They are both among the longest-tenured head coaches in their respective leagues. They have both won conference and league championships. They both seemingly manage to get more out of their teams than the roster talent would indicate.
But when it comes to dealing with the media, Bill Belichick and Doc Rivers could not be more different.
Or are they more alike than a surface examination would show?
Doc Rivers was recently named the recipient of the Rudy Tomjanovich Award – a honor given from the Professional Basketball Writers Association to the head coach considered the most accessible to the media.
Bill Belichick is never in danger of being awarded the Horrigan Award from the Professional Football Writers of America, which goes “to the person whose qualities and professional style helped the media best do its job last season.” Guess who won last year? (Professional style? Ha.)
(As an aside, how ridiculous is it that these awards exist in the first place? It seems a little self-important for the media to be honoring people who make their jobs the easiest.)
While their approaches with the media are certainly different, you can’t argue with the results.
Belichick does not give away information on the day-to-day operation of his team, whether it be about injuries, the opponent, or what color jerseys his team is wearing that Sunday. He will almost never criticize a specific player publicly, instead putting the blame on the entire team, including the coaches and himself. Belichick will, from time to time, speak at length about the history of a certain strategy, or about players of the past, or will acknowledge something in the personal life of a media member (as he did by noting Monique Walker’s last day on the beat this season.) His press conferences, especially after a game, can be painful. He doesn’t elaborate on anything, does not want to speak about certain plays or performances until he has a chance to review the film. His weekly radio spots with WEEI are a little more open and cordial, though he still does not give away much.
Rivers talks openly about injuries. (sort of, more on that in a bit.) He’ll be critical of his players publicly. His press conferences are informative, engaging and smooth. His weekly spots on WEEI are appointment radio.
Both are successful, showing that there is more than one way to do things.
Let’s get back to injuries. The Patriots policies on information about injuries can be infuriating when, as a fan, you want to know how hurt a player is, and what the impact, long and short-term is going to be. But after a few days, it becomes “out of sight, out of mind.” The injured players are “day-to-day,” with no timetable set on a return. The focus is turned onto the players who are playing. In addition to keeping fans and media guessing, it also keeps opponents in the dark, which is the real reason for the policy. Injuries never become an all-consuming drama.
If I have a frustration with the Celtics, and Doc Rivers (and Danny Ainge) it is how they deal with injuries. They talk about them, but in reality, they’re not giving you much more than the Patriots do. The release last week about Paul Pierce’s MCL was a bit of a surprise, it was also obvious that Pierce had a knee injury. (Well, except to foil-hat Felger.) In general, the Celtics will give almost daily updates on injuries without giving you any information.
Let me give two examples: Kevin Garnett in the 2009 playoffs, and Shaquille O’Neal last season. In both cases, you got daily updates which told you absolutely nothing. With KG, every day there was talk about being day-to-day or getting “close” or wanting to play. First there was talk about whether he would be ready for the playoffs, which Ainge and Rivers said he would be. Then as each game went by, KG was said to be “close.
He never stepped on the court for the Celtics in the 2009 playoffs.
Last season, it was Shaq. Following the trade of Kendrick Perkins, Danny Ainge repeated said that the trade was made in part because they expected Shaq (and to a lesser extent, Jermaine O’Neal) to fill the center spot. We got daily and weekly updates on Shaq, and how close he was to returning. Rivers talked about it, but Shaq never really came back, making just a token appearance in the playoffs (2 games, 2 points total) and obviously never being a factor.
If you think about it, in the end, the practices of Doc Rivers and Bill Belichick when it comes to information about injuries, really have the same endgame. They tell you nothing. They do it to keep people guessing.
Celtics ownership infamously joked/bragged that they were being Belichickian during the KG injury. They knew the severity of Garnett’s injury, but played the “day-to-day” game to keep opponents guessing. In the endgame, perhaps it was Belichick-like, but the method of getting there was about as far from Belichick as you could get.
The difference between the Rivers method and the Belichick method is that Doc Rivers is going to sit in front of reporters and talk about the situation, seemingly being helpful, yet saying nothing, while Belichick is not even going to bother playing that game. But Rivers is lauded and awarded for being “helpful” to the media, while Belichick is mocked, and reporters gripe about not getting any information from him.
I actually prefer the Belichick way of doing things. The KG and Shaq sagas were painful. Every day it seemed like the player was very close to coming back, yet it didn’t happen. Hopes were raised, the frustrations grew as the weeks went by. Had it been Belichick handling it, it wouldn’t have been the same huge topic. Focus would be on the players who were actually playing. If the injured players came back, it would be a pleasant surprise and a bonus, perhaps even a lift to the team.
While Doc Rivers is definitely more media friendly and is certainly always accessible, part of him is more like Bill Belichick than it would seem. Let’s keep this mind next time you hear Rivers praised for his accessibility and willingness to talk about injuries, and the next time a reporter dumps on Belichick for refusing to talk about injuries.