David Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Vietnam in the 1960s. He has written 20 books, most of them about history and several about sports, with the last fourteen becoming national bestsellers. His most intriguing work to date for football fans is "The Education of a Coach," an examination of the people and influences that have shaped Patriots coach Bill Belichick into football's best mentor and strategist. Halberstam's book is one of the deepest, most informative sports books to hit the shelves in decades. Through interviews with family, players, colleagues and Belichick himself, the book detonates Belichick's almost blank public demeanor and uncovers a committed and passionate man. In an extensive interview with Media Blitz, Halberstam discusses the book and Belichick.
John Molori: What drew you to Bill Belichick as a book topic?
I had watched Bill for more than 20 years. Those New York Giant defenses made a habit of taking away what other teams loved to do [ed.: Halberstam lives in Manhattan and is a Giants fan]
. Bill didn't look very coach-like. There was something different. He is very hard on himself and is the hardest-working man I've ever seen, with great discipline, strength and vision. Most coaches delegate. He doesn't. I just found him very smart and interesting.
JM: Why did such a private man like Belichick agree to participate in the book?
A mutual friend brought us together about 18 months ago. Bill tells his players not to have ego, so he had reservations about the book. I asked if he would agree to do it as an "as told to" book with the emphasis on his education from his father and other coaches he has known. In June of 2004, he agreed to do the book. Still, he was not looking forward to the concept of promoting the book during the season, so we pulled way back. We basically wrote the book between May and July of this year.
JM: You mentioned ego. Tell me about that in the context of Belichick.
If Bill could get Randy Moss or Terrell Owens for $1.5 million a year, he would not do it. If one player takes up too much oxygen, it is not good. He looks for players who accept the concept of team. Bill, himself, has a tremendous ego, but it manifests itself in the concept of team. He learned from his father and other mentors that the team depends on him to lead them. He takes this responsibility very seriously.
JM: How does a person work harmoniously with such a driven and demanding man?
(Pats VP of Personnel) Scott Pioli is an extension of Belichick, the same with Tom Brady. They didn't know what they were getting with Brady. The reports were good, but Drew Henson was the star of Brady's Michigan teams. After being drafted in the sixth round, he was behind Bledsoe, Damon Huard and Michael Bishop on the depth chart. Brady spent his off hours sneaking into a tiny office studying film and comparing it with the playbook. This is what Belichick had been doing since he was 9 years old. At that age, he was already a master at breaking down game film.
: It is clear that Belichick's father, Steve, the great assistant coach and scout at Navy, shaped Bill as a coach, but was there tenderness in the relationship?
: Steve was a very demanding father. Within the family, Steve was the hanging judge and Bill's mom Jeanette was the defense attorney. Steve's love was forged by a tough childhood. Home was a haven. For Bill, there were greater parental demands and less slack cut. He grew up more privileged than Steve did. Theirs was a tender relationship. The way the home was run is the way Bill learned to lead.
JM: Tell me about Belichick's longtime friend and colleague Ernie Adams.
The two met as students at Andover Academy. Adams was also a football junkie who had read Steve Belichick's book on scouting. Adams became Belichick's Belichick, sharing Bill's love of devouring film. He was quite content not to be a star and uncommonly smart, a great football nerd. In truth, Bill was not too concerned about losing Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis. He told me that everything would be fine as long as he didn't lose Adams. No one really knows what Adams does with the Patriots. Once, the players jokingly showed a shot of him on film with a caption asking what Adams actually does. He remembers every NFL play back fifty years and Bill can bounce things off him with complete trust.
JM: How did growing up in the shadow of the Naval Academy affect Belichick?
: The values of Annapolis reinforced the values of the home. It's important for boys to sense that their fathers matter. Steve, a good father and a coach respected by so many in the field, was the ultimate role model. Bill also got to spend time with Navy players like Roger Staubach and Tom Lynch, who went on to become superintendent of the Academy. They loved and respected him. Bill went to his first game as a five-year-old. Navy was playing William & Mary. The young Belichick wondered if William would beat Mary.
JM: What did you learn about the mind of coach Belichick?
In essence, Bill steps forward when things go badly, not when they go well. Have you ever seen him blame a player or assistant for any loss? He always shoulders the weight. Bill is always looking for the edge. The first coach he worked for in the NFL was Ted Marchibroda with the 1975 Colts. He remembered that Marchibroda, although a great offensive strategist and the man who invented the no-huddle offense, did not like the pressure of making the play call. He would give Colts QB Bert Jones four choices and let him pick the play. When Bill was defensive coordinator for the Giants in Super Bowl XXV, Marchibroda was the Bills' offensive coordinator. Bill remembered this fact and used it against the Bills. There is so much in football that you can't control – tipped balls, ref's calls, injuries. Bill is so good at doing all the things you can control.
