| Bill Belichick
By JUDY BATTISTA
Published: January 28, 2008
PHOENIX - They nicknamed him Captain Sominex back then, because even when he was first tasting the success that is now the norm for him, Bill Belichick had a monotone that sent Giants linebackers to their slumber in a darkened meeting room.
Belichick probably leaves that part out when he regales the New England Patriots with his New York tales, but he has forgotten little else about the franchise that launched him toward becoming the dominant coach in the N.F.L. The Giants, who will play the Patriots on Sunday in Super Bowl XLII, remain Belichick's touchstone 17 years after he left, the great teams and legendary players of the 1980s, who won two Super Bowls, providing all the reference points he needs now.
In the hours before the Patriots beat the Giants on Dec. 29 to complete a perfect regular season, Belichick and the Giants' president and co-owner, John Mara, spoke on the field. Belichick congratulated Mara on the Giants' season.
"I said, 'You're congratulating me?'" Mara said last week. "As I was leaving, he said, 'Hopefully, we'll play again.' He kind of said it like he meant it. And I'm thinking, Yeah, right."
On Sunday, Belichick's career will come full circle, the team he has built into a dynasty and coached to the verge of a perfect season needing to vanquish for the second time this season the one that, for 12 years, shaped so much of what he is today. When the Giants had success in the past, Belichick would call the former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi to congratulate him. "There is still a lot of Giants in me," he told Accorsi more than once. For one day, at least, the Giant in him will be subsumed.
"In some respects, I wish it were somebody else," Belichick said in an interview last week. "There are a lot of teams I don't have that much affection for. Giants Stadium, the locker room is on the left and I always feel like I should be turning left. And I've been turning right for a lot of seasons now. We all move on. But it hits you right there, when you come out of the ramp and into the tunnel. The locker room was right there on the left, for all those years."
Belichick began with the Giants in 1979 as a special teams coach under Ray Perkins. When Bill Parcells became the defensive coordinator two years later, Belichick found his calling, starting to work with the linebackers. Among them was a rookie first-round draft pick named Lawrence Taylor. Belichick became the defensive coordinator in 1985 and the next season, with the second-ranked defense in the N.F.L., the Giants won the Super Bowl.
It was not always seamless. After the 1988 season, Belichick had had enough of the linebackers and told Parcells he wanted to coach the secondary. In that role, his players often matched up against a group of receivers coached by another Parcells assistant, Tom Coughlin, Belichick's counterpart Sunday. In the 1990 season, the Giants had the top-ranked defense and won the Super Bowl again, in Belichick's final game with the team before he left to be the coach of the Cleveland Browns.
"There were a lot of special guys and there were some challenges, but there was also a lot of personal growth," Belichick said of his years with the Giants. "Me, too. I was 26 or 27. I had a lot of growing to do as a person and as a coach."
With the Giants, Belichick began developing the coaching style that is fully formed now, down to the cut-off sweats and sneakers that the Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson remembers Belichick wearing even then.
Mara recalls Belichick at practice being like an intense college professor, always teaching and rarely screaming. Belichick was a stickler for detail, and he preached the importance of each player knowing his role. Carson's job was to stop the run. Taylor's was to rush the quarterback. There was no ambiguity, Carson said. Not much has changed. Only a few weeks ago, Belichick was caught on a field microphone exhorting a group of Patriots players to "just do your job."
"We always tried to whittle it down to the smallest possible things," said Virginia Coach Al Groh, who coached the linebackers for two years when Belichick was the Giants' defensive coordinator and remains close to Belichick. "We kept narrowing the focus on what we were going to give them. Players were focused not just from a mental and emotional standpoint, but from a specific task standpoint."
The Browns hired Belichick right after the Giants won the Super Bowl in January 1991. Two years earlier, Accorsi, Cleveland's general manager at the time, had interviewed Belichick at the Senior Bowl. The Browns had already decided on Bud Carson to be their coach then, so Accorsi conducted the interview in a coffee shop. Another man was waiting for Belichick, so they could go watch the practices together. After two hours, the other man left. After six hours, the interview finally ended.
"The interview was so captivating," Accorsi said. "He was so prepared and had such strong convictions, everything from strategy to the way he saw the game, to player personnel. He had all kinds of theories and innovations. And he doesn't just pick up players because they have talent; he has a job for them."
When Belichick wanted to keep linebacker Junior Seau from retiring last year, he called Seau in San Diego. "I have a job for you," Belichick told him.
And when he wants to show his linebackers today how to do the job - only when they mess up, Seau said - Belichick pulls out old black-and-white film of the Giants. Never, Seau said, does the viewing result in praise for the Patriots. "They’ve always done it better than us," Seau said.
But those old linebackers had to be persuaded, too. Sometimes, Carson said, Belichick would draw plays on the board - rushing two defensive lineman and dropping nine, for example - that players thought would never work.
"We were skeptics initially, but he won us over and we bought into the system," Carson said. "As I listen to what the Patriots are saying, I say that’s from the playbook of Belichick and Bill Parcells. It's about team. Don't say anything to make people angry. Don't give anybody anything to write about."
Belichick speaks so often about the Giants that linebacker Mike Vrabel has jokingly belittled the level of competition those teams faced. One day during training camp, Vrabel found a Giants helmet in his locker, courtesy of Belichick. A few years ago, Carson and Carl Banks stopped by Belichick's office before the Giants and the Patriots played a preseason game. "Man, I miss you guys," Belichick told them. "I wish I had guys like you now."
"Twelve years," Belichick said last week. "Think of how many plays, how many games, how many snaps, how many practices, how many meetings. You learn so much. The whole composite, it's awesome."
If they complete a perfect season Sunday, the 2007 Patriots will be viewed as one of the greatest teams in football history. But as Carson made his way through the Patriots' locker room after New England beat the Giants in the regular-season finale, two stars of Belichick's present approached a star from Belichick's past.
Carson could only laugh at what Tom Brady and Richard Seymour told him: "Bill is always talking about you guys."
Formatted for CROWN by Marko Puljić
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