“Don’t go into coaching unless you absolutely can’t live without it.” —Bear Bryant
Bill Belichick became known to the world on a cool winter night in Tampa, Florida. January 27, 1991. Super Bowl XXV. New York Giants vs. Buffalo Bills. Then 38 years old, Belichick was New York’s defensive coordinator, and the Giants defense, led by legendary Lawrence Taylor, allowed fewer points than any other that season, most recently beating the 49ers and Joe Montana—back-to-back Super Bowl champions—in the NFC Championship Game.
The Bills, however, were seven-point favorites with a historically great no-huddle offense led by a pair of Hall of Famers, quarterback Jim Kelly and running back Thurman Thomas (not to mention two Hall of Fame receivers, Andre Reed and James Lofton). In two prior playoff games, the Bills racked up 995 yards and 95 points.
That night, Belichick, now known as a phenomenal contrarian, went contrary to himself. He always preached stop the run. Whatever happens, stop the run. But for this game he said, “Let Thomas run.”
Belichick knew that Bills offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda, who gave him his first NFL job, let his players call their own plays, and he thought Kelly to be poor at reading defenses. Shutting down Thomas meant Kelly possibly burning them for 300 yards or more, but giving Thomas slack on the ground could keep Kelly from taking over by air.
Belichick joined the Giants in 1979, working his way up from special teams assistant, and he’d worked in head coach Bill Parcells’ thick, dark shadow since 1983. But then the Giants let Thomas run for 135 yards and held Kelly to 212 passing yards and no touchdowns, and they won 20-19. It was one of the NFL’s iconic games. The Pro Football Hall of Fame now has Belichick’s game plan from the night on display (also the metallic red Giants jacket he wore—The Hoodie was still 14 years away).
After that game, NFL media described Belichick as “brilliant,” “original” and “genius.” They finally saw what others had known for years. Peter King, who covered the Giants for Newsday until 1989, said, “Lawrence Taylor, maybe the best player in the NFL—certainly the best defensive player—and all these great football players, looked at Belichick like, 'This guy has a secret that nobody else has.' "
It was the Giants’ second Super Bowl win in the five years since Belichick became defensive coordinator. Since then, of course, he’s won four more Super Bowls as the New England Patriots’ head coach. He's also become quite possibly the NFL’s greatest head coach ever and maybe its greatest provocateur, as well as one of pop culture’s great icons of sullen, controversial, defiant excellence. He is as famous for his hard scowl and gray-hooded sweatshirt with sleeves half hacked off as his coaching greatness.
It almost never came to pass.
We almost never knew the splendor that is The Hoodie. Between the Giants and his current job in New England, Belichick had a disastrous decade in which, among other nightmares, Parcells told him he could never be a head coach. Yes, really. But even before all that—before the Giants, once upon a time, Belichick wasn’t sure he’d make it as an NFL coach at all.
Bill Belichick looks like a stern father. Conservative brown haircut, receding and parted on the left without a drop of product. His face: all hard lines and firm glares, almost like he’s always expecting to be disappointed. He looks so spectacularly un-fun that he’s become an Internet meme—a picture of him from a press conference that looks more like a mug shot, captioned LET’S PARTY.
You’re not going to believe this, but in college, Belichick did party, indeed. He was president of Wesleyan University’s Chi Psi fraternity, described to the Boston Globe by one member as “Animal House before the movie.” He rocked out to The Beatles and Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, skipped class to go to Mardi Gras, sneaked a case of beer into Gone with the Wind by holding it under his puffy coat. He had long, shaggy hair.
Bill graduated with an economics degree and a job offer from Procter & Gamble, but he was obsessed with coaching. He played football, lacrosse and squash at Wesleyan, and a lacrosse teammate once told the late David Halberstam—who wrote the book The Education of a Coach about Belichick in 2005—that he was “like a second coach.” According to the Globe, he and his buddies once ran out of money in New Orleans and got stranded there. Belichick’s dad connected them with his friend Jim Royer, a Saints assistant coach. After Royer took them in, Belichick’s friends kept partying, but he stayed with Royer to talk football.
