Bill Belichick is neither a football savant nor a mad genius. He’s not afraid to take risks but you can’t call him a gambler. He’s a nonconformist and an innovator.
He’s walked the New England Patriots’ sideline on game day for 13 seasons as head coach and guided three teams to Super Bowl wins. Sunday he will match wits with John Harbaugh and his Baltimore Ravens for the AFC championship.
Belichick’s game planning has been analyzed and scrutinized in New England since 2000 but no one outside the Patriots family can truly understand how he plans to win Sunday. Guesses and hopes don’t count. You and I are on a need-to-know basis.
Not that Belichick won’t part the curtains to give us a peek at how his mind works. Take last Friday, two days before the Patriots beat the Houston Texans. Belichick talked about Navy SEALs. How they come to a 30-foot-high wall to climb instead of the 6-foot-high wall that was part of their training. And the 600-yard lake to swim across that was believed to be 200 yards.
“You have to get across it,” said Belichick. “You get in an NFL game and think you’re going to get this and then you get that. Or you think they’re going to play this guy and they play some other guy. You face new challenges. There’s always that unknown. Things happen that you can’t predict or prepare for. That’s part of the gamesmanship and part of the competition. That’s what makes this a great game.”
Belichick’s ability to make adjustments quickly, countering what his opponents are doing well, is one thing that has made him a great coach.
He’s not lucky. He’s intuitive but can’t read opponent’s minds.
He’s prepared. His staff and players are prepared. Belichick’s brilliance is in the details and how he uses what he’s learned of the other team’s strengths and weaknesses.
“It’s the probabilities,” said John Huard, the former UMaine star linebacker who coached pros in the Canadian Football League and short-lived United States Football League. “If I do this and this is how I anticipate they’ll do that and how do I react when they do.”
It’s not advanced physics. It’s a football mind probing for solutions to situations.
“If a situation got us into a jam, we were back on the practice field going over those situations,” said Mike Judge, a Patriots coaching intern while at Springfield College and a quality control coach for two years, assisting the assistant coaches. “Before you know it, we covered thousands of situations. His players should never be surprised.
“Sometimes it looks like he takes risks but everything is calculated.”
Judge is married to Jennifer Durgin, the former Gorham High field hockey star.
His father-in-law is Gerry Durgin, the former Gorham High athletic director. Judge just finished his fifth season as an assistant coach at the Naval Academy. Belichick’s father was an assistant coach at Navy for years.
Judge grew up in Chatham, N.J., where Belichick lived when he was an assistant coach with the New York Giants. Ultimately that led to his stint with the Patriots. The two still keep in touch.
It’s been five years since Judge walked into the warren of offices for Patriots coaches but he knows the Belichick you never see. “Bill’s really focused but he’s just a normal guy to me. He tells jokes. He can take a joke. He’s a dad.” But when it’s time to prepare for a game, everything else gets pushed aside.
“He spends hours watching tape until he sees an opening that can become his advantage. We studied tape of our practices with the coaches constantly pointing out what we could do better, what we were doing well. It’s amazing all the ideas we came up with.”
What’s in Belichick’s mind? A little bit of insight from everyone he hired or coached with.
There’s a saying in football that it’s not about the X’s and O’s, but about the Jimmies and Joes. Meaning, coaches must have the talent first to execute a game plan. With Belichick, it is about the X’s and O’s as well as the Jimmies and Joes.
“The challenge, whether it’s a football team or a business, is how everyone becomes unified to a cause,” said Huard, whose company installs turf fields, including the one at Gillette Stadium. “All that most people want is to be part of something successful.
“I think Belichick, no question, is an elite coach. He understands the people he’s dealing with. A good coach recognizes everyone, right down to the worker bees.”
In January 2007, Belichick was the AFC’s head coach in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Head coaches take along their assistant coaches for a week of some work but more fun in the sun. Judge wasn’t on the initial list. Belichick promoted him for the week. Mike and Jennifer went to Hawaii.
“He doesn’t have an ego,” said Judge. “That’s why his players check theirs at the door. He sets the example.”
At Wednesday’s press conference someone asked about his legacy.
It was the first question. Belichick answered with his familiar scowl and low monotone.
“Right now I’m trying to beat the Ravens. That’s where our football team’s challenge is, that’s what we’re focused on.
“The rest of it is for another time or another place.”
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: