The Education Of A Coach by David Halberstam

The Education Of A Coach

The Education Of A Coach tells the story of my favorite NFL Coach, Bill Belichick. The book also explains how the New England ‘Patriots‘ manage to win so many championships, when the entire NFL is design to break up dynasties. Halbertam spends a lot of time with Bill’s father, Steve Belichick, because that is where Bill’s education started and continued. Steve was an Assistant Coach at Navy. One of Steve’s job was to scout upcoming teams, to break down film to find weaknesses that could be exploited. This a long thankless job. One the Bill, learned from his father, a job that made him invaluable when Bill started looking for entry level coaching positions in the NFL.

Bill Belichick learned from his High School Football coaches and College (Weslayan) coaches. In the NFL Belichick’s skills at picking apart opponents made him invaluable to the Head Coaches of the Detroit ‘Lions’, New England ‘Patriots‘ and Denver ‘Broncos‘. Belichick learned enough, and experienced enough of the pro-level game to become head coach of the Cleveland ‘Browns‘. He was soon fired from Cleveland when he learned, being a good coach isn’t enough. Then came a long partnership with Bill Parcells. One that was productive (NY ‘Giants‘ and NE ‘Patriots‘), but had a lot of friction. Belichick learned more ‘what not to do’ or what he didn’t want to do, when the time came for Patriot owner, Robert Kraft, asked him back as head coach.

I found this book interesting. The skills and football philosophies that Belichick brought to the ‘Patriots’ remind me of the NDSU ‘Bison‘ – Taking a longer view of the game and trading ‘superstars’ for team approach. When the NFL instituted the salary cap (to keep rich owners from buying championship caliber teams), Belichick’s long range value approach really began to pay off.

Halberstam’s writing was flat, but the subject matter was excellent. We get to see what it takes to be a championship level NFL coach. You have to give you’re entire life 24/7 to the game. From the time you’re a small boy to the time you retire. In addition you need good players, good coaches, and a good owner.. all who buy into your system. And then your system has to be flexible, both on a week to week basis and a year to year basis. And you can never let up.

298 pages

Amazon Instant Preview of “The Education Of A Coach”

Excepts from the book:

As they watched the game, these fans came to admire not merely Belichick, but also the players: These were football players as they were supposed to be. They cared about playing together, they were a team. The fans did not necessarily know the Patriots players at first- McGinest, Bruschi, Seymour, Vrabel, and Brown- because they were not the kind of players whose contract negotiations made the national press; nor did they have signature war dances. But they played with intelligence and grittiness, and they refused to give in to the superior press clippings of the Rams. The Patriots were not necessarily America’s Team, as Dallas had so optimistically nicknamed itself in an earlier era, but they were an easy team for ordinary football fans to like in the new era of football.
page 13

Bill Belichick did not know Ted Marchibroda personally; nonetheless, there were some valuable connections with three of Marchibroda’s assistants, who had taught at one time or another at Steve Belichick’s summer camp. Connections in the world of coaching are incredibly important; they are like the strands in a giant spider’s web. At any given moment everyone in the coaching world knew who was up and who was down, which meant that it was important for those who were up to help those who were down, because the order could be readily reversed, at the whim of an athletic director. Those at the top might soon descend, and vice versa. In a profession where there were “Few safety nets, and where one coach’s victory was another coach’s defeat, collegial courtesy was not just important, it was mandatory. Coaches tended to look out for one another.
page 104,105

In the beginning Parcells’s and Belichick’s relationship was a mutually advantageous one, and both men knew it. Each had strengths I other lacked, and they made a formidable combination in that first decade- Parcells, the head coach, the motivator, a man putting together a team of excellent assistants, of whom certainly the most talented was Belichick, who started as a linebacker coach and in time became the defensive coordinator. Building on what Ray Perkins had started, Parcells began to turn the Giants’ program around, and by the middle of the decade they were once again a feared team. Anyone who played them had to pay a price, and even if you won, the victory tended to be Pyrrhic. They played in the NFC East, where the football was not always fancy, and at a time when the Redskins, Eagles, Cowboys, and Giants competed for hegemony. It was very physical football, with plenty of outdoor games late in the season in what would surely be cold, windy, perhaps even snowy weather.
page 145

Belichick had been asked to come out to Minnesota by his old friend Floyd Reese, who had taken a job as defensive coordinator and who offered him a job with the Vikings as a kind of deputy, handling the defensive backs. Les Steckel, a tough, hard-line kind of coach, was about to replace Bud Grant, who was considered to be one of the last of the laid-back coaches. Steckel was not in any way laid back, he was an ex-Marine and an Ironman competitor, and he was going to run a very different kind of team. Belichick had flown out and talked with Reese and Steckel, and the pay was very good for that period-$60,000 a year plus bonuses. He had come very close to taking the job, so close that it had even been announced on the local Minnesota television stations on the late night news.

