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Peter King
August 09, 2004
With football principles learned under his dad, a coach at Navy, brainy Bill Belichick has turned New England into the NFL's mightiest vessel
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August 09, 2004

Master And Commander

With football principles learned under his dad, a coach at Navy, brainy Bill Belichick has turned New England into the NFL's mightiest vessel

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Unlike many of the Cleveland players, Browns coaches loved working for Belichick. Every Monday after a win over an AFC Central opponent, he would have his secretary cash a check from his personal account, and $200 in cash would be left on the desk of every assistant. Before the coaching staff headed off on vacation every June, he would distribute the proceeds from his TV and radio shows to his assistants—maybe $12,000 a man—and take nothing for himself. "Bill remembered what it was like to be an assistant coach" says his former line coach Kirk Ferentz, now the head coach at Iowa. "He gave everyone a second Christmas. You think that doesn't make you loyal?" One time Belichick left a $100 bill in the car ashtray of low-level scout Scott Pioli. When Pioli protested that he didn't need the money, Belichick replied, "Shut up and take it. I've been where you've been."

Before the staff split for vacation one summer, Ferentz remembers, Belichick gave each assistant a book to read. One got The Winner Within, by Pat Riley. One got a book on the history of the Browns. One got Educating Dexter, about the drug addiction of former All-Pro defensive end Dexter Manley. Ferentz got One More July, by George Plimpton, about former Alabama and Green Bay Packers center Bill Curry. Belichick thought Ferentz could benefit from learning about Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi. "Bill wanted us to read the books, then give reports on what we learned that could help the staff," Ferentz says. "He was always doing things like that."

"That's the thing about Bill," says former Browns player personnel director Mike Lombardi, now an Oakland Raiders executive. "He was always 'in search of.' When the salary cap and free agency were coming into the league, I told him I thought we should go see Jerry West, because he'd done such a great job managing the Lakers. We met [West] in Chicago at [the NBA] summer camp for draftees, and we spent three hours talking." West's advice: Develop your own players so you can manage salaries, and don't buy into the one-player-at-any-cost mentality.

That was tough when you worked for Modell. "Around the office," says one Browns staffer, "we used to say our organizational philosophy was, 'Ready, fire, aim.' " In the spring of 1995, following an 11-5 season and a playoff win over Parcells's Patriots, Modell signed troubled but talented free-agent wideout Andre Rison to a five-year, $17 million deal. Rison lasted one season. Following a chaotic 5-11 season in '95—the one during which Modell announced he was moving the franchise to Baltimore—Belichick was fired.

"I didn't walk away from there saying I did a bad job," says Belichick, who was 36-44 in five seasons. "Not at all. We took a bad team, made it pretty good, made the playoffs, had a bad year in the most off-the-charts negative situation maybe in football history, got fired. It just wasn't a good mix between Art and me."

No one except those closest to him realizes it, but it was because of his experience with Modell that Belichick walked away from the Jets' job. Belichick knew he might get only one more chance to be an NFL head coach, and he didn't want that to be under the thumb of an owner he didn't know (the Jets were up for sale), with a club president he viewed as a know-nothing (Steve Gutman) and, to a much lesser degree, a director of football operations he felt he had outgrown (Parcells). If he was going to be a head coach again, he would do it on his terms.

"Each small victory improves the odds that you will triumph at the moment of truth."

When he joined New England 23 days after bailing on the Jets, Belichick had two important things going for him. He had an owner, Kraft, who was committed to letting him make all the football decisions. And in Pioli he brought along a personnel man who had his full support. On the day Belichick took the job, the Patriots were $10 million over the salary cap, so in 2000 he made his first order of business eliminating the surplus. That season the Patriots finished 5-11. "It was a rude awakening," says Kraft. "We paid so many guys, and we were still losing. We had to shut off the financial spigot."

Kraft saw a slightly different Belichick than the one he'd known in 1996 as a Pats assistant. "He used to be a junior Parcells," Kraft says. "He walked around saying things like, 'This team's worse than I thought,' or, 'We can't win with this.' I told him to cut it out. Who needs that? Talk to me about what we can do to make it better. And he did."

Belichick and Pioli studied more than 200 free agents in the early months of 2001. They signed 17 bit players who made the Patriots the next season for a piddling combined signing-bonus charge of $2.7 million. One was Mike Vrabel, miscast as a special-teamer and a backup linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Belichick thought the speedy and athletic Vrabel could fill two roles—dropping into coverage from defensive end or linebacker and playing as a nickel pass rusher.

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