There were signs Bill Belichick would become a successful coach one day during his college years at Wesleyan University. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
PHOENIX — Everyone knows the Bill Belichick of today. 20 seasons as a head coach, 15 of those with New England. Five Super Bowl appearances. Three Super Bowl titles. A very guarded and reserved man at his meetings with the media.
But, what was the coach like 40 years ago, as a 20-year old college student at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut?
The son of a football coach played three sports at Wesleyan — football, lacrosse and squash. Contrary to what some might believe by where he is today, lacrosse was his best sport.
“He was captain of the team. I trusted him,” said his lacrosse coach Terry Jackson over the phone this week. “He did a great job of leading us to the ECAC finals in his senior year.”
“The good thing was we play with a rubber ball and you can’t deflate that,” he joked.
The team fell in the ECAC finals that year and Belichick had a strong game, but he wasn’t supposed to even play in the game. Earlier in the year he suffered a thumb injury and the school doctors wouldn’t clear him for the game. Belichick took matters into his own hands and went down to the Naval Academy where his dad was the coach and talked with their doctors. He got himself cleared to play and played with a soft cast.
“Such a tough kid,” said Jackson.
On the football field, Belichick wasn’t a star. A defensive end/outside linebacker, during his senior season a star freshman came in and Belichick wasn’t going to see much time, so the coaches tried to make him a tight end so he could see at least some time on the field.
Despite his lack of playing time, it was clear he knew the game — an early sign that coaching could one day be in his future.
“He had very, very insightful questions,” John Biddiscombe, his position coach and former Wesleyan athletic director said via phone. “His question wouldn’t be where do I line up on this defense — I know where to line up — but what happens if they all of a sudden change their defense into the boundary, what do I do then? Kids don’t ask that at that age. They pretty much do what the coaches ask them to do and line up where they are supposed to line up as the playbook says. I was impressed. He was a very respectful, hard worker, easy to get along with. Just a good guy.”
Biddiscombe’s office was near the lacrosse office so he saw Belichick in the spring. Belichick and another star player would often go to the lacrosse office on a Tuesday or Wednesday night to go over the game plan for the next weekend’s opponents with Jackson, drawing plays on chalkboards, which was very unusual back then for players to have an input on a game plan with their coach.
In the classroom, Belichick was a very hard working student, as all Wesleyan students are, mostly all in the top 10 percent of their high school class. An economics major, the coach cared a lot about his school work.
“He was a very diligent and intense student,” Dick Miller, Belichick’s faculty advisor and professor said via phone last weekend. “He paid attention with what was going on in class. He participated a lot in class discussions — one of the courses [he had me in] was a discussion class. The attributes that I observed then has been evident for the last 40 years of his career.”
“His attention to detail and his intensity dealing with the topic at hand. He was a very focused student and still is now,” Miller added.
Belichick graduated in 1975 and not one of his coaches had any idea he was going to follow in his dad’s footsteps and become a coach.
“As smart as I am, I had no clue. I knew his dad was a coach and I thought Bill was expiring to do something beyond that,” Jackson said.
Biddiscombe was told that Belichick was looking to latch on at NC State as a grad assistant under Lou Holtz, but for some reason it fell through. Once he learned of that he thought Belichick would give something else a shot, but later that year he ran into him at the National Football Coaches Association meeting in Washington D.C. and it was there Belichick told him he was going to move near his dad and break down film for the Baltimore Colts.
“There was a hint there obviously that he had a passion for the game and couldn’t get it out of his system by just forgetting about it all together,” Biddiscombe said.
The Belichick that is shown on TV is not the same person who is remembered at Wesleyan and who was inducted into their Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008. Although his former coaches will admit he isn’t the most outgoing person in the world, he isn’t anything like what he comes across on TV.
“He was very laid back even then,” Jackson said. “[His teammates] loved him. Bill is an easy guy to like when you get to know him. He is completely loyal to his teammates and to this day has them come in and see him at the stadium. Bill was well liked.”
“He was reserved, particularly on the field,” Biddiscombe added. “Socially off the field, he fit right in with the rest of the guys. I get to see him as a Wesleyan alum in social settings and he is much more outgoing in those situations than he appears on TV.”
Belichick still says connected with his Wesleyan roots, showing off his caring side. He occasionally goes back and visits campus to gives speeches and talks, he keeps in touch with current football coach Mike Whalen for anything that he needs, including recruiting or even game planning tips.
He stays in touch with all of his coaches, via regular mail mostly. He also invites them and his former teammates to a training camp practice once a year to stay in touch with the guys he really grew up with.
“Bill is an easy guy to like when you get to know him,” said Jackson. “He is completely loyal to his teammates and to this day has them come in and see him at the stadium. Bill was well liked.”
A few years back, Belichick’s youngest son, Brian, graduated from Suffield Academy. Soon after in one of Jackson’s letters to Belichick said that his grandson had just applied to the school and was really hoping he would get in. Three days later Jackson’s grandson got his acceptance letter in the mail. Belichick had reached out to the headmaster on Jackson’s behalf.
Belichick’s success that he has today clearly is the result of hours and hours of preparation to go along with his football intelligence. The coach will be going for his fourth Super Bowl title Sunday against the Seahawks.
“He is very strategic and stick to what he thinks and hopefully it will work — most of the time it does,” Biddiscombe said. “The other thing is he was such an incredibly hard worker. The amount of time that he would put in to preparation is just legendary.”
Going along with how prepared he is, he always has something to keep the opposition off guard — something to look for Sunday night.
“He’s a smart guy and he is always surprising somebody about something,” Jackson said. “Whether it’s trick play or something, he always has something up his sleeve, but he never reveals it to too many people.”