But at the last minute he had pulled back. There were too many things that bothered him-a new head coach, a large part of the coaching staff left over from his predecessor, an uncertainty as to whether he would fit in well with the group other than with Reese. The next morning Reese came by to pick him up and Belichick said he couldn’t do it. For all the things that were wrong with the New York situation-the second-rate practice facilities, the uncertainty at the top-he was happier than he had realized back East, not at all sure of how well he would do in the Midwest. He liked the East Coast and had fallen in love with Nantucket, the island off Cape Cod, and hoped to build a house there. He was not sure he would fit in well under Steckel, who did not work out well in Minnesota and was gone in a year. But the very sense that he had a choice made him feel better, indeed liberated him. He was not locked into one venue, and he returned from Minnesota happier than when he had gone out, because he had chosen his job, and the job had not entirely chosen him.
page 151

With the game on the line and thousands of people screaming away, often in hostile venues, Belichick did not lose his cool; he could always somehow manage to step back and take a cold look a what the other team was doing and what his own team had tried, and then figure out what he needed to do in terms of instant adjustment. That, Adams believed, became a kind of Belichick trademark: the ability to adapt his game plan even as the game was being played out, and not to be sucked in by the emotions of it, or to be a prisoner of what he had decided to do beforehand. In Adams’s words, that was “the rarest kind of ability- the ability to see the game as if it were over even as it was being played out.” It would not do very much good, Belichick would often say, to do a brilliant analysis on Monday.
All of that, Adams believed, came together in his other trademark: He was an outstanding situational coach, a man who could get his team to adapt week after week in order to respond to the strength and weaknesses of any particular team they would be playing. Most of the other teams were much more predictable; each Sunday the same team with essentially the same defense would show up. But his teams were always a bit different, always adapting to the needs of that week and that particular opposition. This was never more in evidence than during the extraordinary run the Patriots made during the 2004 playoffs, as they defeated the Colts, the Steelers, and finally the Eagles- three very exceptional and very different teams- with a dazzling display of defensive artistry, but different artistry each week. What was particularly interesting, Adams believed, was that Belichick already had much of that ability when he joined the Giants in 1979; it was just a matter of letting it flower.
page 156

One of the things that impressed him [owner Robert Kraft] in his early talks with Belichick, when the latter was an assistant head coach in New England, was that Belichick seemed to think much the same way, and could break the team down, player by player, and give a knowing estimate of the value received for each player. Belichick had come up with his own philosophy of how to operate in the current NFL; he seemed wary of throwing big money at available superstar players. A truly great player, one who completely altered a given game, a Lawrence Taylor, he said, came along very rarely. The right model was to scout well, both in the draft and free agency, and create a team with a lot of good players, in effect a team with a significant amount of depth and as many interchangeable parts as possible. It was important to figure out how much a player-or a position-was worth in the contemporary game, because each salary potentially subtracted from every other salary. That view made Belichick a coach who was far ahead of the curve, Kraft decided. He had already checked around the League and decided that most other coaches wanted all the star players they could get, and wanted them on the roster immediately. The mantra of the coaches, always so close to being fired, was I’ve got to have him… and I’ve got to have him now…

Years later Kraft, who by then had become a good deal more expert about the League, would decide that Belichick was very different from most other coaches, first because he made it his business to know as much as he could about the cap, and second, because unlike most head coaches, who felt enormous pressure to win and win quickly, he did not instinctively want to pour all his resources into his team as quickly as he could, and did not think that the future was now, and took care not to become, as the phrase went, capped out, trading the future for the present. Instead he understood that the way order to succeed as a coach you had to be a businessman as well and know the cap and its long-range consequences. He did not want to throw money at seemingly dazzling players who might bring a team a quick fix and then a long downward descent, but who might also regard their big-ticket free-agent salary as a reward long due them, while at the same time throwing your own team’s salary structure and emotional balance-out of whack. Pro football had never been a place for coaches who were sentimental; in the era of the salary cap sentiment became even more of a weakness.

When Kraft and Parcells parted in uncommon acrimony, Kraft had a sense that Belichick badly wanted the head coaching job. But Kraft’s animosity toward Parcells was so great that it affected Belichick as well- guilt by association, Kraft would say later. He did not know how complicated the internal dynamic between Parcells and Belichick was, but he was sure that he did not want to hire a man who could have worked with Bill Parcells so closely for so long. Later he faulted himself for not knowing that the coach he would eventually want was the one who was already working for him. Kraft knew there was a certain back-channel word about Belichick, which was that he was a brilliant coordinator but doomed to be that and nothing more. (Belichick hated that, and hated the fact that George Young, when he was the general manager of the Giants, had bad-mouthed him when jobs as a head coach opened up.) Kraft decided to hire Belichick.
page 204,205


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