Super Bowl 2015: Controversy follows Bill Belichick

The most successful coach in the NFL goes into the Super Bowl with his reputation tarnished as questions are raised about his practices going back to the 2007 “Spygate” scandal, writes Tom Sheen

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The Independent Online

Since Bill Belichick arrived as the head coach of the New England Patriots in 2000, they have been seen as the model franchise to which all other teams in the National Football League aspire.

In those 15 years Belichick has recorded just one losing season, his first on the job, and failed to reach the play-offs just three times. He has won his division 12 times, with a regular-season record of 175 wins and 65 losses, won more play-off games than any coach in history and will, on Sunday, take part in his sixth Super Bowl; he has won three of the previous five.

Not only has he coached his team to great success on the field, the 62-year-old is also the franchise’s general manager which gives him the ability to choose which players they sign. Type ‘Bill Belichick’ into search engine Google and the first suggested search that appears after it is “genius” – Belichick is revered in the US as definitely heading to the sport’s Hall of Fame; he can already make a very strong claim to be the greatest coach in NFL history.

But ever since arriving in New England he has been shrouded in controversy, the “Deflategate” scandal the most recent in a long line of murky sagas that have hit his reputation hard.

In the wake of “Deflategate”, when a number of balls were found to be below pressure in the recent AFC Championship win over the Indianapolis Colts, former Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney highlighted various events surrounding Belichick and the Patriots, stretching back to another controversy, “Spygate” in 2007 and before then, Belichick’s controversial resignation from the New York Jets that brought him to the Patriots.

“It’s an issue of if there is a culture of cheating at the organisation that most people look at as the gold standard in this league,” said Hurney, whose Panthers were beaten by the Patriots at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. “Is there a culture of cheating and breaking the rules?”

Belichik had joined the Patriots in controversial circumstances in 1999. When Bill Parcells stepped down from the head coaching role of the Jets, he had arranged for Belichick, then defensive co-ordinator, to take over the reins from him.

Minutes prior to the start of a press conference that was supposed to be his introduction into the job, Belichick famously handed a handwritten note to Jets president Steve Gutman, that simply read: “I resign as the HC of the NYJ.” Belichick then took the podium and explained his decision to the stunned media, who had been expecting to hear about his plans for the Jets. Days later he was announced as head coach at the Patriots.

The Patriots would eventually have to hand a highly valuable first-round draft pick to the Jets, who successfully argued that the coach was under contract when he made the short move across to New England.

New England went on to dominate at the turn of the century, winning the Super Bowl in 2001, 2003 and 2004. However, that success turned to deep suspicion when the “Spygate” scandal took hold of the US in 2007. And a NFL investigation found the Patriots to have been videotaping the signals used by the New York Jets defensive coaches from the sideline.

Belichick was slapped with a maximum $500,000 fine, the largest imposed on a coach in NFL history, while the Patriots were fined a further $250,000 and docked their first-round pick in the 2008 draft.

All notes and tapes were turned over to the league and destroyed without being made public, a decision that was criticised by US Senator Arlen Specter, who called for an independent investigation citing conflict of interest. There were claims that the practice had been going on since Belichick took over as head coach of the franchise back in 2000, particularly strong allegations that the St Louis Rams, whom the Patriots defeated in Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, had been one of many teams filmed.

The Patriots vehemently denied, and still do, that any filming of the Rams had taken place but the lasting damage had been done. Sceptics point to New England’s relative lack of success since “Spygate”, with this Sunday representing just their second Super Bowl appearance, they lost the other to the New York Giants, in the seven seasons since it took place.

“There isn’t a day that goes by since [then] that I haven’t questioned... that there were some things done that might have been beyond the rules that may have given them a three-point advantage,” Hurney added.

Belichick’s demeanour as a surly, brusque individual has certainly not helped his case. While he is hugely respected for his talents as a coach and general manager, he is not popular among opposition fans and is seen as a bad loser. He was fined a further $50,000 in 2012 for angrily grabbing a referee after disagreeing with a decision.

Now “Deflategate” appears to have done almost irreparable damage to Belichick and star quarterback Tom Brady. An under-inflated ball is easier to throw and catch, especially in the poor weather in which the AFC Championship Game was played, and the Patriots had 11 of their 12 balls under the legal minimum. An NFL investigation is ongoing.

Belichick and Brady have both claimed ignorance of the matter. But the rhetoric in the US is now that one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, and one of the greatest players, are both serial cheats. The burning question is, if indeed it is proven to be true, how long have they been engaged in this practice?

Belichick will still reach the Hall of Fame, but the scandals surrounding him have forever tarnished his reputation.


Trojans scandal - Carroll caught up

Pete Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks coach who will stand opposite Bill Belichick on Sunday, was head coach of the USC Trojans when his star player Reggie Bush, was found to have accepted improper gifts from agents, effectively forfeiting his amateur status.

Bush is reported to have made hundreds of thousands of dollars between 2003 and 2005, though the true figure is unknown. Carroll continues vehemently to deny knowledge of wrongdoing but has said that the heavy penalties placed on the team – losing a national title and having an undefeated season wiped from the record books – were far too harsh.

Tom Sheen

The Independent will have live coverage of the Super Bowl from 11pm on Sunday night.