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There are two experiences that stand out from Pioli's childhood in Washingtonville, two events that created this intense desire to build close-knit, rely-on-each-other, us-against-the-world football teams. One was in 1981: That was the year he played on a Washingtonville High team that went 10--0 and won the conference championship. Pioli loves that team. There were only 31 players on it. They weren't especially talented—not one would go on to play Division I—and they had no real history of success to draw on. Washingtonville had never been very good at football.
But those kids had grown up together, and they looked out for one another, and the only thing that mattered to any of them was winning. They gave up 53 points all season. "There were three other teams at least that were clearly, visibly, unquestionably more talented," says Pioli. "We outtoughed them. We outthought them. We outconditioned them."
And this is when Pioli started to think about what a team of intensely devoted and disciplined players could do. Well, actually, he started thinking about it a few years earlier. But the 1981 team crystallized the thought in his mind. Togetherness, real togetherness, could beat all the talent in the world.
"Look," Thomas Dimitroff is saying, "you have to start with talent. That's obvious."
Pioli and Dimitroff became friends out of desperation as much as anything. Pioli's story of getting into football has become somewhat legendary: When he was at Central Connecticut State he would drive 90 minutes to watch the Giants practice, and through a friend of a friend he met Belichick, then a New York assistant coach. The two hit it off—Belichick famously let the kid sleep in a spare bed in the dorm suite Belichick shared with Al Groh—and in 1992, when Belichick was in charge in Cleveland, he hired Pioli for an unclear personnel job with the Browns for the crystal-clear salary of 16 grand a year.
Dimitroff's story is, if anything, even more remarkable. His father, Tom, was a longtime football coach and scout, mostly in Canada. Dimitroff wanted badly to be in the game. He worked for a short while in Canadian football, then for the World League of American Football, and then found himself without a job. He had a chance to go into business and thought hard about it. "But I didn't want to start making money in business," he says, "because then I knew I wouldn't go back to football."
Instead he joined the Browns' grounds crew. Yes. The grounds crew. That's where he and Pioli met and almost immediately began to talk about their philosophies about building football teams. They were invisible then, probably not making $30,000 between them, and nobody else cared what they thought about building teams. So they talked with each other, often about the odd relationship between talent and winning.
"I think Scott and I both believe it's much easier—much easier—to build a team when you're throwing character issues out the window," says Dimitroff, who rose from volunteer scout with the Browns to New England's director of college scouting before becoming the Falcons' G.M. in January 2008. "There are some very, very talented players coming into this league through the draft, through free agency, and the easy thing to do is to bring in the most talented players whether they fit or don't fit. You can win that way, no question about it."
"But," Pioli says, "the key is sustainability. Do you want to build a team that will win once and then implode? I don't think that's the job. The job is to make the difficult decisions so you can build the kind of team that can be in position to win every single year."