He sent out 250 letters to college coaches. Nothing. In 1975, he got his first job from Marchibroda, then-head coach for the Baltimore Colts, by telling him, “You don’t even have to pay me—just give me something real.” Marchibroda needed a cheap film guy, and Belichick was passionate. Done deal.
Fellow coaches loved him. He worked hard, and he was smart.
Players, though: “[Some] wanted to clock him,” Colts linebacker Stan White told Halberstam.
If Belichick seems harsh now, you should have seen his early years. He was so arrogant and brash that Colts players called him a punk. Belichick was a kid. Not even 24. He hadn’t sniffed pro ball or even gone to some great football school like Notre Dame or Alabama. He didn’t look like a football guy—next to pro football players, he could look positively small. He didn’t fit in this hyper-macho world. (It didn’t help that part of his job was collecting playbooks from cut players.)
So, “His attitude, because he was so young,” White said, “was, ‘I’m not going to let you push me around because I’m so young, I’m going to push you around first.’ ”
He didn’t ease off until he established himself with the Giants, and even then only little by little. Belichick told Halberstam that he didn’t want to be that stern, cocky guy, but he felt it was a mask he had to wear to earn the respect and authority required to survive this world. Halberstam wrote, “He believed he had been forced to be more aloof and more authoritarian than most coaches or teachers working their first jobs. … A stern game face did not hurt.”
Same went for the media. Belichick didn’t become the gruff Belichick we all know and love until Cleveland. Long ago, Belichick and journalists actually got along.
Bob Glauber, a Giants beat reporter in the 1980s, remembers Belichick answering questions about defense by happily drawing diagrams right on Glauber’s notepad. Imagine that now. Bill Belichick taking notes for a reporter.
“He was very easy to talk to in those days,” King said. “He was polite enough if you approached him, and he would explain everything he could.”
When Belichick went to Cleveland, however, he took Parcells’ approach—minimal media access and as Belichickianly combative as you can imagine when challenged. Problem was, Cleveland’s media were accustomed to as much access as they could ask for, and here came this new coach pushing them around without even winning a game yet.
Belichick later told Halberstam that this was a mistake. Even still, in private, he tried to be kind. He once kicked then-Plain Dealer beat reporter Tony Grossi out of a practice but invited him to his office later for what became an hourlong conversation.
“I explained how he was so hard to cover,” Grossi told Bleacher Report, “and he explained why he put these things in place, and he thinks we were against the team because of him. It all went back to being competitive. He said, 'If I answer that question the way you want, I’m giving up information. I’m lessening our chances to have some kind of an advantage.' All coach stuff."
Some today call him smug and mean, but author Peter Richmond, who once spent a couple days with Belichick for a GQ magazine story, said, “If he were to joke and suddenly lighten up with everybody, it would compromise who he is. He’s certainly capable of doing it. He could come out next week and start telling one-liners and tell you what happened on that play and what happened with this player. But he’d be saying to himself, 'You’re cutting away at your ability to be a really good coach. You’re showing too much.' "
It came from deep paranoia—someone else might be as obsessively competitive as he was.
Grossi said, “He would read every opponent’s media stories leading up to games to gain anything he could from the coaches’ quotes, player quotes, or he would have an assistant do it and highlight things. Sometimes he would be amazed at how much information they were giving up without even knowing it. He was ahead of everyone on that. Now, more and more coaches have since copied him, but back then it wasn’t that common.”
And the media didn’t exactly prove him wrong. The world was fast entering an age wherein media lived for controversy, however mild or severe or true or false, and the Cleveland media teed off on Belichick.
“You never know how they’re going to twist what you’re going to say,” said Vinny DiTrani, a just-retired Giants beat writer who’s known Belichick for decades. “He constantly has to worry about someone looking for something to hang him with.”
Some reporters were fair, but most just wrote whatever made the best headlines. That was part of Belichick’s problem in Cleveland; and that’s truer now than ever, here in the Wild West Instant Internet Age of shooting first and reporting later.
DiTrani remembers covering a Patriots-Giants preseason game last year. Tom Brady wasn’t playing, but Belichick sent his quarterback out to hold for a field goal.
