A few weeks before Bill Belichick’s first game as a head coach in the summer of 1991, the boss wanted to see him. Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, summoned Belichick and Ernie Accorsi, the team’s executive vice president, to his office. Nothing dire, Accorsi would remember — just some trivial issue Modell wanted to discuss.
Shortly after the meeting began, Modell’s phone rang, and he answered it. Belichick began to stir. He squirmed and nervously fiddled with his notebook. Minutes passed. Eventually he decided enough was enough, and Belichick closed his notebook, told Accorsi to alert him when the call finally ended and just left.
“If somebody is wasting his time, he has no use for it,” said Rick Venturi, a former Browns assistant coach, and indeed that story was timeless Belichick: impatient, hyper-efficient, unwilling to wait on anyone — even his boss.
Long before the Super Bowls, the establishment of a dynasty alongside Tom Brady, the dry news conferences or the elevation of Belichick among football’s legendary coaches (on the verge of a sixth championship, beyond those greats), he had the same personality: meticulous, unforgiving, nearly obsessed with maximizing each second in a 24-hour day.
Though not everything was the same, and anyone who suggests Belichick had a lifetime ticket on the legend track — and, five championships later, there are many — is forgetting the hostile chants and the police cars and the stealth departures to flee from an angry Cleveland.
But first, yes, there were hints that Belichick would indeed become Belichick, even when he was just another 39-year-old man finding himself in a new job. Back then, he had no proven system beyond what he had studied under his father, a scout, and experienced under Bill Parcells, a coach and mentor of some acclaim. “Do your job” wasn’t yet a rallying cry of accountability or the title of documentaries; it was a crude state of mind that inspired some of Belichick’s assistants and turned a few others against him.
“We were handcuffed — let’s put it that way,” said Gary Tranquill, who coached the Browns’ quarterbacks for three seasons before deciding, after Cleveland went 7-9 in 1993, he’d had enough of his stubborn boss and quit. “I didn’t have any fun coaching there. It’s as simple as that.”
Indeed, Accorsi would recall years later, he occasionally fielded complaints from Browns staffers. The hours were long, the work thankless, the rewards — considering Cleveland endured losing campaigns in four of Belichick’s five seasons — rare.
Belichick was demanding and sarcastic, and he expected his assistants to “extend the day,” as he often put it. That meant doing more than they might have been used to in other jobs, and Venturi said coaching was only part of his job description. Belichick demanded his coaches prepare for any scenario on the field, no matter how unlikely, and give a presentation on the best way to respond. They were assigned a dozen or so college players to scout and consider for the draft’s late rounds, to watch film of game officials and unearth which crews called which penalties more or less often, to convene on Saturdays — ordinarily a light day of final prep — for a marathon review of how they would defend and attack their opponent.
Even when coaches scattered for summer vacation, they were subjected to the Belichick book club: some assignment, such as legendary coach Bill Walsh’s “Finding the Winning Edge,” with the expectation Belichick would quiz them on its contents.
“Everything to the 10th power,” said Venturi, who had coached nearly two decades of college and professional football before arriving in Cleveland. “I was reshaped in my coaching thinking in every aspect.”
And in place of restful sleep and a peaceful existence and winning seasons, there was at least this: “When you went out on Sundays, you always felt confident you weren’t going to lose,” Venturi said.
But the Browns often did, and that engendered resentment. Tranquill, a specialist on offense, bristled that Belichick hired no offensive coordinator and insisted on calling plays despite having been a defensive coordinator under Parcells.
Tranquill said Belichick simply called things he had struggled to defend, and during one game when that wasn’t working, Belichick gave up and surprised Tranquill by telling him he was in charge for the rest of the game — and if he was unprepared, well, that was his fault.
“There was nobody on offense calling the shots,” said Tranquill, who had grown accustomed to demanding work environments during five seasons as Navy’s head coach. “We would mash around things for hours, and then we’d have to go through him to make sure, and he’d say he doesn’t want to do that — which is a head coach prerogative, but sometimes that got old.”
So, after a while, did the losing. When Accorsi hired Belichick, who had chosen to lead the Browns instead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he told him a dramatic roster overhaul lay ahead. Sure enough, Cleveland went 20-28 in Belichick’s first three seasons, and by 1993 fans had begun referring to the coach as “Mr. Bill,” the clay figurine on “Saturday Night Live” whose intentions were good enough but whose hapless decisions often led to his maiming or being sawed in half.
The Columbus Dispatch referred to Belichick as a “clown” in 1993, and disgruntled fans marched on Berea, Ohio, to protest the coach with signs that read “Waive Belichick.” After Belichick released Bernie Kosar, the Browns’ popular quarterback, about 200 fans sneaked into the Municipal Stadium tunnel after a Cleveland loss to chant “Bill must go!” among other profane things. During the darkest times, the man who would become the greatest coach in history went home to the suburbs to find a police surveillance unit posted outside for his protection and went to work to find another cruiser stationed outside Browns headquarters.
“I’m not running for mayor,” Belichick, not yet the mumbling and dismissive news conference figure seen today, told reporters then. “I’m running a football team, and you can’t make everybody happy.”
Belichick’s Browns did win 11 games in 1994 to reach the playoffs, which loyalists point to as a hint at the coach’s genius, but a year later Modell announced he was relocating his franchise to Baltimore; following the announcement, a team that started 4-4 lost seven of its final eight games.
To cope, Belichick occasionally scheduled his team to depart for road trips as early as Tuesday for a Sunday game, just to get out of Cleveland.
“It was so depressing to be in town,” Venturi said, adding that by the end of that season it became an inevitability that Belichick and his staff would be fired. Modell — who died in 2012 — admitted as much, saying if his bid to move the team to Baltimore were approved, he would start entirely fresh. Besides, he preferred a more genial, less intense coach; he tried to lure Don Shula out of retirement before ultimately replacing Belichick with Ted Marchibroda.
As for Belichick, he rejoined Parcells as secondary coach for the Patriots, with whom things just seem to have a way of working out. It was Patriots owner Robert Kraft who, in February 1996, had planned to vote against Cleveland’s relocation but changed his mind on the day of the meeting and cast one of the deciding ballots supporting the franchise that would eventually become the Baltimore Ravens.
Kraft observed Belichick while Belichick was an assistant coach and recruited him to replace Pete Carroll as New England’s coach in 2000. By then, Belichick’s philosophy had evolved, his on-camera persona had dried, his impatience and demanding nature had intensified.
Those things were different, but his first season with the Patriots looked like little else had changed: New England went 5-11, shades of Cleveland. But Belichick had drafted a young quarterback named Brady the prior year, and despite entering the 2001 season with 60-to-1 odds of winning the Super Bowl, they did exactly that by upsetting the heavily favored St. Louis Rams.
But a few months earlier, Belichick’s program was beginning to take shape in training camp. The New York Giants had agreed to visit Bryant College in Rhode Island to participate in a series of joint practices with the Patriots in August 2001. Accorsi, by then the Giants’ general manager, had been the architect of a team that reached the previous year’s Super Bowl but had lost to Modell’s Ravens.
Nevertheless, at one point Belichick ambled over to the man who had hired him a decade earlier, neither of them with any idea they were witnessing the start of something historic, and thanked Accorsi for coming to Rhode Island. Belichick told his old friend he thought it’d be good for the Patriots to spend time around the Giants, to see how a Super Bowl team carried itself.