The Education of a Coach


By David Halberstam

Introduction by David Maraniss

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Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam’s bestseller takes you inside the football genius of Bill Belichick for an insightful profile in leadership. Bill Belichick’s thirty-one years in the NFL have been marked by amazing success–most recently with the New England Patriots. In this groundbreaking book, David Halberstam explores the nuances of both the game and the man behind it. He uncovers what makes Bill Belichick tick both on and off the field.


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David Halberstam exuded as much life force as anyone I have ever met. There was an electricity about him, a constant hum and thrum of talk and action and curiosity. What the hell was this world about, anyway? He wanted to figure everything out, and tell you, tell everyone. Tall, athletic, competitive, hungry, with a deeply resonant voice that rolled out his findings in full paragraph form, with emphatic underlines and italics, he obliterated clichés with his relentlessness. He was obsessed with big things. The title of his best known book, The Best and the Brightest, in so many ways defined his career. He was a student of the extraordinary in America, good and bad—stunning achievements, outsized lies, life-changing ideas, fatal delusions, courageous stands, fiery estrangements, deep friendships. And he worked at that obsession until the day he died, or more precisely, was still working at it the very second he was killed on April 23, 2007, as a passenger in a car accident, on his way to another interview in northern California.

When his memorial service was held at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side six weeks later, the sadness of the day was matched only by a sense of astonishment that this could happen, that such an intelligent and dauntless voice could be stilled. There were writers all around, many who had worked with him at the New York Times or Esquire, others who had hung out with him in New York or Washington or Vietnam or Nantucket, and others, like me, who had been drawn into the outer orbit of his solar system by the strength of his generosity as a mentor. He was the kind of person who had a dozen friends who thought they were his best friend and scores more who considered themselves disciples of some sort. We all came to honor him.

I found a seat on the right side of the middle aisle, about three-quarters of the way back. As the program was set to begin, I looked over my shoulder to the right and saw three men slip into a side pew. One looked familiar, though something was a bit off. He was not wearing a sweatshirt and headphones, his hair was combed, not messed up, he was dressed in suit and tie, and he almost appeared to be a normal human being. It was the coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick.

The Education of a Coach, published two years before Halberstam's death, was his seventh sports book out of twenty altogether, and his first about football. He had written three books about baseball, two on basketball, and one on amateur rowing before getting around to Belichick. As a lifelong New York football Giants fan, he loved pro football, but I doubt the sport itself was what drew him to this subject. One lure, the most prosaic, was proximity. Halberstam and his family spent their summers on Nantucket, and so, too, did Belichick. As fellow islanders, they bumped into each other now and then, and went fishing together at least once. The story was right there for the taking, like a big trout on the line, and it did not hurt that Belichick had spent several important years as an assistant coach for Halberstam's beloved Giants. But even though this would be one of his smaller books, an interesting diversion from the last major undertaking of his career, his book on the Korean War, The Coldest Winter, proximity and fandom alone would not be enough. There had to be something more compelling to get him going.

Greatness was part of it. Belichick seemed to fit into Halberstam's obsession with big things. With three recent Super Bowl titles to his credit, he was indisputably the best coach in the game that shined brightest. The NFL had become the biggest, richest sport in a sports-obsessed society, and Halberstam had watched it happen. He had been a devotee of the pro game since his early days as a reporter at The Tennessean in Nashville, where he and a band of friends, none with televisions at home, gathered on Sundays to watch games at Rotier's, a cozy restaurant and bar near the Vanderbilt campus. He had observed the NFL's rise over the ensuing decades with measures of joy and dread, more of the former, especially when the Giants were winning, but enough of the latter as well. The dilution of talent through expansion, the cultural hyperventilation that transformed the sport from recreation to religion, the overwhelming pile of money that made it a business more than a game—all of these Halberstam rued. But he was obsessed with the best, and this was it, men performing at the peak of human speed and strength and skill. In comparison, he once wrote, college football looked as though it were being played in slow motion.

