Ted Marchibroda can’t think of another NFL coach who has worked for a paltry $25 weekly salary.
Then again, “Billy” Belichick always has managed to distinguish himself among his peers, both as a 23-year-old apprentice and a Hall of Fame lock who is entering his 40th coaching season. That milestone has been met with pride and applause by the football minds who worked closely with Belichick throughout his career, particularly as they watched him feverishly hone his craft during eight stops, including this 15-year tenure with the three-time Super Bowl champion Patriots.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a coach that got $25 a week,” Marchibroda said recently. “I’m very happy for him and very proud of the guy. To me, a guy like Billy deserves it. He has worked for it and has earned every bit of it. He took the chance, whether it was a chance or not, but he didn’t get paid too much and decided to take it.”
Belichick helped his father, longtime Navy coach and scout Steve Belichick, break down film for years and desperately worked his connections to break into the NFL upon graduating from Wesleyan. Marchibroda, who was hired by the Baltimore Colts in 1975, needed an assistant to do the film work after general manager Joe Thomas’ cousin declined the job. Special teams coach George Boutselis recommended Belichick to Marchibroda, who was impressed enough to offer him the job after one interview.
“I decided to hire him because of the fact that I felt like, ‘Well, if he runs into any trouble, we have his father as a backup,’” Marchibroda cracked.
Belichick logged every roll of film that crossed his desk, tallying Colts opponents’ formations and plays based on the down and distance, time on the clock, score and hashmark, and he’d make a note of any plays the defense needed to practice. As the season progressed, Marchibroda noticed defensive players asking Belichick questions if their positional coach was unavailable.
Belichick also helped on special teams during practice and had the unenviable job as the turk, whose role is to tell players to bring their playbook to the head coach’s office to be released.
And he was the driver. Marchibroda got a few free rooms at the local Howard Johnson hotel in exchange for Colts parking passes, so Belichick would shuttle hotel mates Marchibroda, Boutselis and offensive line coach Whitey Dovell to and from practice. They bought Billy most of his meals and slipped him extra cash on occasion. Steve Belichick once told Marchibroda he still had to claim his son as a dependent on his tax returns because of his uniquely low paycheck. But Bill Belichick recognized a priceless experience with three respected coaches, and he simply listened and processed every word he heard.
Marchibroda’s staff turned a two-win team into a 10-4 outfit that ended a three-year playoff drought, and Belichick asked for a $4,000 salary for 1976. Thomas declined, and Belichick joined Rick Forzano’s Lions, who were willing to give him $10,000.
Setting a foundation
Forzano knew Belichick from a four-year stint as the Navy head coach and hired the 24-year-old to assist on special teams and coach the receivers. But Forzano resigned after a 1-3 start and was replaced by Tommy Hudspeth, who transitioned Belichick to the tight ends in 1977. The entire staff was fired after the 1977 season, and Belichick hooked on with the Broncos after his only two years coaching offense, which he always has acknowledged to be significantly valuable to his development.
Belichick again assisted on special teams and defense in Denver, where he focused on the secondary under Joe Collier, the coordinator and architect of the famed Orange Crush 3-4 defense. Though Collier’s 3-4 is different from Belichick’s modern-day unit, it gave Belichick a first-hand look at another philosophy.
“Just about everything we were doing at that time, he soaked up pretty good,” Collier said. “He was the early guy in the office and late to leave. . . . He fit right in with all the rest of the coaches.”
Belichick again assisted with the film breakdowns, but he didn’t overstep his bounds by piping up with new defensive schemes, even though Collier recognized those ideas were flowing. To this day, Belichick tells his players to “do your job” and not worry about others’ responsibilities. Collier admired Belichick’s grinding mentality.
“I could see his work ethic, how he is absorbing everything, how he is the son of a coach,” Collier said. “And his ambition, you could see his ambition. He didn’t want to stick doing what he was doing then. He wanted to advance. There was no question about it. Yeah, I could see he was going to be a success.”
Launching a legacy
Giants coach Ray Perkins hired both Belichick and Bill Parcells in 1979, but the two new assistants met a few years earlier. Parcells, an Army assistant in the 1960s, used to exchange film with Steve Belichick because of the programs’ agreement. Parcells then said he met Bill Belichick in the 1970s when his Vanderbilt squad was playing Army, whom Steve Belichick was scouting with his son.
Belichick joined the Giants to run the special teams and assist Parcells’ defense. His responsibilities increased through the years as Parcells asked Perkins to give Belichick more time on defense. Belichick harnessed even more defensive authority when Parcells became the head coach in 1983, and he officially was promoted to defensive coordinator in 1985.
Still, Belichick remained infatuated with league-wide activity, which wasn’t difficult to notice because the Giants coaches were confined to one small room. Romeo Crennel noticed Belichick’s note-taking during offseason and draft prep.
But make no mistake: Belichick advanced because of his work with the defense. Parcells instituted the basic philosophy, which he picked up during his 1980 stint with Patriots coach Ron Erhardt and coordinator Fritz Shurmur, but Belichick led the group.
“(Belichick) put his own ideas in it and refined it, and we kind of modernized some of the coverages a little bit as we went,” Parcells said. “We always were able to, and this is much to his credit, just go forward with what we thought was necessary at the time, and he did a great job with it.”
Belichick earned more exposure after the Giants were 14-2 with the league’s second-ranked scoring defense in 1986, a season that culminated in a victory against the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI, and he soon started to turn down head coaching offers because he wanted to be set up with an ideal opportunity.
It came after the orchestration of one of the great stretches of defensive game plans in NFL history.
Belichick asked Parcells to switch his positional concentration from the linebackers to the secondary in 1989, which led to the hiring of Al Groh to coach the linebackers. Belichick’s thought process: To be a great defensive coordinator, he must have a great grasp of the defensive backfield.