Everyone made it about, 'He’s embarrassing him,' all this. I asked him about it after, because I’m thinking maybe Brady is his backup holder, and as thorough as he is about these things, he probably just wanted to give him a snap. And he said yep, that’s all there was to it. … That sums him up. He had a plan. He sends them out there with a purpose. Everything he does is with a purpose. To win.
The mask was useful, but Belichick knew it was worthless without substance underneath. So he studied the hell out of some film, which is where his love for football began. It was born out of the way young boys want to be with their fathers, no matter what.
Steve Belichick was a scout and coach at Navy and, per Rick Maese of the Baltimore Sun, “the best football mind that no one knew.” And he was frequently not home, as he was either at Navy for work or on the road to scout opponents. When he was home, he spent a lot of time in a dark room with a projector, watching film. So young Bill sat with him, and together they watched football flicker on the walls. Before long, the game had him. Steve and Jeannette Belichick would check on their son’s homework to find him diagramming football plays.
So, to be a good coach, Bill Belichick went into the dark for hours and emerged with visions of the future. He slept on office desks. He woke coaches at 3 a.m. saying he’d seen new ways to win. Colts defensive back Bruce Laird told Halberstam, “He burned with his purpose, which was football.”
He was so good that by the end of training camp the Colts general manager started slipping him $25 a week. That doubled halfway through the campaign. Most importantly, by season’s end, instead of going to other coaches with questions, players went directly to Belichick. He later told Halberstam that’s when he knew he could make it as a coach—that knowing the game was more important than where he had or hadn’t played. “For him it was an epiphany,” Halberstam wrote, “and it was a thrilling one.”
Maxie Baughan, then the Colts’ defensive coordinator, told Halberstam, “He was the forerunner of something new, that professional football was not just a game, but that it was a profession.”
Belichick still studies film rigorously, a job most coaches eagerly delegate. That’s because of his overriding obsession with finding every possible way to win. Carl Banks, a Pro Bowl linebacker for Belichick with the Giants and Browns, said, “He’s going to go through newspapers, the rulebook, the Internet, wherever, and he’s going to find some new way to beat you. He’s obsessed with being the best. He loves that the game evolves—the challenge for him is to stay at the top of it.”
Just the latest example came in this past season’s playoffs, when he manipulated—legally—substitution and eligible receiver rules to trick the Baltimore Ravens defense into leaving a receiver, lined up as an offensive lineman, wide open. “We were willing to do whatever it takes to win,” right guard Ryan Wendell told ESPN.com's Lee Schechter after the divisional round win.
The ploy worked so devastatingly well (three times for three first downs) that Ravens coach John Harbaugh later cried "deception," and then other coaches complained, too. The NFL changed the rule so Belichick couldn’t do it anymore.
He was the most attention-to-detail coach I’ve ever been around. We were all taught to understand every aspect of playing defense. He was smart about it—we never did senseless drills. … And I always call him a teacher moreso than a coach. And don’t get me wrong, he’s tough. But as tough as he is, there are very few players, if any, that leave his organization and have bad things to say about him. Players absolutely love playing for him. His sole purpose is to make sure his players are in a position to have success. It’s not cause and effect for him. It’s, "How does this make us better? How can I get better? How can WE get better?" The only critics that you’ll hear of his are the ones who never worked for him. You just love working for the guy, because he gives you as much as he’s expecting you to give the team.
Belichick regularly worked with Tom Coughlin, then the Giants' receivers coach. “We helped each other,” Coughlin said via email. “And would act as each other’s scout squad. Both sides benefited.”
DiTrani remembers Belichick having Giants nose tackle Jim Burt's jersey sewn on over his shoulder pads, so tight that offensive linemen couldn't grab it. “He would actually have it cut up and sewn back on to get it tight as possible,” DiTrani said. “He’s inventive. He’s always thinking. And I think just anything he can do that he thinks will help him win, he’s gonna do it.”
“I’ve never seen a football coach as technically proficient and imaginative as Belichick,” Glauber said.