Halberstam was always open to new ideas, but he was also old school. He believed in traditional verities such as diligence, perseverance, and quality over celebrity; and Belichick, more than any coach of that era, seemed to reflect those characteristics. When people would ask me what coach of today was most like Vince Lombardi, a coach I had written about, I invariably answered with Belichick. He was in a line that went back to the great Packers coach, through Bill Parcells, for whom Belichick worked on the Giants. Parcells had once been an assistant at West Point, as had Lombardi, and had been coached himself as a high school student in New Jersey by Mickey Corcoran, who in turn had been coached by Lombardi at little St. Cecilia's High in Englewood. Lombardi specialized in offense, Belichick in defense, Lombardi had a mercurial personality of hot and cold, while Belichick was so stoic he barely seemed to have a pulse. Yet they were more alike than not. Belichick possessed Lombardi's innate ability to teach football in a way that was at once sophisticated and totally understandable to the densest athlete. Both had been mediocre and undersized linemen in college, and though Lombardi played on a legendary Fordham team as one of the Seven Blocks of Granite while Belichick struggled to play on a bad Wesleyan squad, they took out of those experiences the same lessons. As coaches, they understood weakness. They excelled at eliminating flaws in players that they could not overcome themselves, and in exploiting the weaknesses of the opposition. As different as their personalities seemed on a superficial level, both coaches were master psychologists who understood human quirks and motivations and knew how to get the best out of every player. They were extremely intelligent men who could have done other things but devoted every fiber of their being to winning football games, and won more than anyone around them.

But there was one more thing that struck me about the story of Bill Belichick and why Halberstam reeled it in. The title is a clue. One person educated Belichick far more than Parcells or anyone else. It is impossible to read this book and not see that Halberstam's favorite character, the one he most wants to understand and, in the end, honor, is not Bill Belichick but his father, Steve Belichick, who was a coach's coach in every sense of the word, a lifer assistant who never got his due except within the fraternity of fellow coaches and scouts who really knew football. The book begins with the old man as an assistant at Annapolis, analyzing the Army squad before the 1957 Army–Navy game, which Navy won in part by following his scouting report. And it ends with his death at age eighty-six, as "a man who thought himself exceptionally rich in his life, his family, and his friendships; someone who had a shrewd idea of what was good for him and what was not…"

Halberstam never talked to me about his father, but I have heard enough stories from his closest friends to know that his relationship with his dad was unresolved. David never felt that he was the favorite son; he was overshadowed in his parents' light by his older brother, Michael, a distinguished doctor in Washington who was murdered by a burglar during a break-in at his home in 1980. Like many achievers, David's incredible drive in part derived from a desire to prove himself. The relationship of Steve and Bill Belichick was different, yet I could see in reading the book that Halberstam's obsession in this case was not just with what makes a coach great, as all the blurbs suggested, but with a far more personal quest to study fathers and sons. There is enough fascinating football in the book to satisfy football lovers, but also a deeper story at work.

There was always something more with David Halberstam. Last winter, his widow, Jean Halberstam, generously gave me permission to look through David's papers, which are housed at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. I was researching a book on Detroit. One of his big books, The Reckoning, dealt with the automobile industry in Detroit and some of the characters who would appear in my book. As I combed through the many archival boxes, my admiration for him grew hour by hour. In his scribbled notes, in his typed observations, in transcripts of his interviews, in every file I looked at I could feel his presence, something ineffable about the way he thought and worked and pieced things together and figured out life. There was, again, a thrilling relentlessness to his methods.

It reminded me of something he had written in the introduction to that final book about the Korean War, how he found himself in North Carolina, bracing for an unlikely snowstorm, and he was dog tired and thought about heading home to New York, but there was one more veteran on his list of people to interview, and after debating with himself he decided that he had to stay no matter the condition of the weather or his body, he had to hear the man's story, and it turned out to be one of the best stories of his book and made all the difference.

That was Halberstam to the last. On his last spring day in California, he was leaving Berkeley, where he had delivered a lecture, and was being driven by a student down to Menlo Park, where he was to interview someone for another football book, this one about the game that in many ways made the NFL: the 1958 sudden death championship game between the Giants and the Colts. Waiting for him that day was Yelverton Abraham Tittle. What is striking about that is that Tittle was a Giants quarterback, but not in 1959. He did not get to New York until 1961. But he would know the Giants, and have stories about the players, and the era, and that was enough reason for Halberstam to go those extra miles.

The old pro. He could have played for Lombardi, or Belichick.

David Maraniss

March 17, 2014

Washington, D.C.


When the clock was finally winding down, the seconds ticking off, with the Philadelphia team unconscionably slow in getting its plays off, Steve Belichick, always in the background whenever there were television cameras around, left his place behind some of the New England players, back around the 50-yard line. Moving quickly, he headed toward the 35, wanting to share this final glorious moment with his son, Bill, the coach of New England, about to win his third Super Bowl victory in four years. Bill Belichick himself was puzzled at that moment by the slow, almost languid way the Eagles were running their plays, as if they were the ones with the lead, not the Patriots, and they wanted to burn the clock. He kept checking the scoreboard, which said 24–14, as if perhaps he was the one who had the score wrong. He called his assistants, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini, on the headphones to make sure the Patriots did indeed enjoy a ten-point lead. "Have I got the score right?" he asked, and they assured him he did. "Then what the hell are they trying to do?" he asked. His assistants did not know, either. The long, slow drive had finally culminated in a Philadelphia score, because of a blown defensive coverage on the part of the Patriots; the correct defense, designed to give up a limited number of yards in exchange for more time off the clock, had not been sent in or used, and Philadelphia scored on a 30-yard pass play. Seeing that his players were in the wrong coverage, Belichick had tried desperately to call time-out, but he had been too late, and the Eagles had scored. Belichick had been momentarily furious, mostly at himself, because he demanded perfection first and foremost of himself. But the score had served only to make the game closer; it had not affected the final outcome.

