Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Coach's Message Seeks Its Medium

The most surprising thing I learned from the NFL Network documentary on Bill Belichick was how much of what of what it showed us about the coach was stuff I already knew about him.

Belichick adores Ed Reed as a football player? I heard him soliloquize about Reed's excellence as a safety the week before a Pats-Ravens game way back in 2003. One of the parts of covering the Pats
I found most enjoyable was detecting when Belichick's praise for an opposing team or player moved out of boilerplate and into genuine admiration/anxiety. You had to listen, because it was all a matter of a change in vocal tone, but anyone paying attention could tell the difference.

Belichick has profound and profoundly mixed emotions about his experiences as Bill Parcells' chief henchman with the Giants, Pats and Jets? No kidding. First, who wouldn't? I'm fond of Parcells, but I'd rather work for Josef Stalin, thanks. Second, I've heard those mixed emotions in Belichick's voice every time he discussed his past coaching experiences, especially his Giants' experiences.

The slightest effort at empathy shows why. You, the dedicated, ambitious young defensive coach will have the opportunity to coach one of the two or three best defensive players ever to live. However, he's Lawrence Taylor. See why memories of that time might not all be sweet nostalgia?

Belichick sleepwalks through the conference call with out-of-town writers? You bet. So does every other coach. I was in on maybe 200 of those things in my life. They are drudgery for both sides, and believe me, Belichick is far from the least communicative coach in that forum. Once, the Pats' beat writers actually hung up on Don Shula.

And so it went through an engrossing hour of television. NFL Network did a wonderful job of capturing Belichick's existence. But it didn't break new ground, not for me. I won't be surprised when he shows up at Randy Moss' Halloween party next week. I know, and more, have written, that Belichick works very hard at surprising his players, both professionally and personally, because the coach understands that in a sport built on endless repetition o the dullest elements of both blue and white collar labor, boredom is a more dangerous opponent than Peyton Manning.

So the question is, if I am not surprised by the Belichick portrayed in this documentary based on much less personal exposure to the man, why are others? How come everyone doesn't know this, especially since the only reason I was around Belichick was that I was getting paid, in part, to tell people what he's like?

Besides any personal professional failings (nobody bats 1.000 in columnizing, but nobody bats .000 either) there are three reasons why I believe Belichick's public image is so at odds with his actual self. The most obvious one is that we live in a shorthand age. Once a caricature of a well-known person gets wide circulation, it's almost impossible to alter the false perception. There is just enough truth in the idea of Belichick as the grim, brooding evil genius of the NFL, guarding his alchemist's secrets with his life to make that image stick. And frankly, he plays off it. The man wears a hooded sweatshirt, the better to portray himself as blocking out the world.

How did the image get circulated in the first place? That's where my former profession comes in. Most of what the world sees, reads or hears about Belichick comes from two places -- the Wednesday press conference, and the post-game press conference. For different reasons, each is about the worst possible place to learn anything from Belichick's words and/or body language.

In NFL coverage, Wednesday is TV sound bite day. It is the best-attended and therefore least informative press conference Belichick or any coach gives all week. The coach cannot develop a train of thought, thereby revealing his thought processes, because the questions jump from topic to topic based on the angles each news outlet came determined to exploit. Belichick doesn't think in bites, sound or otherwise. When he offers them, they're terse because they're stilted. They don't come naturally to Bill the way they do to a Rex Ryan.

Post-game, Belichick is even more terse. That's because, like almost every other NFL coach, he's spent. The emotional and intellectual effort of directing the three-hour chaos of a football game has wrung him out, win or lose. It's not that he's not happy when the Pats win -- he just doesn't have the energy to display it, or even feel it too deeply.

Here's a mistake I did make covering Belichick, but at least I learned from it. He was my assigned column after Super Bowl XXXVIII when the Pats beat the Panthers. To my mind, 2003 was and will always remain Belichick's best coaching season ever. He took a team that didn't have enough healthy players to practice with on October 1 and won 15 straight games with it.

There were about one-third as many reporters around Belichick's podium as there usually are for the winning Super Bowl coach. Journalists fall for images as much as fans do. I attempted to get Belichick to express some modicum of personal professional pride for his own work.

He wouldn't. He repeatedly mumbled about how happy he was for the players in a voice fit for reciting the U.S. tax code. At the time, I thought, and my column pretty said, "here's a man who won't give anything up." My bad. There was a man who couldn't give anything up, because he had nothing left to give. It was all out on the floor of Reliant Stadium.

So people see a guy on Wednesday essentially speaking a foreign language, and people see the same guy on Sunday, and he's incapable of showing emotion, and they draw the logical but incorrect assumption he has no emotion but a vague hostility to the universe.

That's not Belichick's fault. It's not really the media's fault. ESPN HAS to be a sound-bite world. Otherwise, its world wouldn't fit in its allotted time. Time is the word I think best expresses why the reality of Bill Belichick is hidden to so many people. He's in the wrong one.

Belichick is never happier or more revealing than when's he talking pure football. If he'd only coached in the leather helmet era, he'd have been as beloved as that master self-publicist Knute Rockne. Give the Pats' coach a few cross-country train trips to draw up plays on cocktail napkins in the club car to an audience of scribes in fedoras, and there'd be no Coach/Sorcerer Hoodie out there in the minds of football fans. Belichick would be seen for what he is -- a scholar of and artist at a sport where study is common, but art rare.

Why is that throwback jersies are very popular, but throwback human beings are always misunderstood?


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