success studies

What If Bill Belichick Was Never Interesting to Begin With?

Bill Belichick is inarguably one of the greatest football minds in history. Maybe it's time to stop confusing that for anything else.
April 13, 2017, 7:30pm
Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It's a strange thing to say about someone riding a historic run of stunning professional success, but the last year has not been especially kind to Bill Belichick. We can probably assume that this doesn't bother Belichick much, or not much more than he is ordinarily bothered by everything. None of the ways in which Belichick has showed his ass over the last year will detract from the unprecedented legacy he has already built in his field, and we know for sure that they will not distract him from his ongoing preparation for specific modalities within the second possession of his team's third quarter against the Chiefs this coming November. None of the ways in which Belichick has revealed himself to be personally dull, obtuse, blinkered, or cretinous have in any way eroded the scowling edifice of his very real genius.

As he has grudgingly but noticeably revealed more of himself over the last year, Belichick has revealed something surprisingly familiar, and even boring. As distinctive as he is in his work, Belichick has revealed himself as a fairly ordinary hypercompetitive workaholic male—a grudge-farming grouch who is more fervently loyal to his dislikes than any greater thing, sentimental about only his own sentimentalities, a man who reads military history for the X's and O's, someone who is authentically as opaque to himself as he is to everyone else. At some point, when a man makes his presidential endorsement public and sits down for fluffy word-association interviews with cable news people, we can only go off what he says. Belichick is unusually candid in this 15-minute interview with CNBC's Suzy Welch, which was shot in his favorite restaurant, an Annapolis, Maryland, barbecue spot famous for suspending service so that everyone can rise and sing the national anthem at noon. But to say that he's candid is not quite the same thing as saying that Belichick reveals anything surprising. For instance, take this bit of word association:

SW: I'm going to say a word and I just want your immediate, snap reaction. Okay?

BB: Sure.

SW: Football.

BB: More sport than business. But it is a business. That I respect the game for the game and the sport.

SW: The media.

BB: It is how a team connects to its fans.

SW: Winning.

BB: The goal. There's no medals for trying. This isn't like eighth grade where everybody gets a trophy. We are in a professional sport, and it is competitive to win. That's what we do.

SW: Deflategate.

BB: Ridiculous.

SW: Aaron Hernandez.

BB: Tragedy.

There's no reason to expect deep answers from this sort of questioning, and no reason to fault Belichick for the ones he gives, really. The point, if there is one, is that there is nothing coded here. This is really it. The fetish for preparation and the boiling anxiety bubbling away under it—these are real, but also maybe that is all there is. He cares about football and winning as he says he does, and for precisely the reasons he says he does. Belichick loves football, truly, and the truest expression of that is that it is More Sport Than Business, But It Is A Business, and that He Respects The Game For The Game And The Sport_._

The more of himself Belichick reveals, the more the shape and size of his genius reveals itself. It is both stranger and smaller than its intensity might have led us to expect. The density of his brilliance has always been its defining trait, and the pure black-hole grimness of it has always given every indication of having consumed and crushed every other thing in him. This is part of the deal for football coaches, and not unique to Belichick; as with his genius for the game, the difference between him and his peers is a matter of degree more than one of kind. There are plenty of shark-eyed maniacs sleeping on cots in their offices and sweating coffee and grimly offering their entire beings to this bizarre job. The reason that Belichick is the one seethingly leading the crowd at his team's Super Bowl parade in chanting the words "no days off" is either that he is built to burn hotter than the rest or that he has more to throw into the furnace. If it even occurred to him that the people he led in that chant had taken the day off from work to attend the parade, it wouldn't have meant much.

What we're talking about, there, is a mystic. One that is plugged into a rigid, regimented, hierarchical corporate structure that has made him hugely wealthy, yes, but a dedicated ascetic all the same. This is what makes the glimpses of humanity that flicker or burst through Belichick's great wall of impatience that much more fascinating and beguiling. They read like proof-of-life videos, jarring and jittery reminders that there could really be a person in there, held captive or merely lost in the stacks, but a person with the sort of interests and emotions that other people have, or who at least is happier on vacation in Nantucket than he is anywhere else. But maybe we're looking too hard, for something that might not be there to find.

We want humanity in our superhumans, and we are willing to look for it; there's the tendency to assume that brilliant people must also be interesting, because they are so inherently different from everyone else. That Belichick is ordinarily so unwilling to betray anything interesting or even recognizably humanesque, and because he is so great, makes the search seem more urgent and interesting than it actually is. But let's take him at his word. Belichick has eliminated in himself everything that distracts him from what matters most to him, which is exactly what he has always said it was. We might as well stop distracting ourselves with looking for something that he sold off long ago.