The Giants generally were a 3-4 team with zone coverages, but they proved their matchup philosophy in the 1990 playoffs against the Bears, 49ers and Bills.
“Within the basic structure of your philosophy, you had to have the flexibility to play the game we need to play. Every opponent presents you with different issues,” Groh said. “At the heart of it all was Bill Belichick.”
The Bears, who visited the Giants in the divisional round, led the league in rushing attempts, and quarterback Mike Tomczak replaced Jim Harbaugh because of a shoulder injury. So Belichick’s plan was to play the whole game with an eight-man box that included some six-man fronts that still utilized 3-4 techniques, and the Giants rolled, 31-3.
They visited the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game and were tasked with stopping Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and a West Coast offense that ranked second in passing. Belichick designed a nickel game plan with man coverages that took away easy completions. The Giants survived, 15-13.
The Super Bowl was Belichick’s greatest trick as he prepared for the Bills’ K-Gun offense without the luxury of a bye week.
“If Buffalo had been trying to prepare themselves for the game by studying the previous two games, there was nothing that was going to relate,” Groh said.
The Giants used a 3-2-6 scheme with myriad zone coverages. Linebacker Lawrence Taylor became a down lineman while Carl Banks and Pepper Johnson played inside with a pair of safeties as outside linebackers, which increased their speed in coverage and enticed the Bills to run more with Thurman Thomas. The Giants offense complemented it all by controlling the ball for 40:33 in a shocking, 20-19 upset.
“I think we had a good defensive plan that was a little different, but it was tested because that was a close game and they didn’t have nearly as many opportunities as we had,” Parcells said. “We were big underdogs in that game. Just managed to pull it out.”
The Browns hired Belichick as head coach in 1991, and he immediately cleaned up a locker room that got out of hand under Bud Carson. Belichick implemented structure, a firm practice schedule and set rigorous expectations.
Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end who retired before the 1991 season to join the Browns front office, immediately recognized Belichick’s credibility. Newsome still had friends on the roster who relayed their appreciation for Belichick’s football IQ and teaching abilities by using past examples.
“He was very demanding on, ‘This is the way it is going to be. I’m coming off a Super Bowl. This is what it takes to win Super Bowls.’ Nobody had won a Super Bowl in Cleveland,” Newsome said.
Belichick finally got the Browns to the playoffs after an 11-5 season in 1994, but owner Art Modell made an unprecedented decision midway through the 1995 season to announce the team would relocate to Baltimore in 1996, which sabotaged the campaign and, ultimately, Belichick’s tenure.
“I know — K-N-O-W — that he got the appreciation of the job that he had to do when the move was announced, to be able to get that team to finish that season,” Newsome said. “I don’t think you can put a measure on how tough that was.”
Belichick was fired after the 1995 season and joined Parcells’ Patriots staff as the secondary coach in 1996. Parcells, Crennel and Groh all recognized an assistant coach with a greater perspective of the entire operation, and Belichick continued to make strides as the Jets defensive coordinator under Parcells from 1997-99. He also was mindful that he’d get one more shot to lead a team.
“Whatever the results were in Cleveland, they were certainly results that were below what he had hoped for in the beginning,” Groh said. “So he had assessed then, ‘OK, the next time I get my next chance, what are the things I’m going to change, how can I improve the structure of things, how can I improve myself in this particular role?’ He made pretty good use of that time because he had a hell of a plan.”
Patriots owner Robert Kraft strongly considered hiring Belichick after Parcells bolted for the Jets in 1997, but Kraft decided to ultimately wash his hands from the Parcells era and went with Pete Carroll.
When given a chance to do it over in 2000, Kraft was all in on Belichick, who resigned as
Jets head coach after a day because of the pending sale of the organization. After the Browns office relocation, Belichick didn’t want uncertainty.
Kraft recalled rave reviews from the Pats defensive backs in 1996, and the owner coveted Belichick’s appreciation for the salary cap. During Belichick’s interview, Kraft asked him about a key player, and the coach broke down a formula that illustrated why that player would be overpaid based on future production.
League and network executives pressured Kraft not to hire Belichick because of his dry media appearances, and Kraft also withstood the Jets’ three-week standoff to release Belichick from his contract, but the owner identified what he wanted and remained persistent.
“I was patient and waited for him,” Kraft said.
After a 5-11 season in 2000 and Drew Bledsoe’s injury in Week 2 of 2001, Belichick rode Tom Brady the rest of the way. Belichick then sold the “one game at a time” mantra after a 30-10 Week 4 loss to the Dolphins by burying a football at practice.
“When you screw up and have concern about your job and all those things,” Crennel said, “I think that eased some of the tension and allowed guys to focus on the next game.”
Crennel, the Pats defensive coordinator from 2001-04, really noticed the players buying into Belichick’s message after a tight, 24-17 loss to the Rams that dropped them to 5-5, their last defeat of the season.
Crennel was part of Belichick’s two most historic game plans — Super Bowl XXV and Super Bowl XXXVI — and likened the prep work to his racquetball sessions with Belichick during the 1987 strike. Pinpoint the vulnerability (the Bills’ impatience, the Rams’ stubbornness, Crennel’s backhand) and attack.
The result, a 20-17 victory against the Rams, spawned a dynasty that includes more Super Bowl wins (three) and appearances (five), division titles (11) and victories (163) than any team in the league since Belichick took the helm.
He is a disciple of many and gathered valuable knowledge at every stop along the way, but anyone who has worked with Belichick during the past four decades has recognized a level of success that is his own doing. After all, if anyone else did actually coach for $25 per week, they probably didn’t last 40 years.
“It’s remarkable what he’s done there,” Parcells said. “The people in New England are lucky to have him.”