“I mean, he would go into a garbage can in the opposing coaches’ locker room; he would do anything to gain an advantage,” Grossi said.
Of course, Belichick’s relentless pursuit of the competitive edge has rammed him up against the NFL’s rules more than once. Belichick always says it’s unintentional. Misunderstandings and whatnot. Banks said, “The whole Spygate thing? They were found guilty, obviously, but there’s a whole other narrative that never gets out—every interview he gave about that, he would say it: 'Most of the league was doing the same thing.' He thought it was OK. But then interviewers just go on to the next question.”
So Belichick just keeps on the mask, even though the irony is that the more he stays behind it, the more we want to see him. We’re drawn to the withdrawn. We always seek narratives, and our favorite stories are those of antiheroes and contrarians. We love to see just how far someone can bend the rules. How far maybe we can.
Coaching-wise, Belichick’s career followed the same track as his time in Baltimore: Coaches loved him and players learned to. After Baltimore, Belichick spent two seasons with his father’s old team, the Detroit Lions, in 1976 and 1977 as an assistant special teams coach and receivers coach.
The season after that he was assistant special teams coach for the Denver Broncos, where he learned from defensive coordinator Joe Collier’s legendary “Orange Crush” defense and gleaned the importance of smart players who understood the value of playing their role over being a star.
From there it was on to the Giants and then to Super Bowls XXI and XXV and the declarations of brilliance and genius.
But then, some storms.
After Super Bowl XXV, Belichick took his first job as a head coach, with the Cleveland Browns. It seemed like a perfect fit—brilliant, original, genius coach, passionate fans, a team that had made the playoffs five years straight. And, as usual, Belichick got along well with the coaching staff. He gave his TV show money to assistants, and he was always slipping them $100 bills, remembering how broke he used to be. “He gave everyone a second Christmas,” former line coach Kirk Ferentz told Sports Illustrated's King.
But aside from the coaches—and one radio guy, Casey Coleman—it seemed like all of Cleveland hated Belichick. Browns fans saw a Super Bowl right around the corner, but Belichick saw a roster in dire need of an overhaul, full of aging players with eroding skills.
The team had been together a while and had grown to expect certain things. And he came in and changed the way they practiced and ran things, and that was a culture shock. A lot of those guys had been set in their ways. He had to go about weeding out players who didn’t buy in, and a lot of those players he weeded out were very popular. And that then compounded his PR problem.
Belichick made several unpopular decisions in Cleveland but none more explosive than the one involving quarterback Bernie Kosar. He was getting older, and he wasn’t as good as he once was, but Kosar was popular in Cleveland—the guy Browns fans believed would get them their Super Bowl.
Things between Kosar and Belichick—and Cleveland—soured when Belichick brought in Vinny Testaverde and made Kosar the backup. Then one Sunday Testaverde got hurt, and Kosar didn’t run plays Belichick called. Belichick cut him the next day.
Cleveland raged. Belichick received death threats. His kids couldn’t ride the school bus. He had cops stationed outside his home (ditto for Coleman, who supported him). Cleveland Municipal Stadium echoed with chants of "BILL MUST GO!"
Browns owner Art Modell didn’t exactly help. He welcomed the media and was always telling them things Belichick thought should be kept secret.
“Art Modell was very ready, fire, aim," King said. “He would just shoot off his mouth and leave it to people in the organization to deal with it.”
And Modell quickly became frustrated with Belichick. “Bottom line is, Art Modell wanted a guy who could win the press conferences, too,” King said. “Belichick and Modell ended up being just totally different people.”
Belichick later told King it was “the most off-the-charts negative situation maybe in football history.”
Modell announced he was moving the team to Baltimore in the middle of the 1995 season. It went 5-11. And when it was finished, Modell fired Belichick over the phone.
Now, Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft have one of the best coach-owner relationships in sports, but high drama nearly destroyed Belichick’s start in New England.
After Cleveland, Belichick spent three more years working under his old buddy, Bill Parcells. The first year was actually in New England, where Parcells was head coach, Belichick assistant head coach. Things were fine between them—they went 11-5 and made the Super Bowl, losing to the Packers—but Parcells had an awful relationship with Kraft.
