Bill Belichick’s greatness is rooted in knowledge of football history

New England Patriots

Bill Belichick’s grasp on the history of football might be unparalleled among those in the game today, and it gives him a critical advantage.

In five minutes and 55 seconds, Bill Belichick told a room full of reporters why he possesses the ultimate advantage.

At the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Atlanta on Wednesday afternoon, the New England Patriots head coach responded to a question about his love of history. His answer began with American lore. Then his passion for football poured out like water through fingers.

“From a football standpoint, my dad collected football books from the time I can remember, just as a little kid, and then I sort of got into that, too,” Belichick recalled. “I’d find books for him or he’d have doubles and so forth, so we ended up with, I think it was like 4,000 books or something like that. There was a lot of them.”

He remembered going through the books in the basement of the Pro Football Hall of Fame on his family’s annual trips to Ohio, where his parents met. The collection of football literature there, Belichick recalled, is second only to the Library of Congress.

Belichick waxed about great college coaches that filled those pages, ranging from Amos Alonzo Stagg and Fielding Yost to Walter Camp and Robert Zuppke. He recalled playing in the single wing offense as an eighth grader, and then playing against it a few years later during his years in Andover, Mass. as a prep schooler.

He noted, of course, that the T-Formation followed the single wing in football progression.

“That’s the only time I’ve had any exposure to the single wing, but obviously, that was a key part of the game going back all the way into the teens and ’20s with [Knute] Rockne’s box and so forth,” Belichick said. “Then (Curly) Lambeau took that to Green Bay, and then it evolved into the T-formation. … But that was a great experience for me, one that I really, really appreciate.”

When the master class ended, Belichick’s mastery became easy to understand. He’s the student with all the answers to the test, gleaned through decades of studying. The vast knowledge of where schemes come from, and what variations can be and have been drawn from them, give him the winning edge.

Belichick has been in the NFL since 1975, breaking in with the Baltimore Colts. He’s coached special teams, receivers and linebackers along with his roles as defensive coordinator and head coach. Nobody in today’s game has that sort of resumè. Most coaches specialize on one side of the ball. Belichick has roots in all three phases, to accompany a wealth of information borne through 60-plus years of football thirst.

Everything within the sport today has been happening for eons. The game is predicated more than ever on the quick timing routes made famous in the West Coast offense by Bill Walsh in the 1980s. But Walsh created that offense as an assistant in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders popularized the vertical game in the ’70s, but it was Sid Gillman who originally developed that concept of passing during his years in college with Miami of Ohio and Cincinnati during the ’40s and ’50s. Gillman later coached in the American Football League with the Chargers. Under his wing? Al Davis. It all comes from somewhere.

This is true for Belichick in a multitude of ways. After spending a year with the Colts in ’75, he went to the Detroit Lions as an assistant for two seasons. In 1976, the Lions employed a terrific two tight-end attack previously unseen in the pro game with Pro Bowlers David Hill and Charlie Sanders. Almost 35 years later, the Patriots had their own version of that in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, supposedly changing the game.

Belichick wasn’t revolutionary. He was showcasing his reverence for history.

Now, with far more football behind him than ahead, Belichick aims for his eighth Super Bowl ring and sixth as a head coach. He’s created a bevy of history in his wake, the subject of countless books. They might be the only ones he hasn’t read.

Belichick is often criticized as dull and boring in pressers. He’s rote and unconcerned with a good quote. It’s off-putting to some, but who wouldn’t be bored talking about a subject they know so well with people who know so little?

On Wednesday, Belichick was a brilliant professor, opening up a window to his mind. In the conclusion of his answer, Belichick chuckled and noted class would begin at 9 a.m. on Thursday.

The rest of the NFL coaching world ought to attend.

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