Breaking Down Belichick

| Boston Magazine |

By Dr. Keith Ablow
Mike Felger
Senator John Kerry
James Frey
Doug Rubin
Will Leitch
Matt Taibbi
Dan Ariely
Michael Norton
Eileen Page
Gary Gulman
Roger Cossack
Gregg Easterbrook
Mel Robbins

1.For Love of the Father
By Dr. Keith Ablow, psychiatrist and author of Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty

I haven’t spoken directly to Bill Belichick, but I can tell you where I’d start a discussion designed to get to the truth about his life: with his late father, Steve, the Naval Academy’s legendary assistant coach of 33 years.

Steve Belichick scouted for Navy, giving coaches and players exhaustive, incisive insights about their opponents. He is considered one of the finest football scouts ever, anywhere, and his 1963 book, Football Scouting Methods, is a classic.

Bill Belichick worshipped his father. When he was as young as five or six years old, he would accompany his dad on road trips to study rival teams. "He wanted to be with me, and I wanted to be with him," Steve Belichick once told the Washington Post. "He was always interested in what I was doing."

Could Belichick have gotten close enough to his father without following him to work? Could he have been as tightly embraced by such a towering figure without embracing his father’s love for the game? We can’t know. What we do know is that the love between father and son played out against the backdrop of football, of knowing enough about your rivals to beat them, again and again. We know that a young boy saw powerful athletes connect with his father through a common commitment to winning and that, ultimately, winning became a driving passion for that boy.

Is Spygate any accident, then? Are we allowed to wonder whether one chamber of a man’s heart—staying close to the father he adored—would lead another chamber, built around knowing all about an opponent (a desire that father and son shared), to grow beyond accepted boundaries? Can we allow that the little boy inside a grown warrior would look anywhere and everywhere for a glimpse of his hero, even if the lens needed to be trained improperly on his opponents? Love is an unwieldy thing—whether for one’s father or for a great sport. And when the two things are one, winning the next game can feel like everything.

2. Doing Business as Business Is Being Done
By Mike Felger, Comcast SportsNet anchor

Read some of the commentary about Bill Belichick, and you’d think he’s the first coach in history to hold a grudge, bend a rule, or bully people. But where do you think he got that stuff from?

You want grudges? Vince Lombardi was alleged to have traded players whose only misstep was to hire an agent to help in contract negotiations. You want espionage? Tom Landry admitted in his autobiography that he dialed into opponents’ radio signals as far back as 1956. You want nastiness? When Belichick was an assistant under Bill Parcells with the Jets, he once called a play his boss didn’t like. The Tuna responded by telling Belichick over the headsets, so the entire staff could hear, "That’s why you failed as a head coach [in Cleveland]—that’s why you’ll never be a head coach."

And you wonder where Belichick’s behavior comes from? He’s an NFL coach, for God’s sake. He went straight from college to the league in 1975 and hasn’t taken so much as a season off. It’s been more than enough time to learn an important lesson, something he’s long imparted to his players: "Do business as business is being done."

In other words, if the referees aren’t calling holding, then his linemen should adjust accordingly and hold. If the refs are throwing the flags, then they should play by the rules. When it came to the illegal taping, Belichick was merely following suit. His spy had been thrown off the field in Green Bay and reportedly told twice to stop by the Lions during a game in Foxboro. The league issued warnings, and memos were sent out. Yet Belichick and the Pats were never punished. The flag was never thrown, so they kept it up. Business as business is being done. Just don’t think for a second that the taping was Belichick’s idea. He probably got it from someone whose bust currently resides in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.


3. Militant Excellence
By Senator John Kerry, former U.S. Navy lieutenant

I don’t think what motivates Bill Belichick is much of a secret: He hates to lose, and he wants to be the best.

Belichick spent his childhood among patriots at the Naval Academy and is driven by the legacy of his father, who was on the Navy coaching staff. There is an expectation of excellence in Annapolis—excellence in the classroom, excellence on the athletic fields, and excellence in every aspect of life. If your chosen path might someday lead to a moment when every decision and every action determines whether you and those around you live or die, there’s no room for second best.

No wonder, then, that today Belichick surrounds himself with team-first players eager to embrace the mantra we all heard again and again as kids on our playing fields: "There is no ‘I’ in team." Pursuing excellence, refusing to be second best, demanding more of yourself and those you surround yourself with—those are good things. Those are American ideals. Those are the principles you build your life around when your role models are from the U.S. Naval Academy.

