Patriots coach Bill Belichick redefining the parameters of team-first excellence
Despite a slew of detractors, venerable New England chief is writing the blueprint for continued success
It seemed like a reasonable question between two highly successful sporting executives. Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein was 30 years old and had just helped his team end an 85-year World Series drought. He sought the advice of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who was in the process of winning his third Super Bowl in four years. What Epstein wanted to know was simple: how do I handle success? “You’re f****d,” came the reply from Belichick.
While the anecdote is from an engrossing and revealing profile about Epstein on ESPN.com, the exchange reveals more about Belichick than it does Epstein. It may have been a somewhat crude reply but it was poignant and prescient in ways that have come to define Belichick’s success. He is arguably the greatest football coach in the history of the National Football League. The Pats had never won an NFL championship in their 40-year existence when Belichick took over in 2000. Now they have won 13 division titles and four Super Bowls.
It’s an unprecedented run of success in the past three decades for one NFL coach with one franchise and the only comparable peers in all of sport during that time are San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. Popovich has made the play-offs for 20 straight years while winning five NBA championships; Ferguson won 13 English Premier League titles in 20 years.
Thanks to his team’s involvement in a few high-profile cheating scandals, Belichick is by far the most polarising of the three. But hate all you want, the numbers don’t lie. What Belichick was warning Epstein about is not only applicable in the world of sports but across virtually every professional endeavour as well. Any kind of group success, particularly high-profile success, will invariably result in a number of factions feeling unappreciated in not receiving proper credit, deserved or not. It’s simply human nature. Egos and jealousy engender conflicting agendas and eventually it all blows up.
Epstein was torpedoed by the business side of the Red Sox, who insisted on signing marquee players to bump up TV revenue, even if they were not a good fit for the team. Belichick’s prophecy came true and Epstein was on his way to Chicago to help resurrect the equally forlorn Cubs franchise.
Ferguson held steadfast to a simple rule: no matter how brilliant a player, if they aren’t making the team better then get rid of them. It’s not exactly nuclear physics, but even the simplest formulas can be difficult to impose if the coach or manager does not have the complete control that Ferguson had.
Belichick has it too. He has taken a chance on a few players who were judged to be of dubious moral fibre. Some worked out, some didn’t. But no one, including the team owner, ever told Belichick he could not have this player or that one. It is also an absolute certainty that neither ownership nor the PR department has told Belichick to sign a player because of his marketing potential.
Again, in spite of what people outside of New England may think about Belichick, no one can doubt that his success is rooted in a team-first culture. During pre-game ceremonies before their first Super Bowl victory, the Patriots insisted on being introduced as a team instead of individually.
Fifteen years later, that ethos still permeates the franchise and because of that, there are very few squabbles about who gets credit for their success. They all do. Quite often when players do well with the Patriots, other teams will overpay to sign them only to find out that their success had more to do with the system than the player. In a wildly narcissistic, me-first sporting era of Twitter and Instagram, the fact that Belichick gets everyone in the organisation on the same page regardless of status is a remarkable achievement.
The one enduring star has been quarterback Tom Brady, who opened the season serving a four-game league suspension. The Pats were expected to struggle in the first quarter of the season and yet here they are, 3 and 0 minus their superstar. Only a fool would bet against them once more winning their division and another Super Bowl appearance.
Epstein knew where to go for guidance and while he now knows that the taste of victory can often be bittersweet, it’s still much easier to swallow than the taste of defeat.