Super Bowl XXXIX: Belichick, the hooded obsessive heading for gridiron greatness
As the New England Patriots prepare for tomorrow's showpiece, James Lawton in Jacksonville finds remarkable parallels between their driven head coach and Jose Mourinho
Saturday 05 February 2005
Even here on the other side of the football planet where they are staging Super Bowl XXXIX you find yourself pursuing again the elusive psyche of Jose Mourinho. He's older now, 52, and his dress sense, frankly, has gone to hell. He cannot spend much more than 10 bucks a go on his straggly hairstyle and that carefully studied six o'clock shadow is scraped away before he hunches down over another battery of game film.
But you know he is there even when he comes out in a hooded windcheater and clumpy training shoes. He has another name - Bill Belichick - and another culture and he would no more run along a touchline waving his arms than he would flash a winning smile into one of the cameras eternally playing across his craggy features, but he is there all right - he is Mourinho in another form and another game.
Or maybe Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers who enshrined himself in the language of American sport when he declared that winning wasn't the important thing, it was the only thing - and of whom one of his linebackers once said, "The greatest thing about the coach is that he doesn't play favourites. He treats us all like dogs."
The prevailing theory is that if Belichick guides his New England Patriots to their third Super Bowl victory in four years, if he gets the better of the relatively unheralded but formidably talented Andy Reid, who has taken the Philadelphia Eagles to four straight National Football Conference finals, he will announce himself as the most brilliantly penetrating and analytical coach in the history of the gridiron.
Much less emotional than Lombardi, with whom he shares a post-season record of nine wins and one loss, more thoughtful that his ultimately hard-headed Super Bowl-winning mentor Bill Parcels, his work in Boston has given him all the mystique of such modern giants as Bill Walsh of the 49ers, Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys and Dan Shula of the Miami Dolphins.
However, the parallel which lives most hauntingly, even spookily, is indeed with the Portuguese football man who conquered Europe in the time so many vastly more experienced, and distinguished, rivals take to win a toe-hold on a decent job.
Both Mourinho and Belichick are the sons of coaches. Both are failed players. Both agonised over those failures and made a vow that they would learn every nuance of the games that for one reason or another had rejected them - they wouldn't get out, they would get even, and then they might just take over the whole damned show.
There is more. When Mourinho scrambled so quickly into the coaching job of Benfica, the great club of his country, it represented breathtaking progress, but he walked away because he knew he wouldn't have a real chance to shape a team in the way that he had thought about, and worked for, ever since he had failed to win a place in his father's struggling side.
Around about the time Mourinho was slamming the door on his way out of the Estadio da Luz, Belichick was laconically addressing a hastily called press conference in New York. He was telling an astounded press corps that, no, it was nice of the great Parcells to nominate him as his successor as head coach of the Jets, the team led so spectacularly to an early Super Bowl victory by Joe Namath, but he was sorry, the job wasn't for him. Parcells, deeply impressed by Belichick when he worked as a defensive co-ordinator at the New York Giants and helped shape the anarchic brilliance of the destroyer Lawrence Taylor, was handing over a golden chalice of the game. But Belichick looked inside, saw poison and said, no, he would go his own way.
He mumbled platitudes to the press conference but privately he said, "Maybe I have just one chance left to be a successful head coach [earlier he had had a rocky time with the imperilled Cleveland Browns and had been sacked] and this just isn't the one I was looking for. I want to be judged by my own efforts, and I don't want to fail because of a set of circumstances I don't control." So as Mourinho left Benfica on his way to building a small-change empire at Porto, Belichick did the same in Boston.
The agony of Mourinho as a poorly equipped, under-performing player came to Belichick in his small college team in Connecticut. A fellow lineman recalls, "Bill had this great mind for the game, and a tremendous family background in it, but unfortunately he had this puny body. It was terrible to see his frustration. He was a better lacrosse player."
But the gridiron was his passion, his life. He grew up watching game film with his father Steve, an assistant coach for the Navy team in Annapolis, when the game against the Army still had some lingering importance, rather like the Yale-Harvard confrontations immortalised on the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He'd go with his father to the train station and later the airport to collect the films, and Belichick Senior wearied of trying to get his son to bed. The old man would be watching, and re-watching, some subtle wrinkle in the backfield, and would catch sight of the boy, eyes wide, sitting back in the shadows.
Recently Belichick's 82-year-old mother showed an intrigued visitor around the family home in the Maryland naval college town, and he was fascinated to see the sparse, monkish place where the young, driven coach read tome after tome on the tactics of war and the gridiron, a link which would not have surprised the great French soldier Marshall Foch, who after seeing the Army-Navy game said, "Mon Dieu, this game has everything ... it is like war."
In her youth Belichick's mother taught Spanish in a college in Ohio, spoke four languages fluently and understood seven. Now she did something that her son has never done - a split from the Mourinho mould here. She made a joke, saying, "The only language I speak is football." Her visitor noted that it was as though the immaculately made twin beds in Belichick's old room were awaiting military inspection.
"Whatever success I've had it is because I've tried to understand the situation of the player," says Belichick. "I think the coach's duty is to avoid complicating matters. I also like players who have a need to achieve something, players for whom things haven't come so easily. I think that type of player tends to show much greater drive and intensity."
Because of the nature of gridiron the reality is that Belichick and his rival Adams will shape tomorrow's collision more profoundly than either of two superb quarterbacks, Tom Brady of the Patriots and Donovan McNabb of the Eagles. Brady will throw with a strong arm and a cool head - the way he did while being MVP in the Super Bowl wins over the St Louis Rams and the Carolina Panthers - and McNabb will from time to time run with bite and instant vision. But they will do so at the behest of their coaches. Like so many of the Patriots, Brady's success was never assured. He was a sixth-round draft pick, much less valued than McNabb as a college player. But now they speak of him as the new Joe Montana.
His Svengali puts huge faith in Brady, but he does not lift him above his team-mates in the routines of the team. Belichick says he received the vital message from his old coach at Annapolis, Al Laramore. "I learned a lot about the team concept and toughness from him. If he was not happy in a practice he would walk over to the water bucket and kick it over. Then he would say, 'You guys ain't getting a water break today.'"
Michael Gee, a Boston writer and a fellow undergraduate at Wesleyan College, recently went to a Belichick press conference hugging what he thought was a fine question. "I asked the coach about an obscure piece I had read in some deep corner of the internet. It was by a maths professor at the University of California who was crazy about football. He said he had done the figures and that it would make sense if coaches always went for fourth down rather than kick field goals." Gee was stunned when Belichick said coolly, "Yeah, I saw that - but you know the maths professor didn't factor in that you get fired if it goes wrong."
Gee reflects, "I know Belichick has a life outside football. I sometimes see him him at Fenway watching the Red Sox with his kids. I know he has some unlikely friends, like the old rocker Jon Bon Jovi and the Broadway actress Dana Delaney. But that answer told me something I always suspected. Since an early age he has been doing a lifetime graduation course in football.
"Why do they play for him? Because in football you take away a bit of your life every time they snap the ball - it's a medical fact - so why do they do it? Because they want to win - and nobody knows how to do that better than Bill Belichick." Rodney Harrison, a spiky veteran agrees, "The coach knows ... he knows everything."
Tom Brady is likely to win the game. But we know where he will first look if it happens. It will be towards Belichick and his cold stare on the touchline. Sound familiar? Maybe you have seen a few games at Stamford Bridge.
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