worked on the book I dealt with him almost every day, and he got quite accustomed to my calls. Sometimes he would answer the phone and say, "I thought that was going to be you -- why are you so late calling this morning?" There was always something more he had thought of, something more he thought I should know about the game, always something more to be learned and to be taught. I thought he was straight and smart and funny, and quite brilliant. Because he was so tough and so focused a person, I think many people did not realize how truly smart and original he was. If he did not get all the recognition he deserved himself, then it was his good fortune in his own lifetime to see his son recognized for the uses of his mind as he himself had never been.
David Halberstam is the author of the recently published "The Education of a Coach" about Bill Belichick, his 20th book, and has just finished a book on the entrance of Chinese troops into the Korean War.