David Halberstam pulls a Jimmy the Greek in his book on New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick
By leading the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl victories in four years (2001, 2003, 2004) Bill Belichick has established himself as one of the greatest coaches in the history in the National Football League, and his team’s recent loss to the Denver Broncos doesn’t change that, especially since it was the players who fouled up, rather than Belichick.
Belichick is at least superficially quite unlike most of the great NFL coaches. He keeps everything close to the vest, he puts great emphasis on team work and dicourages star systems. He is not an emotional or charismatic leader, but rather a planner, scouter, schemer, and, above all, teacher. He wins through exhaustive preparation and meticulous execution. He isn’t married to any particular system or philosophy, but instead will devise whatever combination of formations and plays necessary to win any given game.
Needless to say, none of that is half as important as the fact that he won three Super Bowls in four years, and with today’s celebrity culture (which puts the ‘cult’ in culture) and a publishing industry that is always on the prowl for a sure thing, it is remarkable that Belichick hasn’t spawned a small industry of how-to-succeed books. Instead of adding his name to slap-dash hagiographies, Belichick has limited his book-industry foray to giving access to Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam of The Best and the Brightest fame. In turn, Halberstam’s book, The Education of a Coach, focuses less on Bill Belichick’s many recent successes and more on the process that led him to them.
That process begins with Belichik’s grandparents who in 1897 moved to America from Croatia, then a part of the slowly decaying Habsburg Empire, which finally imploded during World War I. Belichick’s grandfather was an illiterate, but a man of tremendous work ethic. He ended up in the heart of the Ellis Island-era immigration experience: The steel mill and coal mine towns of western Pennsylvania and central and eastern Ohio, where football quickly, almost instantly, became an ecumenical church of sorts for people from all over Europe who were trying to find their way in an unforgiving but promising land, a time and place captured so well by James Wright’s poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”:
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
The Ohio - Pennsylvania axis of football excellence is an important piece of America’s identity, a shining example of toughness, can do-ism, and assimilation. It is fitting that the latest, and maybe greatest, of football’s masters can trace his American roots to that region.
Halberstam’s book on Bill Belichick is not great, but it is good and it offers a detailed description of how Belichick was molded, what people and institutions molded him and how. The book has received a lot of praise, and I would say that all of it is deserved.
However, it is somewhat surprising that one little aspect of the book has gone, as far as I can tell, unnoticed by the media. In chapter two, Halberstam writes the following:
The entire region of western Pennsylvania and eastern and central Ohio was great football country, both high school and college football. Everyone seemed to care passionately about the game. This was, after all, a part of the country where tough men endured great physical hardship to earn a living - only the strong succeeded, and not surprisingly, they produced big, strong, athletically gifted children who had no fear of ferocious physical contact - indeed, they seemed to relish it. In the era before the coming of the great black athletes, when power was blended with speed and game stayed just as physical but got a lot faster, no area produced as many great football players or as many distinguished coaches as this region.
Compare that to the, reputedly drunken, outburst that cost Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder his job at CBS in 1988:
“During the slave period, the slave owner would breed his big black with his big woman so that he would have a big black kidÃ¢â‚¬â€that’s where it all started.”
Essentially, Halberstam makes the same argument, only about ethnic Whites rather than African-Americans.