By Ben Morse, CNN
(CNN) — When Bill Belichick steps out of the tunnel into Gillette Stadium on Sunday, he’ll know he’s done a good job.
It might be his final game as head coach of the New England Patriots and it might even be his final game in the NFL as a whole.
During his almost half-century in the sport, the 71-year-old has brought about the greatest dynasty in the NFL’s long history, as well as the development of some of its most iconic players; Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins all began their careers with him at the Patriots and became some of the greatest to ever grace the game.
With rumors circulating that his time with the Patriots might be coming to an end, it potentially marks the end of an era of unparalleled success in Massachusetts and the turning of a new page.
From a dry sense of humor and memorable draft moments with his dog to becoming arguably the greatest NFL coach of all time, whatever the future holds for Belichick, he is an era-defining legend of the game.
Learning the ropes
Born in 1952, Belichick was the son of Jeannette and Steve Belichick – a former member of the US military who served in World War II. Steve was a fullback for the Detroit Lions prior to serving, and he later coached at the college level and acted as a scout for over 40 years, mostly with the Naval Academy football team.
Speaking to the Washington Post in 2005, his father remembers how a young Belichick showed an interest in the sport from an early age.
“He wanted to be with me, and I wanted to be with him,” the older Belichick said at the time. “He was probably five or six years old when he started to get interested.
“The three of us drove down to William & Mary to scout a spring game because we were going to play them in the next year, and that’s when I remember him showing his first interest. I’d take him to games with me when I could. He was always interested in what I was doing. He was never a bother.”
Former Navy running back and 1960 Heisman Trophy winner Joe Bellino remembers the young boy during team meetings surrounded by future football legends.
“He’d sit in the back of the room listening to his father give the scouting report,” Bellino told Sports Illustrated in 2004. “He’s a six-, seven-, eight-year-old youngster hanging out at the Naval Academy.
“Midshipmen in uniform, parades, the brass, the visiting presidents, the football team with two Heisman winners [Bellino and quarterback Roger Staubach]. And he saw his father’s work ethic. He saw everyone in the room soak up what his dad was telling us, believing if we did what he said, we could beat anybody.”
After being a standout athlete at both the high school and college levels, Bill Belichick began his long and winding coaching journey with the Baltimore Colts in the NFL as a 23-year-old in 1975.
He quickly rose through the ranks, being named special assistant to head coach Ted Marchibroda before moving on to the Lions as an assistant special teams coach the following year. A mere 12 months later, he was given his first positional coaching assignment as Detroit’s tight ends and receivers coach before being hired by the Denver Broncos in 1978 as the assistant special teams coach and assistant to defensive coordinator Joe Collier.
But it was at his next stop where he really made a name for himself.
In 1979, Belichick was hired as a defensive assistant and special teams coach for the New York Giants before being promoted to defensive coordinator – tasked with organizing the defense as a whole – by head coach Bill Parcells in 1985.
The relationship between the two – later coined ‘The Two Bills’ in an ESPN ’30 for 30’ special released in 2018 – became a seminal moment in the history of the NFL, with Belichick’s defense being a key building block in two Super Bowl victories in 1986 and 1990.
The second title earned him his first NFL head coaching role, where he took over the Cleveland Browns in February 1991 at the mere age of 38 – the NFL’s youngest head coach at the time.
Belichick was walking into a sticky situation as is the case for many new head coaches – Cleveland’s previous season record of 3-13 was the worst in franchise history at the time – but within a few years, he had successfully righted the ship and transformed the team into one of the strongest in the league, tied for the second-best record in the American Football Conference (AFC) at 11-5.
He beat Parcells and the Patriots in his only playoff victory that year as the future looked bright for the organization under the revolutionary head coach.
But midway through the 1995 season, it all changed.
On a November day outside of the Browns’ home stadium in Cleveland, team owner Art Modell announced the club would be uprooting and moving to Baltimore, citing financial difficulties, in a move which shocked the NFL fraternity.
The decision was met with furious protests from the Browns fanbase and the disruption caused by the announcement – with protests organized and lawsuits filed – affected the on-field success of Belichick’s team as its season petered out.