Steve Belichick got to his son's side just in time to be soaked by Gatorade in the ritual shower of the victorious. That gave him his first great moment of celebrity, coming at the end of a six-decade career of playing and coaching football, and that moment was witnessed by much of the entire nation, live and in color, on national television. One could imagine one of those Disneyland commercials, generally accorded the young and instantly famous at moments like these, when a voice would ask, "Steve Belichick, you've been coaching and playing for sixty years, where are you going now that your son has won his third Super Bowl in four years?"

It was one of the best moments of the entire Super Bowl extravaganza, filled as it is so often with moments of artificial emotion, because this moment was absolutely genuine, father and son drenched together, emotion finally showing on the face of the son, usually so reticent about showing emotion, as if to do so was to give away some precious bit of control, to fall victim at least momentarily to the whims of the modern media trap. Father and son were bonded in this instant by the joy of victory and by the shared experience of a lifetime of coaching, with all its bitter as well as celebratory moments.

Steve Belichick was a lifer, viewed by his peers as a coach's coach. He had never made much money and never enjoyed much fame outside the small hermetically sealed world of coaching. For much of his adulthood he had lived with the special uncertainty of a coach—a world without guarantees, except for the one that no matter how well things were going at the moment, they would surely turn around soon. There would be a bad recruiting year, a prize recruit who said he would come to your school and then decided at the last moment to attend an archrival, too many good players would be injured in the preseason (but only after the national magazines had looked at your roster and predicted a conference championship), or there would be a change in athletic directors and the new one had a favorite all his own whom he hoped to install in what was now his program. In the end, the head coach would be fired and the assistant coaches would have to leave with him.

Bill Belichick had been born in 1952 in Nashville, when Steve, already considered an exceptional coach—tough and smart, original and demanding, way ahead of the curve in the drills he demanded, and, in addition to everything else, an absolutely brilliant scout—was in the process of being fired as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, even though the team he was part of had done reasonably well. He had been fired, all of the members of the Belichick family later believed, because they and the coaching team they were part of had been not quite social enough for the genteel world of Vanderbilt football, and there had been a deftly organized campaign against them by one of Nashville's more influential (and social) sportswriters.

Thus Bill Belichick had entered the world rather typically as the son of a lifer. When he was a toddler, his family had already given up the lease on their house and put their furniture in storage, and his father was waiting for word on his next job. The head coach they had followed to Vanderbilt, an immensely popular man named Bill Edwards (William Steven Belichick was named both for Bill Edwards and for his father), was well connected in the world of coaching and liked by almost everyone, save apparently one or two Nashville sportswriters, but it was late in the year, and there were not a lot of openings.

It was a difficult moment. On Steve's tiny salary they had not been able to save any money, and they were hunkered down in a house they would soon have to vacate. They had no furniture—moving boxes filled with their possessions served as their tables and chairs. The phone, which was supposed to be ringing with job offers, did not ring. There was talk that Bill Edwards might be offered a job at North Carolina as an assistant to a man named George Barclay, and that if he were, Steve Belichick might become a part of his team, but it was still just talk. Time was running out. Finally a game plan was decided on, one that Jeannette Belichick helped formulate. They would pile everything they had into the car and drive east. Somewhere along the way, they would stop and call the Carolina people. If the job was there, they would continue on to Chapel Hill; if there was no word, they would leave the uncertain world of college coaching, head south, and Steve would try to find a job in Florida, coaching high school football.

In Knoxville, not quite halfway to Chapel Hill, the Belichick family pulled up alongside a restaurant, and Steve got out and called from a pay phone. The Carolina job was his. So they had continued to Chapel Hill, and the idea of coaching high school football was put aside, at least for the moment. The Belichick family loved Chapel Hill, and Steve always regretted that Carolina was not a perennial football power, but to his mind George Barclay was not that good a coach—it would have been better had Edwards been the coach, he thought. Chapel Hill lasted three years, 1953–55, before they were all once again fired.

