When Bill was growing up in Annapolis, Md., his parents only had two complaints about him. He would lock his bedroom door and blast rock music; and when he wasn't playing air guitar upstairs—there's an image to treasure—he would head for the basement, where he would spend hours snapping a football against the wall. The family would sit down to eat. Thud. They would flick on the TV. Thud. "He was a center," says Steve. "That's all he wanted to do."
With a hand from his dad, young Belichick convinced Baltimore Colt coach Ted Marchibroda to hire him in 1975 as a low-paid coach/serf. He was eventually lured away by the Detroit Lions as assistant special teams coach because that job included the use of a Ford Thunderbird and $15,000 for the season. There was a stop in Denver as a defensive and special teams assistant before Belichick, by then known throughout the league as the wunderkind with the film fetish, was hired by Giant coach Ray Perkins in 1979 as his special teams coach. When Bill Parcells took over the Giants in '83, the 31-year-old Belichick was elevated to defensive coordinator. That connection can't be stressed enough, for Belichick is nothing if not a Parcel's disciple. "He's not a buddy-buddy kind of guy," says Testaverde, "because he's so busy preparing all the time."
In the days surrounding the Giants' 1991 Super Bowl win, Belichick's name was at the top of Modell's wish list to replace Carson, who had been dumped just one day after he benched Kosar in favor of journeyman Mike Pagel during an embarrassing loss to the Buffalo Bills two months earlier. The Giants had a lot of defense, and the Browns had very little. It made sense at the time.
And yet Belichick has been on the defensive ever since. He had fashioned a 13-19 record with the Browns coming into this season, and for the most part, the Cleveland offense during that time had been something close to miserable. Part of that had to do with Kosar's ever-deteriorating throwing elbow. But the running game had also been virtually nonexistent, which, to the dismay of his critics, didn't for a moment cause Belichick to abandon the conservative, bang-that-baby-up-the-middle game plan he had learned from Parcells. "There are always going to be critics who say that stuff," Belichick says, waving his hand dismissively. "When I was with the Giants, we were 10 and 0, and people were saying, 'You've got no passing, no rush, no quarterback, too many old players.' We're 10 and 0, and they're hitching. It's ludicrous."
What's really ludicrous, the critics say, is that Belichick has 15 assistant coaches but no offensive coordinator. One Cleveland columnist calculated that 75% of the Brown season-ticket holders would like to see Belichick canned—an assertion that moves the fellow being fitted for the guillotine to a rare laugh. "When I first got here, there were plenty of empty seats," Belichick says, "but I don't see many now." He's not finished. "As for the coordinator business, all the coaches pitch in. We all know how to play offense."
But let's be honest. This unpleasantness is less about offensive schemes than it is about Belichick's personality, or lack thereof. Several recently departed Browns—Brian Brennan, Paul Farren, Webster Slaughter—have blasted their former boss for being an automaton who offers no positive motivation and sees players only as faceless cogs. Last summer defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry finally had enough and briefly boycotted Belichick's practices. Then, last month, receiver Michael Jackson upped the ante by fairly eviscerating Belichick during a meeting of the Ashland County Browns Backers, who are to the Cleveland brass what the UAW is to the Democratic Party. "If you question Bill, you're out of line." Jackson reportedly said. "He can't relate to the players." Tight end Scott Galbraith, cut earlier this season by Belichick and picked up last week by the Cowboys, calls Belichick's coaching "bully-ball" and draws comparisons to Napoleon.
He just doesn't care. That's the underlying message again, but maybe it's a stretch. In fact, Belichick's greatest problem may be that he cares way too much about the minutiae of football; minutiae are his life. Although the Giants generally revered him, some players would sprinkle ice on their faces during meetings in order to stay awake as Belichick droned on about tendencies and weaknesses and blind spots. "One day Bill came to me and asked what he could do to improve his coaching," recalls Young. "We decided that he should take some courses [in communication]."
Johnson, who played under Belichick with the Giants, thinks that the problem with the Browns goes beyond one man's personality. "In New York the coaches walked through the locker room, the meeting rooms, everything," he says. "We had to run into each other. But they don't do that here in our facility. To have any kind of relationship, you have to rub elbows." Johnson also suggests that some of his current teammates had been "breast-fed" by other, less demanding coaches and now resent a little discipline. And Ball insists that this whole communication thing is inaccurate: "When Bill's upset, he can definitely express himself." More significantly, Ball has gotten along well with Belichick—a whole lot better than Ball did with the coach at his last stop, the Lions' Wayne Fontes, widely known as the consummate player's coach.
But back to the quarterback mess. By now everyone knows the story line: Kosar struggles, there are squabbles over play-calling, Belichick benches Kosar for Testaverde, Belichick is demonized by the media, Belichick gives Kosar another shot, Kosar is benched again, Belichick is demonized again. Never mind that in his two games as a starter, Testaverde had clearly outplayed Kosar, passing crisply and confusing defenses, or that Kosar is one of the few quarterbacks whom Testaverde can actually outrun. In Cleveland you don't mess with Bernie, particularly when the replacement has spent much of his career looking good in a baseball cap. Add to that Modell's once close relationship with Kosar, and it appeared that Belichick was ready for the Bud Carson treatment.
But on Oct. 22, nearly a week after Testaverde's first start, Modell signed Belichick to a two-year contract extension. "I've never interfered in a personnel matter," says Modell, who gingerly supported Kosar's release. "With all the criticism floating around, I wanted to show that I stand completely by Bill."