Education of a Coach

In Sports by Brock Bourgase

David Halberstam’s Education of a Coach explores the path that Bill Belichick took to reach his position as head coach of the New England Patriots, winners of three Superbowl titles. Influenced by his father, long-time Navy coach Steve Belichick, Bill began breaking down film at a young age — though he never played football professionally or at a major college, he continued to study the game diligently under coaches such as Ted Marchibroda, Ray Perkins, and Bill Parcells.

An unsuccessful stint coaching the Cleveland Browns interrupted and delayed a meticulously planned rise to the top of his field. Coaching suggestions evidently appear throughout the book – Halberstam chronicles Belichick’s work ethic, the roles technology and innovation have played in the coach’s success, and the personal toll that coaches pay for their careers – but it is in the Cleveland failure where the most salient lessons emerge.

Belichick arrived in town with a detailed plan and a record of achievements as an assistant coach but during his stay with the Browns he was repeatedly thwarted by a meddling Art Moddell. After dealing with Moddell himself, Paul Brown insisted that the other members of the Cincinnati Bengals’ ownership group schedule appointments to meet with him, in order to assert his independence as a coach.

Owners, general managers, athletic directors, and university presidents have all disrupted the best laid plans of coaches over the years, a control that is often present throughout sport. For his second stint as a head coach, it was imperative to Belichick that he seek out an ideal situation, like the one that he found in New England with supportive owner Bob Kraft. Managers who insist that the spotlight focus on themselves or their deeds and believe that they know it all will succeed. Throughout the years, football has remained a team sport and team sports – by name – require that various talents amongst different people blend together to create a respectful, winning, environment.

The initial failure reveals the value of adaptability and the ability to adapt at the at the right time. Quarterback Bernie Kosar was ill-suited to the offensive systems Belichick wished to install and the coach suffered through the poor match for many years. Kosar should have been cut earlier or the system altered from the beginning.

A coach should identify his/her core principles and stick by them. Everything else should be modified according to the situation. Once rules are established, any bending or breaking undermines the coach’s authority. Truly great players, like Lawrence Taylor or Tom Brady, are so rare that Belichick has only encountered two on all the teams he has coached. Devising special rules for every other athlete is simply not worth the cost.

Lastly, Belichick’s career proves that those who receive a second chance can become successful, even after the most spectacular failures. However, whether they are athletes, coaches, or regular people must learn from their mistakes and cannot dare repeat them.

After his dismissal in Cleveland, Belichick waited five year for the ideal head coaching post to become open, even coaching the New York Jets for a day before resigning to take the Patriots job. Once he was hired in Foxboro, he knew it was his last kick at the heat coaching can. Fortunately, Belichick was confident in his abilities, staying true to himself, learning from past mistakes, and ultimately creating a football dynasty.