From there Steve Belichick managed to get the job as an assistant coach at Navy. Bill was three years old when they went to Annapolis. Steve Belichick loved coaching there, loved coaching the midshipmen, and decided he would stay there permanently if he could. He did not long to be a head coach—he had seen how quickly they came and went, even when they were talented, like his friend Bill Edwards. He did not need the title or the power. He decided everything he needed was right there: a solid program (Navy still had nationally ranked teams in those days), great young men, an attractive community, wonderful colleagues. He was by all accounts a brilliant coach, an exceptional teacher, and arguably the best and most professional scout of his era. No one, it was said, could scout another team and break down their film quite like Steve Belichick; no one could pick up on a giveaway mistake of another team—say, a runner who involuntarily gave a small tip-off before the snap when he was going to get the ball—like Belichick.

He was one of those rare Americans who, though ambitious and exceptionally hardworking, knew when he had a deal that suited him, and had no urge for greener pastures, which in his shrewd estimate might in fact not be greener. Over the years he turned down countless other job offers, from other colleges and from the pros. When Bill Edwards, his great mentor and by then coach at Wittenberg College in Ohio, asked him to come there, he regretfully turned it down because it would be a step backward in terms of the strength of the program. When there was a chance to become the head coach of Navy, he told the committee that he liked the job he already had, thereby taking himself out of the running for head coach. He did another shrewd thing. At Chapel Hill he had become close to the Carolina basketball coach, the legendary Frank McGuire, who had taken a special liking to the Belichick family and especially to its three-year-old son. Basketball practice always stopped when Steve and Bill showed up, and someone was ordered to find a basketball, always brand-new, to roll out to Bill. When McGuire heard that the Belichicks were going to Navy, he told Steve to do what his friend Ben Carnevale, the basketball coach there, had done, which was to try and move up on a tenure track as a physical education instructor in addition to coaching. This would protect him from the volatility and uncertainty of the coach's life. Steve took the advice, and became an assistant professor first and then a tenured associate professor. That gave him something rare in the world of coaching, job security, and he ended up staying at Navy for thirty-three years under eight head coaches.

He taught thousands of players and younger coaches, many of whom went on to more prominent jobs, but in the end his greatest pupil was his son. He taught him many things, including what position to play—center, because the boy was smart and strong for his size, but he was not going to be very big, not on a football-player scale, and because, even more important, he was not going to be particularly fast. Steve knew that early on because Bill had heavy ankles—that was the first thing he looked for when he was recruiting, the ankles, because it was a tip-off on speed. Center was the right position for Bill because he was smart and would know the game, and a smart center who knew how to read a defense was always valuable. So, as a result, a particular repetitive sound, a kind of thudding, filled the Belichick house in Bill's teenage years: the sound of him centering the ball against a mat hanging from a wall in the basement. Another important thing Steve taught his son was how to scout and how to study film, which Bill Belichick started doing when he was about nine years old.

For if anyone had helped create the extraordinary coach who stood there, soaked in Gatorade, that evening of his third Super Bowl win (both Belichicks subsequently caught bad colds and suspected it was because of the shower), it was Steve Belichick. At that moment his son (still known as Billy to some of the players and coaches Steve had worked with during the Navy years) stood at the pinnacle of his profession. Others in the football world placed him in the pantheon of the NFL's greatest coaches. Maxie Baughan, one of the first men he worked under when he joined the league in 1975, a nine-time Pro Bowl player himself, and a longtime George Allen favorite, was one of the first players to pick up on Bill Belichick's brilliance when he was still a child-coach with the Colts back in 1975. After the third Super Bowl he placed Belichick among the elite three, a new trinity: Lombardi, Landry, and now Belichick. Others were more cautious and added the names of Paul Brown, George Allen, Chuck Noll, Don Shula, and Bill Walsh, among other immensely talented coaches, but of Belichick's excellence and originality and his place among the elite, there was no doubt. Ron Jaworski, who quarterbacked an earlier Eagle team to the Super Bowl in 1981 and eventually became ESPN's most knowledgeable football commentator, thought it was quite possible that Belichick was the best ever, because he had won three times in an era dramatically less congenial to creating a dynasty than before. In the past, there were two principal obstacles faced by a team once it became a champion. The first was the instinct to relax and not work as hard once you had won it all, to think that because you had just been the best, you were entitled to be the best again. The other was the League's draft, the fact that each year the weakest teams had the best shot at the very best players. In the modern era, when there were probably too many teams, the League had decided, consciously or unconsciously, on policies to keep the better teams and better organizations from dominating, and instead to make weaker organizations look better—in effect, to reward the weak and punish the strong. Now the schedule was rigged—the better you were, the tougher the schedule you faced.

