Seven Things We Learned About Bill Belichick from ESPN’s Oral History
Bill Belichick will likely go down as the greatest head coach in NFL history, but he may also go down as the most mysterious. There must be a human being hiding beneath the cut-off hooded sweatshirts and press conference grunts, right?
ESPN the Magazine attempted to uncover this mystery in an oral history about Belichick. Author David Fleming spoke with an array of figures from Belichick’s past, ranging from his mentors at Wesleyan University to an assortment of former players. The portrait they depict of Belichick largely matches his current reputation—football savant, workaholic, brusque—but there are also anecdotes that reveal the kind of person he is when he’s not staring down reporters at the podium or standing on the sidelines. For example, in addition to knowing the history of the spread formation, there’s a strong possibility he’s also memorized the Rolling Stone’s catalogue by heart. Seven of the most fascinating tidbits from the piece are below:
1. He tears Tom Brady apart at practice: Every player seems to be treated equally in Foxborough, including Brady. Former running back Kevin Faulk says Belichick often chides Brady in practice about how he could get a “quarterback at Foxborough High” to run plays better.
Cornerback Aqib Talib also talks about Belichick’s tough love, recounting an incident where he laid into Brady following an interception:
“Once, in practice, Brady threw a seam ball that was intercepted, and Bill, man, he chewed Tom out, saying, ‘You got 130 career interceptions,’ or whatever it was, ‘and half of them are on this route. You keep doing the same s— over and over and this is what happens.’ Right then you know two things about the Patriots and Bill Belichick: Everybody is treated the same, and you better get your s— together.”
2. He’s not a morning person: Faulk says he said “good morning” to Belichick on the way to breakfast for years and never got a response—except once.
3. He’s a serious Stones fan: Belichick’s longstanding friendship with Bon Jovi is well known. According to a former Browns assistant scout, Bon Jovi even used to come to practice and catch some passes.
Former Browns assistant Rick Venturi also says Belichick toured with the Rolling Stones in Europe “for a few weeks one summer” and listens to Howard Stern on his way into work.
4. He loves a good pop quiz: In addition to quizzing players about obscure plays and their upcoming opponents, kicker Adam Vinatieri says Belichick also wants his players to know intimate details about their teammates’ personal lives. “There were times when he would surprise you and ask you a certain teammate’s wife’s name,” he said.
5. He’s a failed athlete: The success Belichick has enjoyed is a reminder that being a great athlete and a great coach can be mutually exclusive. At Wesleyan University, where he earned a degree in economics, Belichick played football and lacrosse. But according to one of his former professors, Dick Miller, most of his time was spent on the bench:
I don’t know what would separate him from other coaches, but it certainly wasn’t playing experience in college. He was not a starter as a sophomore, he didn’t play as a junior and when he was a senior, a freshman took his spot. But he was always regarded as a coach on the field, especially in lacrosse.
An anonymous former NFL head coach took Miller’s words a step further, calling Belichick a “geeky kid” and “failed football player.” Any guesses on how many times the Patriots have trounced his teams over the years?
6. He could have been a Raiders coach: Following a four-year stint as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Belichick returned to his previous post as an assistant coach under Bill Parcells. Former Oakland Raiders CEO Amy Trask says she wanted to hire Belichick as their head coach in 1998—two years before he came to New England—but owner Al Davis went with Jon Gruden instead. Whoops.
7. He’s a mentor to young coaches and staff members: Believe it or not, there appears to be a warm side to Belichick that he rarely shows in public. He has a habit of hiring younger assistants and taking them under his wing.
Former Patriots scout Jon Robinson, who now serves as the Tennessee Titans general manager, says Belichick gave his then-six-year-old daughter a teddy bear with a hooded sweatshirt and handwritten note after finding out she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Ravens coach John Harbaugh also recounts a tale of Belichick’s outreach, saying he called the owner of the Ravens at 3:00 a.m. to recommend Harbaugh for the head coaching job eight years ago (given that Harbaugh may have ignited Deflategate, it’s worth wondering whether Belichick would like to have that recommendation back).
But perhaps the most entertaining story comes from Wesleyan athletic director Mike Whalen, who says Belichick once phoned a recruit, who promptly hung up on him:
My first year as coach at Wesleyan I’m trying to turn things around and I’m recruiting a kid out of West Hartford who was leaning toward Princeton. So I emailed Bill and asked him to call the kid. Bill calls him that same night and the kid hangs up on him. ‘Hello, this is Bill Belichick from the New England Patriots,’ and the kid goes, ‘Yeah, right.’ Bill keeps going: ‘I’d like to talk to you about Wesleyan and the kind of opportunity you’ll have there,’ and the kid goes, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure, Bill’ — click. Bill emails me and says, ‘I reached out to him but, um, I don’t think I really connected.’