Perfection the goal for driven Belichick
New England's Sir Alf Ramsey will not suffer Patriots games tomorrow as he seeks to emulate Miami's unbeaten season by winning a fourth Super Bowl
Saturday 02 February 2008
When the Super Bowl was last held in the state of Arizona, 12 years ago, the stock of Bill Belichick, current head coach of the New England Patriots, could barely have been lower.
He had just been fired after five turbulent, disappointing and unsuccessful seasons at Cleveland and few would have bet on him ever getting a chance at being the top man again after he had fluffed his lines dreadfully at his first attempt.
What a difference between then and now. Tomorrow night, Belichick has the chance to enhance his already impressive credentials as one of the greatest coaches in his sport's history, when his Patriots take on the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. If the Patriots prevail, and the Las Vegas oddsmakers would appear to have little doubt about the matter, then Belichick will become only the second coach in history with four Super Bowls to his name, all achieved in a seven-year span.
Of even more significance is the fact that his team will have completed a perfect season: 19 games, 19 wins. In a sport which prides itself on the parity of its participants, that has only ever happened once before, when the Miami Dolphins survived 17 games unscathed in 1972.
The coach of those Dolphins, Don Shula, would go on to enjoy more wins than any other coach in history, and now retired in California, is held in the highest esteem. Don Shula isn't so much respected by those who play and coach the gridiron game as loved.
Bill Belichick is respected – his record demands it – but he is not loved, and it is not difficult to understand why. He makes no secret of the fact that the only thing that matters to him is his team. Outside influences will not be tolerated. He has no interest in his image. If you have nothing to offer him in terms of winning football games, he has little to offer you in return.
To watch Belichick endure a mandatory one-hour examination at Media Day earlier this week was to witness unintentional comedy as a bored-looking Belichick determinedly fended off his verbal assailants.
An innocent request from a Mexican television station for him to say something to New England fans south of the border was met with: "I don't speak Spanish." A British journalist attempted a comparison with Manchester United: "I don't know anything about soccer."
Someone else attempted to get philosophical. Is he different from how he is perceived by the public. "I don't know. Next," was the curt response.
Old-school British sports writers would have noted similarities with Sir Alf Ramsey. He apparently didn't care what anyone thought of him either. All that mattered was the bond between Ramsey and his players, an ethos of us against the world.
Belichick rarely smiles in public, and on the sidelines, he cuts a scruffy, unkempt figure, hunched deep inside a baggy, grey-hooded sweatshirt. This is a hoodie few would wish to hug, unless you happened to be one of his players.
When hired by the Patriots eight years ago, many thought owner Robert Kraft displayed flawed judgement. Not only had there been the failure in Cleveland, which had been marked by a public falling-out with the quarterback Bernie Kosar, who is to Cleveland what Alan Shearer is on Tyneside, but there was also the bizarre 24-hour stint with the New York Jets, Belichick accepting the coaching job one day only to resign the next.
Kraft, however, has been proved shrewd in his assessment of his coach's strength of character. "A lot of people thought I was making an error, but in the end I am into substance," he said. "I am not into lipstick and powder."
There is no magic formula with Belichick. His greatest strength has always been an intense level of preparation, an understanding of his team's strengths and how to exploit opposing weaknesses.
It is difficult to get Belichick to expand on his philosophy, but it is evident that a strong work ethic is essential, with a deep-seated sense of team unity a core value. "It isn't about football," he said. "It's about being professional, and doing the right thing." There is no doubt that Belichick's almost paranoid response to the outside world can act as a source of inspiration to those around him. Earlier this season, he was caught red-handed cheating, by filming the sidelines of his opponents, the New York Jets.
Guilty beyond argument, the coach was personally fined $500,000 (£252,000). Publicly, Belichick acknowledged only a "mistake", apologised to Kraft for the embarrassment caused, and insisted that he would say nothing more on the matter.
And despite repeated attempts to lure him out of his protective cocoon, Belichick has successfully repelled all boarders, with his players happy to man the barricades. This week, the issue has barely been raised. The cheating has certainly contributed nothing to the Patriots' quest for perfection.
Will the occasion affect his players tomorrow night? Will they stumble on the threshold of immortality? Belichick is simply repeating his "one game at a time" mantra, a soundtrack that hasn't changed all season.
Does he feel a sense of history? Is he aware that one day, we might talk about him, rather than Shula, as the unequalled master of his craft? If he is, he's hiding it well. "We're just thinking about the Giants," he said. "The rest of it, maybe we'll talk about it later, but I really haven't given it much thought."
Watching the Patriots brush aside 18 opponents so far this season, including the Giants in a 38-35 thriller last December, the likelihood is that New England will find a way to win once more. Pragmatism rather than romance will make the difference.
Whatever happens, Belichick will start planning for next season as soon as this one has been concluded. "Maybe I was born to coach," he mused in a rare moment of illumination. He might not win many admirers along the way, but if a coach is measured by his success on the field of play, then Bill Belichick is the undoubted master of his craft.
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