The League, it was believed, wanted every team to come in as close to .500 with its record as possible. That was a dramatic change from the past. In addition, free agency and the salary cap worked against dynastic ambitions. Teams that did their scouting better than their competitors could not stockpile players as in the past, and it was harder than ever to keep a good bench, because if you won, other teams stole your starters and your backup people—those you were grooming, but who were probably a bit dissatisfied because they were not starting. The salary cap put a certain pressure on you as well, because as you won, your players felt, not without some justification, that they deserved more money, and it was hard to keep them all satisfied, so some of your role-playing athletes were snatched away at star-player salaries by your rivals. What Dallas, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco did in another era—create a powerful team and add to it systematically—was harder to do now. "There's a volatility to lineups now that wasn't there before, before free agency and the cap, and no matter how good your organization is these days you're going to lose a number of your best players each year," Jaworski said. "That makes his accomplishments even more remarkable." Or as Bill Walsh, the celebrated architect and coach of the San Francisco 49ers in their glory years, and sometimes called The Genius, said admiringly of Belichick: "He's done it in an age when the dynasties are gone, unless you count the Patriots as a dynasty, which I think they are."

What football men, coaches and players alike, admired about him more than anything else was his ability to create a team in an age when the outside forces working against it seemed more powerful every year and where often the more talented a player was, the more he needed to display his ego, to celebrate his own deeds rather than team deeds. A fan could now watch truly bizarre scenes on Sunday—a player, his team down by four touchdowns, making a good catch and dancing around as if his team had just won the championship. Belichick, as much as anyone in football, tried to limit that, and to make New England win and behave at all times like a team. The most obvious example of that old-fashioned emphasis on team came in the first of New England's three Super Bowl victories. The League had asked him, according to tradition, whether he wanted to introduce his offensive or defensive team to both the crowd and the nation at the start of the game, and he had said, neither—he wanted to introduce the entire team. The League officials argued against it, because that was not the way it was done, and told him he had to choose. Belichick was nothing if not stubborn—stubborn when he was right and sometimes just as stubborn when he was wrong—and he refused to budge, so, finally, the League caved.

Out they had come, all the Patriots, joyously and confidently, and it was not just other players and coaches who got it immediately, that this introduction was something different, designed to show this was a team and everyone was a part of it. It was also understood by much of the vast television audience, exhausted not merely by players' excessive egos, but also by broadcasters who failed to blow the whistle on them. A great many people decided then and there that they would root for New England as kind of an homage to the game itself.

As they watched the game, these fans came to admire not merely Belichick, but also the players: These were football players as they were supposed to be. They cared about playing together, they were a team. The fans did not necessarily know the Patriots players at first—McGinest, Bruschi, Seymour, Vrabel, and Brown—because they were not the kind of players whose contract negotiations made the national press; nor did they have signature war dances. But they played with intelligence and grittiness, and they refused to give in to the superior press clippings of the Rams. The Patriots were not necessarily America's Team, as Dallas had so optimistically nicknamed itself in an earlier era, but they were an easy team for ordinary football fans to like in the new era of football.


  • "If you want to learn about schooling and allegiance and leadership and, most of all, football, by all means--slip inside the sweatshirt."—Wall Street Journal
  • "Halberstam takes the classic sports-bio formula--one stellar performer's rise to the pinnacle of American sport--and transforms it into a nuance-rich story of individual triumph and social history."—Booklist
  • "In describing the triumph of 'an unadorned man,' a coach without artifice, Halberstam has created a tale of excellence."—New York Times Book Review

On Sale
Aug 8, 2006
Page Count
288 pages
Hachette Books

David Halberstam

About the Author

David Halberstam (1934-2007) was the author of twenty-two books, including fifteen bestsellers. Born in New York City, Halberstam spent much of the 1960s as a reporter for the New York Times, covering the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. His Vietnam reporting earned him both a George C. Polk Award and a 1964 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Vanity Fair dubbed Halberstam “the Moses of American journalism,” and the subjects of his books reflect his passion and range: war, foreign policy, history, and sports.

The Best and the Brightest (1962), his sixth book, a critique of the Kennedy administration’s Vietnam policy, became a #1 bestseller. His next book, The Powers that Be, a study of four American media companies, was hailed by the New York Times as a “prodigy of research.” Many of Halberstam’s books explored themes in professional sports, including bestsellers The Teammates, a portrait of the friendship between baseball players Ted Williams, Dominic DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, and Bobby Doerr, and The Education of a Coach, a profile of New England Patriots’ Coach Bill Belichick.

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