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WHEN THE CLOCK was finally winding down, the seconds ticking off, with the Philadelphia Eagles unconscionably slow in getting their plays off, Steve Belichick, always in the background whenever there were television cameras around, left his place behind some of the New England Patriots, back around the 35-yard line. Moving quickly, he headed toward the 50, wanting to share this glorious moment with his son, Bill, the New England coach, about to win his third Super Bowl in four years. Bill himself was puzzled by the almost languid way the Eagles were running their plays, as if they were the ones with the lead, and they wanted to burn the clock. He kept checking the scoreboard, which said 24-14, as if perhaps he was the one who had the score wrong. He called his assistants, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini, on the headphones to make sure the Patriots did indeed enjoy a 10-point lead. "Have I got the score right?" he asked, and they assured him he did. "Then what the hell are they trying to do?" His assistants did not know, either. The long, slow drive finally culminated in a Philadelphia score, on a 30-yard pass play, because of a blown defensive coverage. Seeing that his players were in the wrong coverage, Belichick had tried desperately to call time out, but he had been too late. Belichick was momentarily furious, mostly at himself, because he demanded perfection first and foremost of himself. But the Eagles' touchdown would not affect the final outcome.
Steve got to his son's side just in time to be soaked by Gatorade in the ritual shower of the victorious. That gave him his first great moment of celebrity, at the end of a six-decade career of playing and coaching football, and that moment was witnessed by much of the nation, live and in color. It was easy to imagine one of those Disney World commercials, generally accorded the young and instantly famous at moments like these, when a voice would ask, " Steve Belichick, you've been coaching and playing for 60 years. Where are you going now that your son has won his third Super Bowl in four years?"
It was one of the best moments of the entire Super Bowl extravaganza, filled as it so often is with moments of artificial emotion, but this moment was absolutely genuine, father and son drenched together, the feelings finally showing on the face of the son, usually so reticent, as if to show emotion was to give away some precious bit of control, to fall at least momentarily into the modern media trap. Father and son were bonded in this instant by the joy of victory and by the shared experience of a lifetime of coaching.
Steve Belichick was a lifer, viewed by his peers as a coach's coach. He had never made much money and never enjoyed much fame outside the small, hermetically sealed world of coaching. Like most coaches he had lived, especially in the early part of his career, with the special uncertainty of the profession, a world without guarantees, except for the one ensuring that no matter how well things were going, they would surely turn around soon. There would be a bad recruiting year or a prize recruit who said he would come to your school and then decided at the last moment to sign with your archrival; there would be too many good players injured in the preseason (but only after the national magazines had looked at your roster and predicted a conference championship) or a change in athletic directors, the new one with a favorite whom he hoped to install in what was now his program. In the end, the head coach would be fired and the assistant coaches would have to leave with him.
BILL BELICHICK was born in Nashville in 1952, when Steve, already considered an exceptional coach--tough and smart, original and demanding, way ahead of the curve in the drills he devised and, in addition to everything else, a brilliant scout--was in the process of being fired as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, even though the team he was part of had done reasonably well.
Thus Bill Belichick entered a world rather typical for the son of a lifer. By the time he was a toddler, his parents had already given up the lease on their house and put their furniture in storage, and his father was waiting for word on a next job. The head coach they had followed to Vanderbilt, an immensely popular man named Bill Edwards ( William Stephen Belichick was named both for Bill Edwards and for his father), was well connected in the world of coaching, liked by almost everyone, but it was late in the year, and there were not a lot of openings.
It was a difficult moment. On Steve's tiny salary the Belichicks had not been able to save any money. The phone, which was supposed to be ringing with job offers, did not ring. There was talk that Bill Edwards might be offered an assistant's job at North Carolina and that if he were, Steve Belichick might become a part of his team, but it was still just talk. Time was running out. Finally, with Jeannette Belichick's help, a game plan was formulated: They would pile everything they had into the car and drive east. Somewhere along the way they would stop and call the Carolina people. If the job was there, they would continue on to Chapel Hill; if there was no word, they would leave the uncertain world of college coaching, and Steve would try to find a job in Florida coaching high school football.
In Knoxville, not quite halfway to Chapel Hill, the Belichicks pulled up alongside a restaurant, and Steve got out and called from a pay phone. The Carolina job was his. So they went to Chapel Hill, and the idea of coaching high school football was put aside, at least for the moment. The Belichick family loved Chapel Hill, and the job there lasted three years, 1953 to '55, before they were all once again fired.
From there Steve Belichick managed to get a job as an assistant coach at Navy. Bill was three years old when they went to Annapolis, Md. Steve loved it there, loved coaching the Midshipmen, and decided he would stay there permanently if he could. He did not long to be a head coach--he had seen how quickly they came and went, even when they were talented, like his friend Bill Edwards. He did not need the title or the power. He decided everything he needed was right there: a solid program (Navy still had nationally ranked teams in those days), great young men, an attractive community, wonderful colleagues.
Steve Belichick was one of those rare Americans who, though ambitious and exceptionally hardworking, knew when he had a deal that suited him, and he had no urge for greener pastures, which in his shrewd estimate might in fact not be greener. Over the years he turned down countless job offers from other colleges and from the pros. And he did another shrewd thing: At Chapel Hill he had become close to the Carolina basketball coach, the legendary Frank McGuire, who had taken a special liking to the Belichick family and especially to its three-year-old son. Basketball practice always stopped when Steve and Bill showed up, and someone was ordered to find a ball, always brand new, to roll out to Bill. When McGuire heard that the Belichicks were going to Navy, he told Steve to do what his friend Ben Carnevale, the basketball coach there, had done, which was to try and move up on a tenure track as a physical education instructor in addition to coaching. This would protect him from the volatility and uncertainty of the coach's life. Steve took the advice and became an assistant professor and then a tenured associate professor. That gave him something rare in the world of coaching, job security, and he ended up staying at Navy for 33 years, under eight head coaches. Coaching at Annapolis, he said, "was like dying and going to heaven."