Commentary

It takes a genius

Bill Belichick's coaching tree is fruitful, but his saplings do not grow as mighty

Updated: September 4, 2009, 1:06 PM ET
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine
Getty ImagesBill Belichick has 13 proteges currently as college or pro head coaches or general managers.

This story appears in the September 7 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

AS SENDOFFS GO, they seem like empty ones. In a final meeting with an assistant coach on his way out of New England to run another team, Bill Belichick and his departing employee will usually get together in the head coach's office. They will chitchat about the assistant's new job for a few minutes, even exchange a few pleasantries. Then, reaching for a handshake, Belichick always says the same thing: "Learn from your time here."

Now that Belichick's football network is the network in football -- eight of his protégés are college or NFL head coaches and five are GMs -- both men know what the assistant's new team is expecting: A duplication of how Belichick coaches, how he solves problems, the way he thinks. But the Patriots coach knows that such an expectation is a fool's errand. His system is so fluid, so specific to him, that he's able to alter his methods when a situation commands it. He trains his charges to think for themselves, then funnel those thoughts up the chain, where only he knows how to translate them into Super Bowls. Learn from him? Sure. Duplicate him? Not possible. And no one should know better than the man walking out the door.

There are two types of Belichick guys. There are the veterans -- Charlie Weis, Ozzie Newsome, Nick Saban -- who've spent a fraction of their careers with him in New England or Cleveland. And there are the protégés, young guys from outside the traditional coaching fraternity whom Belichick brings in as entry-level grunts. Sometimes he hires them solely on recommendation, like Josh McDaniels, Denver's new 33-year-old head coach, who became Belichick's personnel assistant after a referral by Saban. Other times he sees something special in a guy nobody notices, like current Browns boss Eric Mangini, whom Belichick plucked from Cleveland's PR department. Persistence is what got new Chiefs GM Scott Pioli in the door. He landed on Belichick's radar in 1986 as a college senior when he drove 90 minutes to watch nearly every Giants training-camp practice.

Most NFL coaches hire their friends, placing loyalty above competence. To work for Belichick, you just have to be smart enough to excel outside football -- and obsessed with applying that intelligence to the sport. You have to be self-motivated and not stuck in your ways. And above all, you must be grateful for the opportunity, despite the tiny salary. "Like Bill when he was their age," says former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

To continue learning about Bill Belichick's relationship with his disciples, you must be an ESPN Insider. Insider

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.