Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Edjubication of a Coach

Bill Belichick is respected, not loved, in my neck of the woods. I know it is different elsewhere. Far and wide he is loathed. He is depressively catatonic in most press conferences, and his conspiracy to surreptitiously video the New York Jets has definitely gone down on his permanent record. But even his critics give him great measure as a football coach. Here I agree. I’d say I have never seen a coach so able to prepare his team for games yet at the same time be so able to adjust at half time to whatever the opposition had going for them. [As I kid I grew up on Lombardi – I just don’t remember that many games when they didn’t dominate from the start. Mind may play tricks.]

In David Halberstam, Belichick met a well versed and able biographer. A bit slow and turgid and perfunctory at times, but most of the artifice was used to gain good narrative. Halberstam’s “The Education of aCoach” gives you a great view on the inner game of football, where scouts roam from game to game, and assistant coaches wander from town to town, like rambling blues men.. or Fuller Brush men.

Halberstam’s depiction of the lives of professional and college assistant coaches in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when football was far less central to the public life, is moving. Belichick comes out of this antecedence.

The life of the sports plugger described starts with B’s father, a Navy asst. but a true scion of the cult of football. It proceeds with Bill as he uses his brain to go from nowhere (the Colts, the Lions, the Broncos, the Browns) to the top ( the Giants, Jets and Patriots). B is too enigmatic to ever emerge from the pages of a book. But he does love football, has a tremendous sense of its history, and shares enough with the author to form a touching tome.

Ah, Cleveland. He came there with a three-year plan that blew out the competiton for the headcoaching spot. But it became a precis on the hidden benefit of making mistakes. He made most of his big mistakes in Cleveland, then did leave. Overriding goal became the drive to find people who could fit into the system.

Along the way, a good bit of fatalism. “The more you can do, the more you can do*” is the motto – I think a closeup of Belichick letting go of a long time stalwart might have been leavening. But the author did well to get as much of the underside of football heroics as he did.

Where the book begins to fade is when the story gets good - when the Patriots win three Super Bowls. The timing is just not right on the routes on this part of the book. It is tough. Because it is hard to avoid over dramatization in short format.

What was it that made Tom Brady special? “Determination to excel, high intelligence, inner toughness.” Probably true. Just not good copy. And the first Pat’s SuperBowl win, in these pages, is all about Brady, when in fact, there was a full team around him, defensive and offensive. The story compresses too much. {Funny thing, though, here, in 2012, Brady is the last player left from those teams.} But the probably value is that Halberstam did some real digging: the stuff before the Super Bowl years is the stuff that – most of us – don’t know. 

No, Belichick is not colorful - hence the picture chosen to accompany story is Johnnie Unitas in the Colt's hedays. But Bill is thoughtful, and interesting general.

The buildup of “The Education of a Coach” is well paced, but the climax is anticlimactic. My guess would be that anyone who likes football books, but who is not irretrievably put off by Belichick would like it.  

*This may be effective in sport, where athletic skills are necessarily ebbing for the veterans. Why this motto has to be taken forward to business is another question. This reminds me of when I started ( a youngster, relatively) in publishing business, and half of many editorial meetings went to discussion of how the Giants were doing (as the woman editors rolled their eyes).

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