In 333 BC, a young king came to the ancient city of Gordium and was presented with an ancient puzzle: the Gordian Knot.
It had been prophesied that the man who untied the knot would become king of Asia. Many men had attempted to undo the knot; all met with failure.
The king took a look at the knot, unsheathed his sword and cut the knot neatly in half.
The young man had contemplated and put to use two facts: one, that it was impossible to untie the knot and two, that fact was irrelevant.
When it comes to problem-solving, many of us are depressingly linear in our thoughts: we see a knot and immediately move to untie it. If that should fail, we often continue with the failed strategy, dashing our heads fruitlessly against the problem.
That's why Bill Belichick is my favorite coach.
I won't use the tired "genius" trope here...Belichick himself would likely deny any pretensions to brilliance. I will say Belichick is more likely than any other coach in the NFL to employ unconventional thinking, appearances be damned.
I read an article recently by Joe Posnanski on si.com in which the author went to a Kansas City Royals game with noted baseball thinker Bill James.
In it, James advanced the theory that the reason the Royals seem content to lose conventionally was the desire to maintain the appearances of professionalism.
James said, for example, the Royals could exclusively acquire pitchers who threw under 90 miles per hour, effectively cornering the market on such players.
James said such a plan probably wouldn't work, but said the reason the Royals refused to do this was because their professional veneer (already dimmed by having a low payroll in a small market) would disappear completely.
So the Royals continue on, trying to play with the strong-armed pitchers no one else wants.
What I admire most about Belichick is his ability to removing such obstacles to winning. Entertainment, fashion, and ego (even, as some critics allege, good sportsmanship) are all sacrificed.
Belichick gives mind-numbing press conferences. He dresses like a college freshman who's late for an 8 a.m. class. He uses defensive schemes with one down lineman. He takes intentional safeties to improve his field position. He plays wide receivers at nickelback.
He's not angling for a book deal or a gig in the broadcast booth; he is a man, by all appearances, who is completely devoted to winning.
Take the Richard Seymour trade for example. Belichick traded a popular player, a player he seemed to like, a player who'd been with him for three Super Bowl titles and beyond, and traded him for a 2011 first-round pick from Oakland.
Why? Well, because there will likely be a rookie salary cap in 2011, and the Raiders will likely continue to play poorly. The Pats, in other words, would end up with a reasonably-priced, very high draft pick.
Who makes moves like that? What coach or general manager is honestly considering the state of their franchise two years down the road. We've all seen GMs make panic trades to save their jobs. How many are willing to take a two-year delayed payoff?
There's also the feature that ran in the NFL preview issue of ESPN: the magazine. Belichick, it is revealed, has his assistant coaches do research projects on the specific areas he wishes to learn more about.
One assistant went above and beyond in his project, creating a system for evaluating personnel that was better than the one the Pats were using at the time. The team adopted it.
Simple? Yes, but (as any person in the real world can tell you) demonstrably good ideas often aren't adopted. Minefields of ego and bureaucracy stand between any good idea and implementation.
The fact that the team was able to objectively judge a new idea and implement it without hassle is heartening and, I believe, creates an atmosphere conducive to winning.
Certainly, I enjoy watching Belichick because I am a Patriots fan, but I also like to think it is because I like to see the game improve as well.
By the way, that young king at Gordium was named Alexander III of Macedon. He became known as Alexander the Great after conquering much of the world by his 30th birthday.
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