Although many of the Browns players and staff were retained during the move, Belichick was fired and his first stint as a head coach was over in acrimonious fashion.
‘One of the great moments of my career’
Belichick was soon reunited with Parcells as assistant head coach and defensive backs coach with the Patriots before eventually following him to the New York Jets to continue to coach under the future Hall of Famer.
Upon Parcells’ departure as head coach in 1999, it was arranged that Belichick would succeed his longtime mentor in the role.
However, in one of the most memorable press conferences in NFL history, Belichick resigned from the position just one day after assuming it, instead choosing to become the head coach of the Patriots.
In what has become a seismic moment for the league, Belichick wrote on a small slip of paper before the press conference: “I resign as HC of the NYJ.”
Although the two teams were forced to agree upon settlement to trade Belichick to the Patriots after a legal dispute, Belichick himself in hindsight believes he made the correct decision.
“Well, not only one of the most defining, but you know, one of the great moments of my career,” Belichick said on WEEI in 2020. “That combined with Robert [Kraft] giving me the opportunity to come here, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
“That wasn’t a good situation for me and I didn’t want to be part of it, so I wasn’t. The other half of that was Robert giving me the opportunity to come here and trading, he gave up quite a bit to get me to come here, and that was a big trade.”
From there, the rest is history.
It’s rare for a coach and an organization to pair so symbiotically, but for Belichick and the Patriots, everything just clicked.
Even from his very first draft, it literally couldn’t have gone better.
With the 199th pick of the 2000 NFL Draft, the Patriots selected quarterback Tom Brady out of the University of Michigan; an unheralded prospect who was described in a scouting report as possibly making “it in the right system but will not be for everyone.”
However, over a span of almost 20 years, the pair formed the deadliest coach-quarterback combination in league history to transform a ‘down on its luck’ franchise into the winningest organization in the NFL.
Six Super Bowl titles, countless wins and unrivaled success followed as Belichick and Brady’s ruthlessness kept New England on top.
The pinnacle of the pair’s magic together manifested in 2007 when the Patriots created history by becoming the first team to finish the regular season with an undefeated 16-0 record.
With Brady at the helm – he would win MVP that season – and superstar wide receiver Randy Moss on the outside, the team’s offense was almost unstoppable, finishing the season with an NFL-best 36.8 points per game. And paired with a stout defense, New England was a juggernaut.
“I’m not entirely sure they had any weakness. Most teams have one or two strengths,” former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo would later say.
After blitzing through the playoffs, the Patriots faced the New York Giants in the Super Bowl where in one of the biggest shocks in NFL history, New England was defeated 17-14, with David Tyree’s “Helmet Catch” being written into folklore.
The dramatic upset wouldn’t stop the Patriots juggernaut, however. Belichick’s ability to transform undervalued pieces into stars and simultaneously dispose of players at exactly the moment they started to hit the downward slope of their career became legendary and vital in consistently being Super Bowl contenders.
Belichick is the only head coach in NFL history to win six Super Bowl titles. He ranks second all-time with 333 total victories as a head coach. His 31 career playoff wins are the most all-time among head coaches.
But more than that, his fingerprints are all over the league.
Current NFL head coaches Brian Daboll and Mike Vrabel both have connections to Belichick, while other familiar faces around the sport such as Matt Patricia, Brian Flores, Joe Judge, Josh McDaniels, Nick Saban, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini can all trace their lineage back to him.
The team has understandably tailed off since Brady’s departure in 2019 and this season’s issues have increased scrutiny on Belichick’s future as the head coach of the team.
He has consistently faced questions about whether he sees himself as the head coach going forward and has always made sure to respond in his trademark, deadpan manner.
“If I was going to do anything, I’d put it out there on Twitter and MyFace so everybody can see it,” Belichick said in gest when asked on WEEI’s “The Greg Hill Show” before New England’s Week 18 game against the Jets.
Whether or not Belichick’s time as the head coach of the Patriots or in the NFL in general has come to an end, his shadow will forever loom large as one of the titans of the game.
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