Remembering Steve Belichick
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JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Belichick was never a big star and his name wasn’t widely known, but in some football circles he was a legend. An assistant coach at the college level, notably at Navy for 33 years, he was regarded as a top scout, the guy who would assess an opponent and teach his own team how to counter its strength and exploit its weaknesses.
Steve was also the father of Bill Belichick, New England Patriots coach who has won three of the last four Super Bowls, and is probably today’s most celebrated professional coach.
Steve Belichick died of heart failure this past weekend at age 86. Journalist and author David Halberstam got to know him while writing a new book “The Education of a Coach.” David Halberstam joins us now.
And welcome to you, Mr. Halberstam. It struck me in reading about Steve Belichick that this was a fascinating life behind the scenes, what we don’t see on Thanksgiving or Saturdays or Sundays as we watch the games.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: I think the father-son relationship which Steve was a great coach, but not known to the outside world where his son is a great coach in the epicenter of American popular culture, his face is signature, making some $4 million a year. I mean the contrast of that, the change in American life is something that is quite extraordinary.
One man who worked in the same profession at an extraordinary level, who works in total anonymity, and the son, who is a brilliant coach as well, faces his signature.
JEFFREY BROWN: You wrote of Steve Belichick as being known as a coach’s coach and as a truly great teacher. What did he teach? What was his insight into the game that made him special?
DAVID HALBERSTAM: He had a great eye. And he could scout brilliantly, pick up another team’s weaknesses and predilections, what it was — what it wanted to do. And therefore he — you know, he saw almost no Navy games. He was never there when Navy was playing at home or on the road. He was always scouting their next opponent.
And what he taught his son, and what he was so good at was finding those weaknesses, how to take away from another team what it wants to do, and is most comfortable doing. And that has become not by any surprise the signature of Bill Belichick, that in any given game, his team has — tends to have the advantage because he so good at scouting the opponent, looking at film, running it back and forth, 12 or 13 times until he finds the fatal weakness, and comes up with a defense that takes it away.
JEFFREY BROWN: One of the details I loved in your book when you were talking about Steve Belichick as a recruiter is you said the first thing he would look at is the ankles as the tip off to the potential speed of the player. So that kind of detail was what he looked for.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: And he found it, by the way, in his own son. He looked at his son Bill and saw thick ankles and knew that he would lack the speed and the size. So he turned him into a center where he could use his intelligence, where he didn’t have to be fast or that big.
I mean he was a wonderful scout. And he really spanned an extraordinary century in America because his parents were Croatian immigrants, working in the area of coal mines of western Pennsylvania, the steel mills of eastern Ohio. His father was unemployed during the Depression. And he got out and made it because he was a very good albeit relatively small high school running back.
And that got him to Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, and a coach picked up on him and understood that he was rough, crusty, but smart as could be, hardworking, and then everything you asked him to do, he would do and more.
And the values of that home, of nothing to be wasted, of maximizing your talents, he passed on to his son in a much more affluent America. I mean, Bill Belichick was a wealthy man. He makes a great deal of money. He is very famous. It doesn’t affect him at all.
The values of the Belichick home under Steve, you waste nothing, you respect the people you work with, and you do everything to the best of your ability, is the signature of the son today. He is very much his father’s son.
His father taught many, many young men who went into coaching; his best pupil, it is a wonderful American story in that sense — turned out to be his own son.
JEFFREY BROWN: It seems that the father also had some sense of priorities. There is a wonderful thing you wrote about when people started to refer to his son as a genius, and he would say, genius, you are talking about someone who walks up and down a football field.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: Well, what he understood, he understood how bright Bill was. And he understood that when you use the “G” word in football, you are setting someone up, that in effect, you grow up as a genius, and then you have a bad season and as you go down, people will hone in and attack you for it.
So what he was trying to do was deflate the adjective, kind of protect his son and sort of show that yes, he was very good, he was bright, he worked hard. He was always saying about Bill, he’s got his mother’s brain, not mine; he’s very crusty, Steve was. But he was protecting him from people coming after him if the Patriots or whatever team Bill coached, had a bad season.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you write about Steve Belichick’s one moment in the national spotlight was when he joined his son at the end of this year’s — I guess it is last season but earlier this year’s Super Bowl victory on the field.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: He always stayed away when there were cameras around. He didn’t need fame. He thought fame was a distraction and a burden. But as the clock was winding down and the Patriots were going to win their third Super Bowl in four years, he slipped over to be near his son at the very end.
And just then they did the Gatorade bath, the ritual celebration of the victorious. And they both got doused in Gatorade, his one great moment. In the old days when they did that, they used to have a Disneyland commercial, I’m sort of sorry they didn’t have one saying Steve Belichick, you have been coaching for some 60 years, what are you going to do now. It would have been wonderful. Unfortunately, they didn’t pick up on it.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. David Halberstam’s new book is “The Education of a Coach,” thanks so much for joining us.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: Thank you for having me on.