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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Why Bill Belichick fit in so well, for so long, in New England

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who had little time for the long sleeves on his sweatshirts and usually cut them off, on the sidelines of the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss to the Eagles at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, on Feb. 4, 2018. The head coach of the Patriots, who has parted ways with the team after 24 years, won six Super Bowls with a taciturn approach that rewarded performance over potential. (Ben Solomon/The New York Times)

By Bill Pennington

It is hard to make an impression, and even harder to make history in a place as old and momentous as New England. The measuring stick is so high.

But Bill Belichick, who departed late last week as the head coach of the New England Patriots after 24 years of unmatched dominance in America’s most popular sport, will be remembered alongside New England legends like Ted Williams, Bill Russell and Paul Revere.

OK, Paul Revere is a stretch. Only Tom Brady will exist in perpetuity alongside Revere.

Nevertheless, Belichick, whose teams won an NFL record six Super Bowls with Brady as quarterback, is big enough in the Boston area that he could qualify as an honorary Kennedy.

Belichick’s exit last Thursday as the Patriots’ coach, after consecutive losing years that included this season’s 4-13 record, is an end of an era in a place where sports heroes can outshine almost any senator, civic leader or artist. Belichick, known for his rumpled appearance, unsmiling countenance and monotone voice, was celebrated as savant, savior and sage. He also became an influential, popular role model in New England.

Even moving to New England from New York was not held against him.

Ben Ravelson, a lifelong Patriots fan who lives in Boston, believed that Belichick’s effect on the region became almost mystical.

“Any move he made, even if we as fans initially had doubt, we were conditioned to just know that this guy, Bill Belichick, was all-knowing and wise,” Ravelson, 34, said Thursday, alluding to one of Belichick’s nicknames, which is “Yoda.”

“We never really questioned him,” Ravelson added.

This is not a success story that anyone saw coming. On Jan. 27, 2000, nothing about Belichick’s arrival from the New York Jets as the new field general of the Patriots suggested that the region’s cultural identity was about to undergo a substantial makeover. The Patriots were disregarded, frequent losers. Brady was still an obscure ex-college quarterback without a concrete job prospect in the offing.

And yet, Belichick’s Patriots became an omnipresent source of pride, one that was emblematic of how New Englanders like to view themselves: reserved but coolly efficient, innovative, prosperous, industrious and furtive about their methods.

(When it came to the Patriots, some would call the last trait a smoke screen for cheating, but more on that later.)

Under Belichick, whose Patriots coaching record in the regular season was 266-121, the impact of a triumphant Boston-based sport team ballooned. For roughly a century, the importance or influence of New England teams was largely parochial. But with Belichick at the helm, the Patriots became a recognized national phenomenon. Albeit some of that was because fans in the 44 states outside New England lived to hate them.

The almost wordless Belichick was the perfect poker face of the emergent Patriots movement that would dominate the once staid NFL for nearly two decades. Belichick was not a son of New England, although he spent summers on Nantucket as a teenager and formative years in prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, and at Wesleyan University, but he naturally exemplified personal characteristics that those in the area, especially working-class New Englanders, might find familiar.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, and largely raised in Annapolis, Maryland, Belichick had no birthright to having been made for New England, and yet he was, perfectly so.

He rewarded performance over potential and devalued pedigree. Belichick, who generally acted as his own boss when it came to assembling a roster and making college draft picks, had a developed a knack, and a desire, to find the versatile, undiscovered player ignored by others.

No one fit the bill as well as Brady (drafted with the 199th pick out of 254), unless it was wide receiver Julian Edelman, whom Belichick also chose late with the 232nd pick of the 2009 NFL draft. As Edelman, who became a staple of three Patriots Super Bowl-winning teams, said of Belichick, whose 333 career NFL victories are 14 shy of the record for coaching wins set by Don Shula, “Bill wants winners; he doesn’t care what those winners look like.”

If that was a gritty team motto, it had tens of thousands of Patriots fans nodding their heads in approval as they huddled against the wintry winds in the grandstands of creaky Foxboro Stadium, the dumpy edifice where Belichick’s early New England teams were forced to play but nonetheless built the foundation of a dynasty.

“Bill became an adopted New Englander pretty quickly, maybe because he embraced the challenge of coming here,” said Richard Johnson, the curator of the Sports Museum in Boston, who attended his first Patriots game in the 1960s. “This is a tough area to work in sports because there are high expectations and people tend to be rather critical. You sink or swim pretty quickly, but he did not shy away from that, and people appreciated that.”

Johnson, who co-authored “The Pats: An Illustrated History of the New England Patriots,” added, “He’s certainly one of us in many ways.”

The against-all-odds ethos of Belichick’s teams became a rallying cry in New England, as did his reputation as a taciturn, stony leader, most notably in team practices. To Patriots fans, who were fed up by decades of losing, their coach had good reason to be grouchy.

The fans wanted someone grumpy, like an old man trying to “send back soup” at a Boston chowder house (to borrow a line from “Seinfeld”). The fans understood; they were grumpy, too.

In time, as the Patriots began hoarding Super Bowl trophies, Belichick, 71, became the avatar for a new kind of New England chic. Fans came to games dressed in the coach’s signature hoodie, sleeves chopped above the elbow. Novelty stores sold Belichick costumes for Halloween, complete with formless sweatpants and a drab ski cap. As always, the key to pulling off an impression of Belichick was to almost never smile.

The Patriots’ successes became the impetus for what became a golden age for New England professional sports organizations. From their first NFL title in 2001 to their last in 2018, Boston’s Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins together matched the Patriots’ six Super Bowl victories.

In the Patriots’ case, however, there was at times a ferocious, nationwide backlash to the team’s ongoing success that revolved around cheating scandals linked to the team and Brady. The cheating accusations, some of which played out in court, seemed legit to many, including NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who ordered the team to pay a hefty fine, forfeit draft picks and ultimately play four games of the 2016 season without Brady. In a separate incident of apparent skulduggery in 2007, Belichick was fined a league maximum of $500,000.

Outside the six New England states, the Patriots’ chicanery will never be forgotten, but inside the region, it only resurrected an already familiar us-against-them mentality. The scandals, with trendy names like Deflategate and Spygate, just made the Patriots faithful stand their ground and fight back. The social media response was like a modern version of the Boston Tea Party.

Belichick and Brady had the last laugh and then some. After Brady returned from his four-game suspension in 2016, the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl, and despite falling behind in the game by 25 points, rallied to win. Then, they won another Super Bowl two seasons later.

That was the last of Belichick’s crowning achievements in New England. In his final five seasons, he lost more games than he won.

But that is not how Belichick will be remembered. He leaves behind a New England landscape transformed. At the beginning of a new century, Belichick’s unforeseen revival of a downtrodden sports franchise breathed new energy into an old domain.

Most fitting, Belichick can take solace that his legacy in the region will be, like the man, understated.

It is a legacy perhaps most evident in the streets of hundreds of villages throughout New England on the afternoons and evenings when the Patriots play their games. They resemble ghost towns.

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