Over the next few years, Belichick was the New York Jets’ head coach twice without ever coaching a game. He left New England to be the Jets’ interim head coach in 1997, but then Parcells left the Patriots to take over coaching the Jets. (Kraft later said he should have hired Belichick then and there, but things between Kraft and Parcells were so nasty that Kraft needed a clean break.) Belichick became Parcells’ assistant head coach and defensive coordinator. Again.
After the 1999 season, Kraft badly wanted Belichick and asked the Jets’ permission to talk with him. The Jets denied him, and Parcells suddenly announced that he was retiring as Jets head coach but staying on staff as “a consultant,” which the New York Times speculated was to manipulate Belichick into becoming the Jets’ head coach.
Belichick was their coach for one day. Right before his first press conference, he scrawled “I resign as HC of the NYJ” on a napkin then delivered a rambling, sweaty half-hour speech with his hands and voice shaking.
“He understood that if you’re a coach and you can’t totally commit yourself to a job, then you shouldn’t do the job,” King said. “He was prepared to sit out rather than coach a team he felt like was a dead-end job.”
Belichick couldn’t commit partially because the Jets’ owner, Leon Hess, had died recently, and the team was still for sale. Belichick didn’t want another nightmare owner.
And then there was Parcells, who could be a bully. With the Giants, it took Belichick so long to get on the world’s radar partly because Parcells always took credit for the team’s success, even though many people knew Belichick was special. John Washington, a Giants defensive lineman in the late ‘80s, told Brian Costello of the New York Post, “He was the most instrumental part of us winning those Super Bowls.”
Glauber said, “I would often say, 'Hey, Bill, you really deserve a lot of the credit.' There would be the shoulder shrug, or maybe the eye roll, that told you, 'Yeahhh, it might be nice.' But he wasn’t obsessed with it.”
Belichick went unrecognized partly because Parcells didn’t like media talking with his assistant coaches but also because Belichick avoided taking credit. “He was extremely quiet,” King said. “Sort of shuffled through the locker room, head down. He just wanted to do his job.”
Not only that, but Parcells could be downright cruel. Take one awful moment reported in Halberstam’s book. Belichick called a blitz. Parcells didn’t want to blitz. Belichick expected the other team to do one thing. Parcells said it'd do something else, but Belichick could do what he wanted. This sort of thing happened all the time.
Belichick was right. The blitz worked.
Parcells was furious.
In the middle of the game, over the open microphones for God and everyone to hear, Parcells said, “Yeah, you’re a genius, everyone knows it, a goddamn genius, but that’s why you failed as a head coach—that’s why you’ll never be a head coach.”
And there was Kraft, saying he should have never let Belichick go and saying Belichick would be not only his head coach but also general manager. Total control. So Belichick resigned as head coach of the Jets and then, after much negotiation between Kraft and New York, he became the Patriots’ head coach.
The move gave Belichick everything he wanted and then some. When Belichick felt compelled to explain decisions, Kraft waved him off, saying, “I just want you to do what you think is right.”
When Belichick first took over, the Patriots looked nothing like the dynasty they’ve become. They went 5-11 his first season, same as his last in Cleveland. The team had some problems, and even at 48 years old, Belichick still had much to learn.
Kraft later told King, “He used to be a junior Parcells. He walked around saying things like, ‘This team's worse than I thought,’ or, ‘We can't win with this.’ I told him to cut it out. Who needs that? Talk to me about what we can do to make it better. And he did.”
Belichick expected the next season to be another building year, especially after star quarterback Drew Bledsoe was injured in Week 2. Bledsoe’s backup was a slow, skinny second-year guy they’d drafted in the sixth round. Belichick certainly didn’t expect it to become the most important season of his career. But then Bledsoe’s backup turned out to be Tom Brady, who became the full-time starter in Week 11, with New England sitting at 5-5 after a 24-17 loss to the Rams.
Like Kosar, Bledsoe was a Pro Bowler. Like Kosar, he was popular. It could have gone very badly. But they won their last six regular-season games, finished 11-5, and Brady was great.
