Nobody ever said you had to be fun. Where in the contract does it stipulate that a coach has to exchange witticisms with the media and banter with the local boosters and lead rounds of Kumbaya on the team charter? Nowhere, that's where. But it never stops, this incessant droning about how you never lighten up, about how you have all the panache of a toaster oven, about how you're not, as they say in the NFL, "a player's coach."
Which is weird because, for one thing, this is the league whose legendary coaches—Landry, Lombardi, Halas—were not exactly the first guys you would invite over to gather around the piano for an evening of show tunes. This is the No Fun League, the one that fines players for wearing their socks incorrectly, for dancing after touchdowns, for...well, for just having fun. It's also weird because your Cleveland Browns just happened to be riding atop the AFC Central while enduring an excruciating quarterback controversy that died only when Vinny Testaverde's throwing shoulder did.
Or so it seemed. On Nov. 8 the Browns' coach, Bill Belichick, went and did the weirdest thing of all: With Testaverde out indefinitely because of a separated shoulder, Belichick unceremoniously waived quarterback Bernie Kosar, the most revered Cleveland player since Jim Brown and a special favorite of the fans because of his Ohio roots. Kosar's departure left the Brown offense in the green hands of a fellow named Todd Philcox, heretofore known around town as the Guy with the Clipboard. To the Brown faithful, particularly those given to public displays of bone waving, the move took its place beside the Rocky Colavito-for-Harvey Kuenn trade, the Paul Brown firing and the Paul Warfield trade as one of the darkest moments in Cleveland sports history. Kosar was signed by the Dallas Cowboys two days later, and his new team was flooded with calls from Brown fans ordering Kosar jerseys to wear in the Dawg Pound. In Cleveland one fan burned his season tickets for the benefit of the local media, which have given the story more coverage than they have NAFTA.
Belichick knows it's all weird, but there's a catch: He doesn't care. That's just the way he is. Take him or leave him. This is football, and in football there's no room for hand-wringing and squishy psychoanalysis. "You prepare a team as best you can," he says. "You put them on the field, and you do your very best to win. The rest hardly matters. I may look at the paper every now and then, but come on. I've got other things to worry about."
At least he's consistent. He spends much of an interview at the Browns' training complex explaining how much he hates doing interviews. He would rather chew aluminum foil for an hour than be interviewed. He is by turns dour, suspicious and ornery, although in an unfailingly polite sort of way. If Bill Belichick: The Movie were ever made, Belichick would be played by Harrison Ford: aloof, rumpled, preoccupied by things the rest of us will never fully understand. His hair is all over the place, as is his hopeless sweater, which sports the Browns' unfashionable team colors of brown and orange. "He doesn't exactly look comfortable in a suit," explains defensive tackle Jerry Ball, who otherwise admires Belichick.
But the criticism of Belichick goes beyond whether he should switch to double-breasteds. Ever since he replaced the fired Bud Carson in 1991, radio talk shows in Cleveland have devolved into Belichick floggings. His offense stinks, both hosts and listeners complain. They say that he needs an offensive coordinator; that he's too caught up in plodding. New York Giant-style football; and that he was always anti-Kosar, which, in Cleveland, is like being anti-organized labor. Above all, everyone agrees that Belichick has a serious communication deficit. "He's not a great personality person," says Giant general manager George Young, recalling Belichick's days as New York's defensive coordinator. "He can be pretty tight sometimes," says Brown linebacker Pepper Johnson. "The man's not Rodney Dangerfield."
"He's had difficulty with people," says Cleveland owner Art Modell. "He's nervous, shy, withdrawn. He won't be master of ceremonies at many banquets."
Unlike many of his counterparts, Belichick never played professional football, and he didn't major in Theory of Sports or Beer Technology at State U. He is the closet intellectual of NFL coaches and spent his formative years at the exclusive Phillips Academy, in Andover, Mass. Belichick lined up at center there and played well, albeit not against the sort of players who come out of Pennsylvania steel towns or the west Texas plains. It was pretty much the same at Wesleyan University, where he played tight end and center and majored in economics. He was so good that he was avidly recruited—by Fortune 500 companies, not NFL teams.
He doesn't like talking about all this (what else is new?), and in fact, he presents himself as something of an anti-intellectual, as if being smart and well-read is an indication of weakness. "I don't read much," he insists almost plaintively. "I haven't read many books at all." But he cannot disguise his intelligence. Throw out a simple question, of the how-well-is-your-defense-playing variety, and he responds, "Relative to what?" Ask a stupid question, get a metaphysical answer. He lightens up every once in a while, especially with his family and his close friends, who include another coach lacking in interpersonal skills, Bob Knight.
After Wesleyan, Belichick's white-collar future seemed assured. But, again, he just didn't care. Business could wait. It happened that young Belichick had an alter ego, a sort of evil twin who kept whispering "defense" into his ear. His name was...Belichick, as in longtime Navy special teams coach Steve Belichick, who also happened to be Bill's father.