JM: Why is Belichick's time as Cleveland Browns head coach looked upon as a failure?
There were four problems: a volatile owner in Art Modell, high expectations from fans, an aging and fading team and the fact that while he was ready to be a head coach technically, Belichick had not mastered the people skills necessary to do the job. He was not entirely in command of personnel and not good at the public relations part of the job. He does not bend to be popular. He came into an impossible situation with a hometown quarterback (Bernie Kosar) whose skills had eroded. When Bill took the job, he didn't know that he was running against Kosar. The team's move to Baltimore also was a problem. Years later, a reporter asked Belichick what he learned in Cleveland. He answered, "Not to move your team to another city in the middle of the season."
JM: Discuss Belichick's relationship with Bill Parcells.
It was tense during their years with the Giants and tense after (Belichick) went to Cleveland. (Belichick) was offered other jobs after being fired from the Browns, but he is an East Coast guy and felt Parcells needed him in New England (in 1996). Belichick had formed a friendship with Robert Kraft while in New England and wanted to succeed Parcells as the team's head coach, but Kraft wanted to get rid of all of Parcells' guys. When Parcells announced that he would not coach but remain in the front office with the Jets after the 1999 season, Belichick knew he had to get out.
JM: What was the worst moment of the Parcells/Belichick relationship?
When they both moved to the Jets, that's when it tore apart. Parcells had a wicked tongue and he used it against Belichick and his star players. When Bill worked under Parcells with the Giants, he did not like the way Parcells had different rules for the indiscretions of Lawrence Taylor. In the book, I write about a terrible moment when they were with the Jets. Belichick called a blitz and Parcells opposed the call. They went with the blitz and it worked. Parcells was furious and over the open microphones in the middle of the game, he shouted at Belichick, "Yeah, you're a genius, everyone knows it, a goddam genius, but that's why you failed as a head coach – that's why you'll never be a head coach ... some genius." Everyone who heard it was shocked at the cruelty of Parcells' comments.
JM: Other than his father, what coaches influenced Belichick?
Bill is a great student and both his parents are teachers. His Annapolis High School coach Al Laramore had no assistant coaches and ran tough practices. From legendary Andover coach Steve Sorota, he learned to protect his players from the media. NFL defensive coach Floyd Reese taught Belichick to not become his players' friend. He has sought advice from Jimmy Johnson and Nick Saban, even though Saban is viewed as Belichick's protégé. He learned from Al Davis that coaches should report to him after every practice and that no one gets their position by tenure. This was the problem with Drew Bledsoe. Bledsoe felt that after his injury (in 2001) that he would get his job back by entitlement.
JM: Did you get a sense from Belichick regarding his views on this year's tough early schedule?
: All I'll say is that it is clear that the NFL does not want a perennial champion. With all due respect to Mr. Tagliabue, the system is completely dishonest. The worst 10 or 12 teams make the worst management decisions and are made to look better at the expense of good teams. Paul Tagliabue wants to make the weak look strong. Bill knows this. He also knows that this Patriots team is in transition and that they are vulnerable to injury, but his learned ability to shuttle other players in is his strength.
JM: Tell me about Belichick University.
Belichick has developed some great coaches and football minds from his staffs. They all share his traits and love of film and strategy. When he was with the Jets, some of these coaches were known as the Cleveland Mafia. Belichick University includes Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, Nick Saban, Eric Mangini, Fresno State's Pat Hill and Scott Pioli. Bill has become the new head coach model.
JM: What does Bill's future hold and have you become friends since collaborating on this book?
I think, eventually, he might move to solely a general manager's role with a team, but he's a football man and money does not drive him. He is not restless. He's a coach. We are friends in a cautious way. In the unlikely event that he had a day off, he'd feel he could talk to me about non-football stuff. We both have houses on Nantucket and when I first met him, he told me that he had read my work. I invited him striper fishing in late September, but he is up to his ass in alligators right now. There is no con or manipulation with Bill. What you see is what you get. I came away from the book very much valuing him. I would be very glad to have him coach my son or daughter. That is the acid test.
John Molori's columns are published in The Boston Metro, Patriots Football Weekly, The Providence Journal, Boston Sports Review, New England Hockey Journal, New England Ringside Magazine, ColdHardFootballFacts.com, TheRemyReport.com, PatsFans.com, BostonSportsReview.com, BostonPressBox.com, BostonSportsMedia.com and MethuenOnline.com. Email John at JOMOL3@aol.com.