4. He Cheats. I Cheat. We All Cheat.
By James Frey, author of the memoir A Million Little Pieces and the novel Bright Shiny Morning

In most sports, industries, and businesses, there are the rules, and there are the unwritten rules, and there are the things that everyone knows that everyone does, but nobody discusses, because they’re doing them, too. Is Floyd Landis really the only cyclist to be busted for performance-enhancing drugs? Is Bill Clinton really the only politician to have been unfaithful in his marriage? Am I really the only writer to have made shit up in a book? Is Bill Belichick really the only coach to have taped an opposing team’s signals? If your answer to these questions is yes, then come to New York and I will sell you a bridge.

Belichick got caught. Sucks for him. It was probably embarrassing, and he was probably upset, but who cares? He’s still the best there is, and his team is still the best in the league, and he’ll still be remembered as the best, as far as I’m concerned. Though I despise his team, I respect him and think he got screwed in the scandal and wish him all the best in the future. Except when he plays my hometown team, the Cleveland Browns, which was stupid enough to let him go.

5. Writing His Own PR Playbook
By Doug Rubin, chief of staff for Governor Deval Patrick

In a political crisis, the goal is to limit the damaging story to one or, at most, two 24-hour news cycles. This is done by getting all the details, good and bad, into the public realm immediately. The playbook also calls for lining up surrogates to support your side of the story. If that fails, the traditional fallback is to attack the source of the scandal in an attempt to divert attention and discredit the original allegation.

Bill Belichick did none of this. During Spygate he refused to discuss in detail the issues surrounding the scandal, angering pundits and adding fuel to the story. Bits and pieces of news dripped out on a regular basis, extending the story through the football season and into the off-season. But Belichick never organized a concerted effort to build public support, and he steadfastly refused to criticize the NFL. (It wasn’t until after all the games were over that he even talked openly abou
t the controversy.)

So why was Belichick right? He is paid to do one thing: win football games. By making himself the issue, he took the pressure off his players and, in fact, allowed them to use the scandal as a motivating tool. He coached the team to within one freak catch of the greatest NFL season ever and also managed to keep the heat off the team’s owners, the Kraft family, a move that helped preserve the Patriots brand and protect the Krafts’ impeccable business and charitable reputation.

The funny thing is, conventional wisdom is often wrong. During the 2006 campaign for governor, conventional wisdom called for Deval Patrick to listen to his Democratic supporters and respond in kind to the negative political ads of his opponent. Patrick chose not to fire back, and the voters rewarded this decision with a landslide victory. The amazing season by the 2007 New England Patriots proved that Bill Belichick played his cards right as well.

6. A Survivor’s Tale
By Will Leitch, New York magazine columnist and Deadspin.com founder

Everyone remembers back in 2000 when Bill Belichick resigned after pretty much just one day as head coach of the New York Jets (I’m sorry: "HC of the NYJ"). It’s so odd, when you watch footage of Belichick’s rambling press conference—which caused several New York scribes to question his sanity—that this man turned out to be a mad, controlling genius. To see him at the time, you wouldn’t have hired the guy to run your Dunkin’ Donuts.

But you have to remember what Belichick’s concern was. Sure, he would have remained in the shadow of Bill Parcells, an egomaniac to rival Belichick and one equally obsessed with protecting his own myth. But looming perhaps as large were his worries about the Jets’ future owner. Woody Johnson ultimately bought the team, but when Belichick had his press conference, Johnson wasn’t the odds-on favorite to take over the franchise as owner. No, the favorite was one Jim Dolan. You remember Jim? The owner of the New York Knicks? The steward of the worst franchise in sports? The man who presides over the organization that upon learning that an intern had had sex with the starting point guard in the back of a truck, opted to promote her? That Jim Dolan.

He could have been Bill Belichick’s boss. Jim Dolan. Why does Belichick act so erratically? Why is he obsessed with secrecy? Why is he willing to do anything—ANYTHING—to win? Because he escaped the gallows. Bill Belichick had a near-death experience: He almost worked for Jim Dolan. It’d cause me to treat every moment as if it were my last, too.

7. The Smartest Guy in the Room. (But About That Room…)
By Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone political writer and author of Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire

Anyone looking for insight into the behavior of Bill Belichick need only look at a few sample questions from the Wonderlic, the SAT-style test administered to college players before the NFL draft. Graded on a scale of 1 to 50, players are asked questions like "When rope is selling for 10 cents a foot, how many feet can you buy for 60 cents?" Players get 12 minutes to answer 50 questions, and it’s a Herculean struggle. Scores of 10 and 12 out of 50 are common. Isotoner spokesman Dan Marino is said to have scored a 16. Steve McNair reportedly managed a 15.

