The exit from New England was pure Belichickian, in all its awkward glory. On Thursday, the New England Patriots announced that the team and its head coach for the last 24 years, Bill Belichick—who led New England to six Super Bowl titles—had mutually agreed to part ways. The news was not at all unexpected, as the Pats have suffered two straight losing seasons. It became apparent to anyone who watched the NFL this season that both sides could probably use a change.
Belichick stood behind the podium in Foxboro, where he’s orchestrated curt and grumpy exchanges with the media countless times over the past two-plus decades, one last time. Patriots owner Robert Kraft stood to his left. Belichick kicked off his final Patriots press conference with a joke. “Good morning,” he said. “I haven’t seen this many cameras since we signed [Tim] Tebow.” It wasn’t a bad quip. The media was once absolutely obsessed with the southpaw Heisman trophy winner from Florida, who had a brief spurt of glory with the Denver Broncos in the 2011 season before his bad throwing mechanics caught up with him. The Pats briefly brought him into training camp in 2013, before cutting him.
The remark spoke to Belichick’s underrated sense of humor. His friends swear he could have starred on Saturday Night Live or something, he’s so darn funny in private. But he rarely flashes his comic chops in public. Though it sometimes crept through. Like when, during the farcical Deflategate scandal of 2015, he gave a press conference copping to his ignorance of the psychics of blowing up footballs. “I would not say that I’m the Mona Lisa Vito of the football world,” he said, an entirely unexpected, but apropos, reference to the 1992 hit film My Cousin Vinny.
He said some nice things at Thursday’s exit presser, thanking Kraft, the team’s support staff, assistant coaches, players, fans, and others for all of New England’s success. Kraft then took the podium and wished Belichick well on his next coaching stop, making clear that this wasn’t a Belichick retirement ceremony. “It’ll be difficult to see him in a cutoff hoodie on [another] sideline,” Kraft said.
And afterward, instead of embracing as the moment called for, Belichick awkwardly shook Kraft’s hand. Kraft put his arm around Belichick’s shoulder, but the coach couldn’t quite return the favor. Kraft said that Belichick had a cold. But I’m not buying that as an excuse for no bro-hug. Belichick just can’t do warm and fuzzy. The pair, who won a half-dozen Super Bowls together, then walked out of the room, Belichick comfortably in front of his former boss. The coach snatched his Yeti before exiting stage left.
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Critics have painted Belichick as the brooding, borderline evil genius who won too much for their liking—and was an easy target for ire. He coldly cut players. He’d even cheat to win. (Remember Spygate?) For them, it’s good riddance. They’ll continue poking fun at him and rooting against him at his next stop, no matter where he lands. If he fails, they’ll continue to point out that Belichick could only lead his team to Super Bowl titles with Tom Brady as his quarterback. Maybe the GOAT propped him up.
But such hate seems unjustified. As I watched the brief press conference—less than 10 minutes in length, no questions taken—I started feeling strangely sentimental, and pulling for Belichick in the next, and most likely last, coaching stop in his career. His callousness was no crime against humanity. He’s a guy who lives and breathes football, who famously revered his father, Steve, a coaching lifer who never advanced as far as his son in the business, but gave so much to the game (Football Scouting Methods, a 1962 book Steve wrote when he was an assistant coach at the Naval Academy, is considered a bible amongst Xs and Os types).
He’ll continue to coach, at 71, having already won more Super Bowls than any other head coach in history, because he can’t walk away from the game. Imagine loving your craft so much that relaxing on a beach for a living seems nauseating. We should all be so lucky.
Also, I believe Kraft when he says he’s pulling for his old coach, except when he’s facing the Pats. At the press conference, Kraft mentioned that when he hired Belichick in 2000, perhaps he and his new coach were the only two people in the football universe who shared high expectations for the franchise. There’s something to that. Belichick had been a losing coach in Cleveland, and before coming to New England all those years ago, he had just given a sweaty, surreal press conference resigning as head coach of the New York Jets a day after accepting that job. What was the deal with this guy? Why was Kraft so enamored with him?
Back then, the Pats had never won a Super Bowl, and had suffered through many awful losing seasons. These two didn’t seem destined for all-time greatness.
So you have to respect all they accomplished. In the NFL’s salary-cap/free-agent era, in which the rules are designed for parity, New England built a dynasty. So many sports marriages dissolve in acrimony. Maybe this moment is proof they don’t have to. After Belichick is finally done coaching, it’s easy to picture him returning to New England, for a proper send-off. Bet Brady would even join him.
There’s no need to jeer Belichick’s last chapter. Here’s to more awkward Belichickian moments in Los Angeles or Atlanta or Washington or wherever. Why not enjoy one last dance with the man whose success has defined America’s most popular sport, its shared national obsession, for the last quarter century?