Steve Belichick was an original teacher, and he had a rare skill in preparing players for a game, because he had no equal as a scout. "The best scout I've ever seen--the amount of detail and knowledge was unmatched," said Mac Robinson, who had played for him at Vanderbilt. "If Steve said something was going to happen in a game, then it was going to happen in a game." Other players agreed. "Best scout in the precomputer age that football ever had," said Don Gleisner, who played defensive back at Vanderbilt. "Nothing was left to chance." Steve did not prepare with broad generalities but with minutiae, detail after detail. Each player, he felt, should go into a game feeling he had a distinct advantage over the player he was matched up against.
Years later Bill Belichick would understand what made his father such a good scout: the absolute dedication to his craft, the belief that it was important, and the fact that so many people--the people who paid his salary, his colleagues and the young men who played for him--were depending on him. "What I learned," Steve's son would say years later, "was that it was not just a game, it was a job."
STEVE BELICHICK also passed on to his son--a far more privileged young man operating in an infinitely more affluent America--a relentless work ethic, one that had been part of his own boyhood as the son of Croatian immigrants who had settled in Youngstown, Ohio, and had survived the Depression. The lessons of that difficult childhood and young manhood were never forgotten. If you were new in the country and your name was Belichick (or Bilicic, as it had been until it was changed by a first-grade teacher in Monessen, Pa., who had trouble spelling it), you were likely to get the worst jobs available. But you always worked hard. You always did your best. You did not complain. You wasted nothing. You had to be careful in good times because bad times would surely follow. Nothing was to be bought on credit. As a high school fullback Steve had earned a scholarship at Western Reserve, but just to remind himself how lucky he was, he had taken a job in the mills during the months after graduation, turning coal into coke for 49 cents an hour, unbearably hot, unpleasant and dangerous work. Nothing else in his life would ever seem hard again.
Steve's son would eventually have two childhoods: a normal American childhood and then a football childhood. As a boy he spoke two languages: English and coach-speak, football version. (At 13, he would talk to his coach about whether his team should use a wide-tackle-six defense--that is, a six-man balanced front, with two linebackers--or, against teams that had a better passing attack, the Oklahoma, a five-man front with two linebackers and four defensive backs arrayed like an umbrella.) Other kids had their hobbies: Some collected postage stamps, and others had baseball cards. Bill studied football film. It seemed natural to him, and he had a great aptitude for it--plus, it allowed him to spend a good deal of time with his father. He was about five when he saw his first game, and when he was taken at that age to what he was told was the William and Mary game, he wondered aloud if William would beat Mary.
He started hanging out with Steve at Navy practices when he was six or seven, and by the time he was nine he would make a scouting trip with Steve once a year--compensation for the fact that his father was away so much on weekends scouting. Bill loved making that annual trip; his father seemed so important a figure in a world that the boy admired and was gradually coming to understand. On Monday nights, after his father had scouted an opponent, Bill was allowed to go with him (if his homework was finished) to do the breakdown of the upcoming opponent for the whole Navy team. He would sit there, transfixed by the serious way these wonderful athletes listened to his father and the respect they showed him.
In a way it was as if Bill were part of a larger family. When Ernie Jorge, the Navy line coach, did the final game plan on Friday night, he always made an extra copy and put it in an envelope with Bill Belichick's name on it. "He'd get the report and go up to his room and study the plays," Steve Belichick said years later. "I think he was nine at the time, but he knew 28 was a sweep, 26 was off tackle. He knew all the pass plays, the banana and the down-and-out." What Bill remembered best about his father in those years, perhaps the most important thing of all, was that he seemed to come home from work happy each night and always seemed eager to go to work, and that the men he worked with obviously respected him greatly.
Very early on, Bill Belichick, not surprisingly, started seeing the game through the eyes of a coach. Studying the game and scouting off film is exhausting, repetitive work that can quickly turn into drudgery, as there is no shortcut: You have to run the film forward, run it back, run it forward again and run it back again two or three more times. To most people, a quick view of what another team did was enough. But for Steve Belichick and soon enough for his son, that quick view was a ticket into a secret world, in which you could find so much more than what was on the surface: the way players lined up for different plays, the difference in cadences for running and passing plays--all the things that might give you an edge.
Football was always on young Bill's mind. When he was in class--and he generally got good grades--he was thinking football and drawing up plays. Some 35 years after he left Annapolis High, Jeannette Belichick found some of her son's old notebooks, including one from French class. She opened it to find not very much in the way of French verbs, but a lot of football plays that had been diagrammed, his secret world of X's and O's.
Steve Belichick taught thousands of players and younger coaches, many of whom went on to prominent jobs, but in the end his greatest pupil was his son. He taught him many things, including how to scout and to study film and what position to play--center--because the boy was smart and strong for his size but was not going to be very big, not on a football-player scale, and because, even more important, he was not going to be particularly fast. Steve knew that early on because Bill had heavy ankles. That was the first thing he looked for when he was recruiting, the ankles, because they were a tip-off on speed. Center was the right position for Bill because he would know the game, and a smart center who knew how to read a defense was always valuable. So, as a result, a particular repetitive sound, a kind of thud, filled the Belichick house in Bill's teenage years: the sound of him centering the ball against a mat hanging on a wall in the basement. If anyone had helped create the extraordinary coach who stood there, soaked in Gatorade, that evening of his third Super Bowl win, it was Steve Belichick. At that moment his son stood at the pinnacle of his profession.
WHAT FOOTBALL men--coaches and players alike--admire about Bill Belichick more than anything else is his ability to create a team in an age when the outside forces working against it seem more powerful every year and often the more talented a player is, the more he needs to display his ego, to celebrate his own deeds rather than team deeds. A fan can now watch truly bizarre scenes on Sunday: a player, his team down by four touchdowns, making a good catch and dancing as if he'd just won a championship. Belichick, as much as anyone in football, tries to limit that and to make New England win and behave at all times like a team.