This is the intellectual environment in which Bill Belichick works. Remember that a great many coaches are ex-players. Whiz-kid coach Jon Gruden was a third-string quarterback at Dayton who spent his high school years filling notebooks with X’s and O’s—not actual plays, mind you, but just the letters. Mike Ditka, you wouldn’t bet even money that he could write his name in the ground with a stick. And he nearly ran for the Senate! That tells you something about the sea of mental mediocrity that is the United States in general, let alone the NFL. It also explains why Belichick didn’t seem particularly intimidated by the sight of Senator Arlen Specter doing his apocalyptic-bloviation act on ESPN.

Bill Belichick’s problem isn’t that he’s "too smart," as some have contended. His problem, actually, is that he’s just smarter than everyone else he sees on a daily basis. He gets up every morning to work alongside people who need to be reminded that it’s easier to run behind a tight end than a wide receiver.

Someday in the near future, he will be asked for the nine-thousandth time to "talk about the value of team chemistry" by yet another balding sportswriter with a huge spare tire who’s slogging through the sad terminal adolescence that is his professional existence. On the road, Belichick looks into the stands and sees grown men wearing dog masks and hats fashioned to look like big pieces of cheese staring tearfully at the field alongside their plump sons, idiots-in-training with mustard-stained faces, both generations mystified and devastated by whatever B or B-minus plan he cooked up to beat their team that day.

An able man working in this environment long enough will naturally develop some problems in the area of taking other people seriously. And not just other people’s opinions about his job performance, but their rules, their expectations of conduct, their moral outrage. In the Spygate scandal, it didn’t help that the so-called infraction was a thing patently absurd on its face—filming signals made out in the open for the whole world to see, the equivalent of filming a third-base coach. Belichick is not wrong to be frustrated by what a big deal everyone is making over this. Where he is wrong is in not seeing that only a madman films a third-base coach. A real genius would never lose sight of the fact that football is just a game, and there are certain lines he would never cross to win one. That is the difference between being really smart, and just smarter than most—and we can all hope that Bill Belichick is smart enough to figure even that out, someday.

8. Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game
By Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, and Michael Norton, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School

Whether on tax returns or football fields, potential cheaters have two fundamental motivations: the desire to see themselves as honest, good people, and the desire to gain the benefits that come from skirting the rules. These often conflicting impulses can be gratified simultaneously, however, if people can cheat but also justify their unethical behavior.

Research in the field of behavioral economics has demonstrated that we are marvelous at accomplishing this balance. For instance, we might steal Post-it Notes from work but feel justified in doing so because everyone steals from work—even if we have no firsthand evidence of such theft. And because cheating is easier when we can justify our behavior, people often cheat in small amounts: We can come up with an excuse for stealing Post-it Notes, but it is much more difficult to excuse taking $10,000 from petty cash.

At the same time, people—including Bill Belichick—still find ways to justify "big" cheating. How? In a world where everyone is behaving honestly, any dishonesty constitutes a big infraction. But in a world where many people are behaving dishonestly, even a big infraction can feel small to the perpetrator. While it’s easy to single out Belichick, unethical behavior is often a product of a community where dishonesty is pervasive. It’s not the bad apple that should most concern us, but rather the system that turns them out by the bushel.

9. Picking Up the Signs
By Eileen Page, handwriting analyst (pageink.net)

Bill Belichick’s cool, composed demeanor on the sideline is also very evident in his handwriting. His rounded "i" dots represent a sense of loyalty; the height of the upper extenders in the "l," "h," and "k" suggests pride in wanting to do more than is expected of him. His assertive independence can be seen in his lowercase "i"s: The way in which they stand alone indicates he is very much his own person. The dots’ precise placement over the stems says that he is meticulous about details, and their roundness suggests a man of patience. The retracing of his upper extenders reveals someone who prefers to rely on his own resources for the information he needs.

10. A Man of Comic Contradictions
By Gary Gulman, host of NESN’s Comedy All-Stars and former Boston College tight end

Examining Bill Belichick’s interests might shed some light on his psychological makeup. His two favorite albums are Springsteen’s Born to Run and Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. So, he is 1) a man with an ear for genius, and 2) a teenage girl circa 1986 begging her mother for Glamour Shots. He’s even close friends with the Boss and Bon Jovi! Which is the comedy equivalent of being best friends with Lenny Bruce and Seinfeld’s Kenny Bania.

