COMMENTARY: All of us in the Northeast Ohio sports media covering the Cleveland Browns 20 or so years ago thought it was a slam-dunk. If we had been bettors, then we would have raced each other to the window to empty our wallets – or purses, in some cases – and wager everything we had on Bill Belichick never, ever landing a head-coaching job anywhere.
Boy, were we dumb.
And I was one of those leading the parade in that regard, which makes me especially dumb.
Yes, we believe in full disclosure here.
But all of us – those in the Northeast Ohio sports media covering the Cleveland Browns 20 or so years ago -- thought it was a slam-dunk. If we had been bettors, then we would have raced each other to the window to wager everything we had on Bill Belichick never, ever landing a head-coaching job anywhere.
Not just in the NFL.
But also on a high school team, a seventh-grade team or an entry-level flag football team.
It was based on a ton of seemingly irrefutable evidence. Belichick’s first head-coaching job at any level – guiding the Browns for five years, 1991-95 – was an unmitigated disaster.
Belichick ticked off the fans in Cleveland in historic proportions; he unceremoniously cut a Browns icon in Bernie Kosar, one of the best quarterbacks in team history, and replaced him with Todd Philcox, who probably couldn’t have started on one of those high school teams that Belichick was not competent enough to coach; he lost more games than he won; and the franchise moved to Baltimore, at which time he was fired.
Other than those few minor details, his time here was an unqualified success.
Now, all these years – even decades – later, that same Bill Belichick is regarded as one of the best head coaches, if not THE best head coach in pro football history.
As us media members, who thought we just so smart, continue to remove egg from our faces with a power washer strong enough to blow paint off a building, Belichick will be making his seventh trip to the Super Bowl as coach of the New England Patriots and will be after his fifth – fifth! – Super Bowl victory when they play the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI on tonight.
How did all this happen, in Belichick going from rags – literally; remember how he sheared off the sleeves of his sweatshirts in Cleveland with a dull pair of scissors? – to riches in that he now makes more money than the gross national product of some small countries? How did it happen that Belichick has gotten to be such a legendary coach that he could take a seventh-grade team and make it competitive on the high school level?
That’s another story for another time.
But for now, speaking of stories, here are some of the more interesting ones from Belichick’s time in Cleveland. And better yet, they’re true. I guarantee it. And this time, I’m right.
EATING LIGHT: Though we didn’t realize it then, Belichick was ahead of the curve on so many things, including nutrition. Before he arrived, the Browns – and all NFL teams, for that matter – fed their players with the same kind of food you’d find at any restaurant buffet. It wasn’t exactly of the healthy variety. And they could eat as much as they wanted – on every trip they made. There was no limit on gthat, either. In comes Belichick, who completely renovates the cafeteria. Most of the good-tasting stuff is replaced with healthy choices. At each station in the line was a drawing of a traffic light. Foods marked with a red designation were those that were bad for the players and they shouldn’t be eating. A caution light meant the players could eat some of the food there, but not a whole lot. And green meant go ahead and have as much as you want. The players began being much pickier with their selections, especially since what was called "Belichick’s Hill," a large and lengthy mound of earth that the coach had built at Browns Headquarters in Berea to test players’ conditioning, was a constant reminder to behave in that it was located no more than 75 yards from the cafeteria.
IT’S ALL JUST NOISE: Despite ending it as Public Enemy No. 1, Belichick started his Cleveland career as a hero. After Matt Stover kicked a 45-yard field goal with four seconds left to provide a 14-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 15, 1991, boosting the Browns to a 2-1 record and getting them to within one victory of what they had for all of 1990 in a 3-13 finish, Belichick threw off his headset, ran to the Dawg Pound end of Cleveland Stadium and saluted the fans there for making so much noise that it disrupted the Cincinnati offense. The fans roared and thanked him back. At that moment, he was so unbelievably popular that he could have run for mayor of Cleveland – heck, governor of Ohio – and won in a landslide. Really.
A SIMMS CARD: Phil Simms, the former quarterback who is part of the top CBS-TV announcing team that did New England’s rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game two weeks ago, came very close to joining the Browns in March 1995. Belichick never made any secrets about his admiration for Simms, with whom he had worked in New York as the Giants won two Super Bowls in a five-year span prior to the coach’s arrival in Cleveland. Simms had been cut by the Giants following the 1993 season and spent ’94 as a TV analyst. Belichick had actually cut Kosar to make room for Vinny Testaverde, whom he signed in 1993. But after the Browns made the playoffs in 1994, he knew Testaverde needed a veteran mentor for him to be able to up his play so the club could make a Super Bowl run. So Belichick talked Simms into joining the Browns, and a big press conference was scheduled at Browns Headquarters to announce this major dose of good news. Hanging on the wall inside the press conference room, which was filled to overflowing with media people, was a white No. 11 jersey with Simms’ name on the back. The time for the start of the presser came and went – and went and went and went – until, after about 45 minutes, a Browns staffer came into the room, took down the jersey and solemnly announced that there would be no press conference. At the 11th hour, Simms and the Browns had reached a contract impasse that they could not overcome. Eight months later – almost to the day – the Browns announced their move to Baltimore.
AN ICY PERSONALITY: Following a loss to Pittsburgh that knocked the Browns out of those 1994 playoffs – their third defeat to the Steelers that season – an extremely frustrated Belichick returned to Browns Headquarters. He was already upset about the loss and the fact that by then, Cleveland fans were screaming that the team had hired the wrong Bill – they instead wanted Steelers head coach and former Browns linebacker and assistant coach Bill Cowher – but his temperament was made worse when he discovered that his car was caked in snow and ice. Lacking a scraper, or perhaps not wanting to unlock the car and get it, he angrily began cursing and pounding the ice with his fist to break it up. A security guard saw what was going on and offered Belichick the scraper from his car. Belichick pounded with the scraper so hard that he broke it. He then threw the scraper back to the security guard and, without saying thanks, got into his car and headed for home.
BEAR-LY TOLERABLE: The people in Boston – and nationally – poke fun at Belichick all the time now for how terse and irascible he is. Ha! Are you kidding me? He is a teddy bear compared to what he was in Cleveland. Why? Because after going through the Cleveland experience, Belichick was smart enough to know the media wasn’t going away and, for his own good, he needed help in that area. So the Patriots have assigned Belichick a personal assistant who schools him in the art of communication. Belichick is never going to be all warm and fuzzy – that’s just not who he is publicly, although off-camera, he is really a great guy and very personable – but he’s a lot more so in 2017 than he was in the early 1990s.
THE FINAL WORD: Yes, Belichick could – and no doubt still can – swear with the best of them. And yes, he is one of the game’s great innovators. When those two facts meet, it can get funny. It was 1993 and, during a press conference following practice, Belichick was asked a question he did not like and refused to answer. He just shook his head and said, "Come on!", and then, before storming out of the room, he uttered the Big Bad Swear Word, the one Ralphie spewed when he was helping his dad change a flat tire in "A Christmas Story." That evening, on a then still-fledgling ESPN, there was a video clip of the incident with the word in question bleeped out. It was then that the TV people started to figure out that airing these daily press conferences in pro and college sports might just be a great idea.
And wouldn’t you know it, Bill Belichick’s press conferences are still just as unique today.
But more people are listening to him now because he’s the best coach around. Even dumb people like me can finally see that.