Bill Belichick And His Not-So-Archenemies

I’m pleased to bring you a guest post from former Boston Herald sportswriter Michael Gee, who examines the relationship between Bill Belichick and the New England sports media.

Bill Belichick And His Not-So-Archenemies 

By Michael Gee

Maybe it’s different these days. The last time I was part of the relationship between Bill Belichick and New England’s sports journalists was April, 2005. Three years is a long time, and people change, even football coaches. Maybe Belichick and reporters exist in the state of mutual loathing that is imagined by both sports fans and a large number of out-of-town journalists.

I doubt it. People don’t change that much, and the “Belichick and the media hate each other” meme was a standard part of the NFL discussion back in my increasingly bygone day, just not such a loud one. It’s a simple thought, and hence bound to appeal to many. It’s reinforced by the tight-lipped, grim persona Belichick presents to the world on game days, which, after all, is the only time most of the world sees him.

But it’s hooey. “Belichick v. Media” is one part fact to ten parts urban legend. Based on my own professional observations of one hell of a lot of coaches, managers, front office types, owners, etc., I would grade Belichick’s relationship with the press as average. Some reporters like him, some loath him, and the vast majority peacefully co-exist with the coach they cover in varying degrees of mutual frustration.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a half-dozen NFL coaches and press corps over the last 20 years whose relationships were far, far worse than were Belichick’s and New England reporters on my watch. Some wouldn’t surprise you (Hi, Mike Shanahan!), and some might (Bill Cowher was DESPISED by many Steelers reporters). Because success brings scrutiny, Belichick’s behavior gets more attention than, say, that of this month’s coach of the Atlanta Falcons. What looks to a casual observer as a devious schemer at daggers drawn with a bloodthirsty pack of tormentors is, in fact, the natural order of NFL journalism.

The relationship between an NFL coach and those who cover him is not and cannot be a normal human interaction, because when they’re on the job neither side is normal. Reporters, good ones anyway, are a pain in the ass. They’re paid to be snoopy, skeptical and impertinent. Football coaches, good ones anyway, are secretive, manipulative, and paranoid. That is the only logical reaction to their impossible life’s work. Those two realities create friction. The friction, however, need not be personal. With the one obvious exception of Ron Borges, Belichick’s conflicts with New England reporters were just business as usual in football.

When a coach gets hit with the largest fine in NFL history for a mysterious rules violation, as Belichick was, and he won’t discuss it, reporters are going to go crazy and try every means short of waterboarding to draw a comment out of the guy. At the same time, said coach would have to be a supreme nitwit to make that comment. Only a nitwit scribe would hold Belichick’s silence against him once the article ripping him for it was filed with the desk. All in a day’s work for him and us.

Belichick loves to talk about football. He just doesn’t like to talk about specific issues which affect the future performance of the New England Patriots. Getting such information becomes an exercise in interpretation and analysis of Belichick’s football theories. That’s risky, but it can be done. Mike Reiss of the Globe certainly finds out enough stuff about the Pats’ operation to satisfy the most detail-obsessed fan. He does this through the sneaky trick of having earned the coach’s respect.

Reiss emulates Belichick’s approach to football. He was, and I assume is, always at Gillette Stadium. I never once walked into the press room without Reiss already being there, and this was when he was at the MetroWest News, far down the press corps pecking order. As a rule, people give access to reporters in direct relationship to their news organization’s audience numbers.

If Belichick had been a reporter, that’s the kind of reporter he would have been, diligent, prepared, relentless. By the same token, Bill Parcells’ favorite member of the press was my former colleague Kevin Mannix. Kevin was a wiseacre and a ball buster, and that surely would have been Parcells’ approach to journalism.

The other sportswriter with whom Belichick had notably good relations could not have had a more different approach than Reiss-the late Alan Greenberg of the Hartford Courant. Belichick’s stonewalling didn’t bother Alan. He spent several years covering the Raiders, so I believe he felt the Pats were amateur paranoiacs.

Alan was, however, also Belichick’s most persistent questioner when the coach did stonewall. He had a sneaky trick, too. Alan could make Belichick laugh. He phrased his efforts in humorous ways whose subtext was “this is a ridiculous thing for both of us to be doing, but we gotta, so here goes.”

I believe that is very close to what Belichick believes about press relations. It’s a silly but inescapable part of his job, so he does it in as good a spirit as he can muster. What the hell, maybe he can teach some of them something about football along the way.

(For the curious, if I had to guess, I’d say Belichick saw me as an erratic pupil, more than occasionally dim, but every so often able to grasp some elementary or even intermediate football concept.)

Another guess. It pleases people to think Belichick and reporters hate each other because it pleases them to think Belichick hates everything and so does the press. The coach of the dominant team in the NFL is going to have enemies who’ve never met him, but are sure they know him. You learn people hate reporters about your second day on the job.

But reporting is about facts, the building blocks of truth. Facts do not create understanding, but they should at least point you in the right direction. And the right direction for understanding Belichick’s relationship with reporters comes from facts I read, but did not get to experience, as they took place after my days at the Herald..

Friday is the best day to cover any NFL coach. It is when they are most relaxed. The work of preparation for the game is pretty well done, and the anxieties of game day are still remote. Not coincidentally, it’s also the weekday with the fewest reporters present.

One Friday in I think the 2006 season, Belichick treated the press to a football history lesson. He brought in and showed films of his father’s games in the early 1940s, then engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of the game’s evolution from those bygone days. I am as big a sucker for old football films as is the coach, so I read of this event with real regret for my former life.

Belichick of his own volition was bringing up two of the subjects he cares about most in this earth, his relationship with his father, and his relationship with football. Those relationships are inseparably intertwined, and the Pats’ coach was laying them on the table for all to see, if not perhaps to grasp.

That’s a very high level of emotional honesty, no less honest for being implicit. It is not the action of a man who believes that reporters are stupid swine incapable of normal human sentiment. It’s not how anyone deals with an enemy.

I’d love to watch a game with Belichick some day. That’s not something I’d do with an enemy, either.
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Related Posts: Bill Belichick and the New England Media (April, 2005)

  • QM

    Great article, Michael! And Bruce — thanks for hosting it. Michael — You should ask Bruce if you can reprint this on your “homegame” blog. I like the stuff on your blog and only wish it got more traffic/comments.

  • Lance

    Fascinating bit Michael. Thanks a ton for sharing. As a BB fan I don’t think there’s anything surprising in your article but it’s not something a few reporters (namely Felger and the other cockroach) don’t seem to understand. Once a rep has initially been made it’s hard to shake and it’s unfortunate the national media only cares to perpetuate the ogre myth.

  • Vata-HA

    I’m going to “share” this with every national NFL reporter…maybe it will help change the very tiresome narrative next season. Great/honest job.

  • Box Sore

    Michale Gee has things to say!

    That was a great, great read.

  • DK

    That article seems very familiar. Especially the “Fridays are friendly coach day”. Is this a reprint?