He reads Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. (Obviously! What type-A alpha male doesn’t?) But he’s also an avid Harry Potter fan. This makes him an expert on ancient military tactics…and a 43-year-old mother of two. His education is also puzzling. He’s a graduate of world-renowned Wesleyan University, and yet his saying of choice is "It is what it is," which also happens to be the go-to phrase for the cast of MTV’s unbearable A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila. (Are we really supposed to find her sexy?)

Finally, what about Spygate? Doesn’t it prove he’s an arrogant megalomaniac? First of all, Spygate is not a "gate." Contragate is a "gate." Plamegate is a "gate." Christina Applegate is a "gate." After the Pats rattle off 20 or so Super Bowl victories in a row, Spygate will become trivia. Kobe Bryant averaged 28 points a game this year, and everyone has completely forgotten all that business out in Colorado.

So some corners were cut? JFK stuffed the ballot boxes in Chicago. Bill Belichick videotaped defensive signals. And New England is better for both.

11. Running It Through the Loophole
By Roger Cossack, Pepperdine University School of Law professor and ESPN legal analyst

Despite the smoking-gun evidence indicating that he violated NFL rules against taping opposing coaches, Bill Belichick has steadfastly claimed he had no intention of cheating. Rather, citing the specific wording of the league bylaw on the matter—which reads as if it had been translated from the legalese of some long-forgotten language—he’s insisted he just "misinterpreted" the rules on filming.

The coach does seem to have found a little loophole here, as the bylaw only explicitly forbids taping "that might aid a team during the playing of a game." That clause gave Belichick the go-ahead to bend the rules now and explain later. No matter what he filmed, he could just say it didn’t help the team during any actual games.

We know the NFL found him guilty, but would a court of law? The answer hinges on the question of intent. To earn a conviction, a prosecutor would have to convince a jury that Belichick knew he was breaking the law, not interpreting the NFL rule in good faith. In Boston, that would make it tough to get a conviction. In St. Louis or New York, not so much.

12. A Classically Tragic Figure
By Gregg Easterbrook, author of ESPN.com’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback column and contributing editor at the Atlantic

The Bill Belichick–Richard Nixon parallel has been overworked (including by me!), so let me propose a different analogy: Greek tragedy. In Greek tragedy, the protagonist is usually an otherwise admirable figure brought low by his hubris or his hamartia, the latter meaning roughly "fatal flaw." (Please, you thousands of Boston-area classics majors, don’t write to me about the centuries-long argument regarding precise use of this term.) Nixon was unappealing and unprincipled, deserving of the contempt in which he is now held. Belichick, by contrast, seems a respectable man tormented by his hamartia. That makes Aristotle, not Tricky Dick, the proper lens.

Belichick was a great leader surrounded by great warriors, likely to be favored by the football gods in battle. His fatal flaw made him want to cheat and rig the contests even though he didn’t need to. When caught, Belichick could not bring himself to tell the truth, and by his arrogance caused the citizenry, or polis (now we’re really getting Greek), to assume the worst about his motives. Had Belichick abided by the rules, his reputation would be secure. Or, when caught, had he admitted the truth, he would have been forgiven. Instead, his name will forever be tainted, and he brought this upon himself.

Postscript: The essential work on Greek tragedy is Aristotle’s Poetics. Though Aristotle was more accomplished than his father, some believe Aristotle thought his father had the greater mind. Belichick has won three Super Bowls; his father topped out as an assistant coach at Navy. But in The Education of a Coach, David Halberstam suggests Belichick has always believed his father had the superior football mind.

13. We All Want to Be in Control
By Mel Robbins, life coach, syndicated radio host, and CNBC contributor

There’s only one thing that juices Bill Belichick, and that’s control—because to him, control means winning.

Belichick is the kind of guy who would turn down sex, money, anything, just to remain in control of the situation. Getting his way beats getting anything else. He’s measured and methodical—even his players attest that he’s no yeller (that would show a loss of control). Instead, he manipulates like a cult leader, climbing inside players’ minds so when they talk it’s really Belichick speaking. At press conferences, we hear players say they’re "focusing on tomorrow" and that "what happened last week has no bearing on this week." As Laurence Maroney once said, "It’s the Belichick way. The less you say, the better you are." When you control the language, you control the message.

Maybe we all obsess over this guy because somewhere inside every one of us is a Bill Belichick waiting to come out, dying to take control regardless of what the boss, the spouse, or the neighbors think. Win or lose, at least this time we made the rules. That kind of control isn’t easy and doesn’t come cheap. For Belichick the cost was a $500,000 fine—and his reputation.

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