SI Vault
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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Would you like to see Bill's room?"

The kindly voice belongs to Jeannette Belichick, a petite 82-year-old who is standing in the living room of her Annapolis, Md., home. Back when she taught Spanish at Hiram ( Ohio) College, Jeannette spoke four languages fluently and understood seven, but now, as she says with a smile and a twinkle, "The only language I speak is football."

It's a short walk to the onetime bedroom of Steve and Jeannette Belichick's only child, now 52 and coach of the two-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The twin beds are made pristinely, as though awaiting military inspection. Two maritime paintings done by amateur painter Steve—hang on the walls. A high school graduation photo of Bill sits on the dresser. The bookshelf is crammed with volumes from his days at Annapolis High. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles. Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler. The Case of the Screaming Woman, a Perry Mason mystery by Erie Stanley Gardner. There's The Gettysburg Civil War Battle Game and a signed football from the 1963 Navy team and four trophies from Bill's childhood athletic triumphs. "That room hasn't changed in 40 years," Bill says when asked about it later.

The room is, to be frank, a little barren. "It's not a big deal," Jeannette says. "That's the way we live."

The contents of the room provide a window into the mind of Bill Belichick. They tell us that the hottest coach in the NFL is well-educated and uncluttered in his thinking. Through a roller-coaster coaching ride that has included a trying stint with the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s and a Captain Queeg-like performance in walking away from the New York Jets 24 hours after being promoted to head coach in January 2000, Belichick has in many respects remained unaltered. "I don't think he's changed from his Cleveland days," says good friend Jim Brown, the Hall of Fame running back, who remains close to the Browns' organization. "He's acquired some life experiences, but he's exactly the same man I knew 10 years ago."

As a coach, however, Belichick has continually educated himself, never allowing himself or his team to become too predictable. Less than a month after the Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers to claim their their second Lombardi Trophy last February, he flew to Baton Rouge and spent two days drawing up schemes with his former defensive coordinator in Cleveland, LSU coach Nick Saban. For the second straight year he traveled to the Florida Keys to pick the brain of fellow two-time Super Bowl winner Jimmy Johnson. During a vacation on Nantucket before training camp, he listened to audiotapes of a book by retired Navy captain D. Michael Abrashoff called It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. He also found time for one of the Harry Potter tomes. Hey, even a guy as intense as Belichick has to have fun once in a while.

"Frank took the hawk to its perch in the garage, set the burglar alarm, and locked the door. He had just sat down at the table for lunch when Joe appeared, carrying a volume of the encyclopedia."

Even at age nine, Bill Belichick had football on the brain. He was devoted to his father, a longtime assistant coach and scout at Navy. Son joined Dad whenever he could. If Steve had to drive to the Baltimore airport to pick up films on that week's opponent, Bill rode with him. Once home, Bill not only watched the films but also saw how his father diagrammed plays. When Bill was nine or 10, he tagged along to the weekly Monday-night meeting, at which players were given the scouting report for the next game.

"He'd sit in the back of the room, maybe for 90 minutes a session," says Steve, now 85. "I never had to say a word to him about his behavior. He'd stare at the front of the room and not say a word."

When Bill was 10 or 11, the assistant in charge of the offensive game plan, Ernie Jorge, sent him an envelope every Thursday night. BILL'S READY LIST was written on the envelope, and inside was the game plan for the week, including all the plays. Before he was a teenager Bill knew terminology, formations, schemes. He also knew bona fide football stars from the time he spent at Midshipmen practices. When he was seven, Navy's biggest standout was running back Joe Bellino, the 1960 Heisman Trophy winner. "That was his first hero," Steve Belichick says. "Joe was the hero of a lot of kids in America then, and Bill was his friend."

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