Then came the AFC Championship Game.
Brady twisted his ankle in the second quarter. Bledsoe took over and played well, and they beat the Steelers. Everyone expected Bledsoe to play in the Super Bowl. He held a slew of Patriots passing records; he was the veteran—all that. Bledsoe was the “right” call, the cover-your-ass call. Especially against the St. Louis Rams, the 14-point favorites, “The Greatest Show on Turf,” who averaged 31 points per game and dismantled them—and Brady—before.
But same as with Kosar, Belichick no doubt saw Bledsoe fading, and this time, he had Tom Brady. The kid played well, sure, but, as Halberstam noted, he also worked like no quarterback Belichick had ever seen. He worked how Belichick worked. He had receivers stay late to run routes for him—and pushed them to be better themselves, a leader—and he was always in a dark room, studying film. A quarterback after Belichick’s own heart.
The decision could have ruined Belichick’s career. In an alternate universe where Brady bombs, maybe we never know who Bill Belichick is.
But that night the legend began. Brady was brilliant, especially as he coolly led the last-minute drive that set up their winning field goal. The Patriots won 20-17. And Brady was named Super Bowl MVP.
Belichick’s signature gray hoodie with the sleeves half hacked off appeared four years later in Week 9 of the 2005 campaign, the season after Belichick’s third Super Bowl with New England and fifth total. It’s not Belichick’s only hoodie, of course. He wore a navy blue one for last season’s historic Super Bowl win. But Ol’ Mangled Gray is the One True Hoodie. Ever since, the Patriots have won 80 percent of the games he’s worn it. Yes, there are people who track such things.
Belichick says he started wearing it just because it was comfortable. “I carry my stuff in my pouch,” he said, per Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports. In an interview with Style Boston's Linda Holliday (via Business Insider), he said he cuts the sleeves off just because he has short arms. But some say he started wearing The Hoodie because he was irritated when the NFL signed an endorsement deal requiring coaches to wear approved clothing during games, so he chose the ugliest option and uglied it up some more.
What’s true? Who knows. Maybe all of it. Peter Richmond said, “He’s just saying, 'I’m Bill Belichick. As long as I’m in this league, I’ll win. But don’t ask me to be a sheep.'”
There’s no asking him now and expecting a real answer about The Hoodie or anything else. The Deflategate circus has made him—and all his friends—even less friendly with media than usual, more than ever on the lookout for our noose. It’s all blank face and tight lips and quick, mumbled answers for now.
But that mask, that Bill Belichick mug shot of a face, says everything, really. It’s the face of someone forced to do something he doesn’t want to do. Maybe even trying to hint that he hates the conversation. Saying he’d really rather be doing something else. Like maybe he wants everyone to leave him the heck alone already so he can just go coach some football.
That’s all he’s ever wanted. As a boy, he didn’t just love the game or its glory or even only the way it connected him to his father. There was his father and the other coaches’ and players’ passionate and shared pursuit of excellence. There was, in high school, as America entered the age of integration, the way football united divided people into loyal teammates. There was the unique way the game, brutal though it could be, created astonishingly deep human connections. And it all began with a good coach. Halberstam wrote, “There was, he decided, an exceptional richness to his father’s life.”
Withdrawn and even robotic as Belichick can be under his mask, he’s still a man of profound human emotion that sometimes spills out when he feels safe. Like in his 2009 NFL Films A Football Life episode, when he tours old Giants Stadium before his Week 2 game against the Jets. It’s where he forged his path to his first Super Bowl wins. Where he spent a lot of 80-hour weeks. All those endless hours watching football in the dark. Some of the best years of his life, he said.
This was his last visit. The stadium would be destroyed after the season to make room for a new one.
In the hallway outside the coaches’ locker room, a producer asked about who he used to be, where he thought he would go. Belichick rubbed his neck and nodded. “I probably wouldn’t have thought it would turn out like this. ... I was just trying to ... be a good coach.” His voice shook a little as he spoke. His eyes filled up. He smiled.
Nick Selbe, a member of Bleacher Report's Advanced Program in Sports Media, contributed research for this report.