Journalists

ESPN’s Ian O’Connor, author of ‘Belichick’: Coach’s relationship with Brady and Kraft is transactional

Coach never granted O'Connor a single interview for his best selling book and told friends and associates not to cooperate with him.

Weeks after O’Connor sent Belichick a copy of the bio, one that took 3 years to complete, he still hasn’t heard back from the all-time championship coach

He did it again. ESPN’s Ian O’Connor has penned yet another best seller. This title is a one-word conundrum, Belichick. For the longtime sports columnist, it’s his third book on the coveted New York Times’ list of best sellers. Earlier, the New Jersey native authored, Arnie & Jack: Palmer, Nicklaus, and Golf’s Greatest Rivalry, and The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter.

Belichick will have readers sprinting through pages with the speed of a Julian Edelman. The bio is that entertaining, interesting and enjoyable.

 NY Times best seller

Although O’Connor got no help whatsoever from the subject, as you’ll learn in this Q&A, he breezily paints the coach fairly after exhaustively interviewing a litany of those who’ve interacted with him; whether teammates in college or football folks who’ve worked with him. The book connects the dots to his coaching dominance today, beginning with Bill’s paternal grandfather, a laborer, who emigrated to these shores from Croatia in the early 20th century.

Ian O’Connor attended Marist, the same college as two other well known sports names, the Dunking Dutchman, Rick Smits, a 7’4” NBA star, and ESPN’s Mike Breen, the lead voice of the NBA, who’s called more title series than any network play-by-player,13.

 At a young age, O’Connor was a precocious scribe for the New York Daily News when the daily still meant something in the Big Apple. In his 20s, O’Connor was promoted to a columnist by the papers’ powers that be.

I had a nodding acquaintance with Ian when he covered St. John’s basketball and I was calling the team’s games on radio. He went about his business quietly, yet always struck me as someone who was more interested in deeper human definitions; those hidden somewhere beyond the game story. He never struck me as one who pursued nothing but eye-popping breaking news; rather one who wanted to get into a subject’s head.

O’Connor was a good athlete himself. He played football at St. Cecilia High School, best known for its one-time football and basketball coach, Vince Lombardi. For that matter, Ian’s home, growing up in Jersey, was just a short pass from where Lombardi lived. As such, I guess he can appreciate the comparisons between Lombardi and Belichick.

O’Connor is living his dream and more. “I think I’ll always be a newspaper man at heart. A newspaper columnist,” he says. One has to think that there’s rarely a shortage of sports conversation in the extended O’Connor home. His wife Tracey’s sister is married to longtime New York based writer and commentator, Jack Curry.

What is so fascinating about Bill Belichick that stimulated you to do a book?

His staggering rate of success, for starters, especially at a time when the NFL is set up to prevent coaches from doing exactly what Belichick has done – build and maintain a dynasty. The salary cap, free agency, the draft, and the schedule are all designed to protect and preserve parity, and Belichick has successfully raged against the system for the last 18 years.

Beyond his record, I think even those people around the country who despise Belichick see him as an intriguing and mysterious figure. I always believed there was much more to him than the grim, one-dimensional character he plays in his news conferences, and I wanted to paint a full human portrait of the man, not just the disagreeable, say-nothing coach. I wanted to humanize him, even though he had absolutely no desire to be publicly humanized. 

Belichick has a thick firewall around him. How difficult is it to write a thorough bio when the subject won’t make himself available?

I figured when I signed up for the project three years ago that he wouldn’t cooperate. I guess I was a little surprised and disappointed that he also reached out to friends and associates and asked them not to cooperate, but I responded by interviewing 350 people and, frankly, by digging deeper and growing more determined to get his story right. In some ways, by putting those obstacles in front of me, he made me better and made the book better. I had no choice but to be resourceful and track down people and sources he had long forgotten about. Like most NFL head coaches, Belichick controls many aspects of his professional life. But he wasn’t going to control my ability to write a defining book on his football life.

Who was especially interesting and helpful to you during the interview?

Some of those people can’t be named. Some really put a lot of trust in me, and I plan on honoring that trust as long as I’m on the planet. One period of his life that I thought had largely been ignored over the decades was his four-year experience at Wesleyan in Connecticut, so I spoke to many of his football and lacrosse teammates and coaches and to a number of his fraternity brothers. They were very helpful in providing anecdotes from those formative college years, including stories about how Bill doctored a lacrosse teammate’s stick (He created an illegal pocket for a struggling freshman) and how a football assistant had run a dangerous practice drill that broke Bill’s leg and his spirit for the game. 

Have you seen Bill since the book was released? If so, how has he treated you?

I have not. I’ve never had any relationship with Belichick; we only crossed over in the New York market during his three Jets years in the late 1990s. Bill Parcells was the whole story at the time, of course, and he was severely restricting media access to his assistants.

My attempt to land a sitdown with Belichick was rejected then, during the Jets’ run in 1998, as it was for this project. I did send Bill the book a few weeks ago with a note that basically said, “I hope you find this to be a fair and exhaustive account of the life you’ve lived and the dynasty you’ve built. Best of luck this season.”  And I’ve yet to hear anything back, which is completely fine. I will say that the Patriots’ organization treated me professionally and without any malice during the process, even though the head coach wasn’t cooperating with the book. I certainly did appreciate that.  

How would you compare Bill to an icon like Vince Lombardi?

I feel like I know Vince Lombardi since I played on the football team at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, N.J., where Lombardi coached football and basketball. I’ve interviewed a number of Lombardi’s players over the years, and they described him as an extremely tough but fair man. I think the vast majority of past and present New England Patriots would say the same about their head coach. Belichick’s presence on the sideline is clearly more stoic than Lombardi’s, but I think both built their dynasties around the same emphasis on details, fundamentals, and execution. I would rank Belichick as the greatest coach of all time because it was easier in Lombardi’s day to keep together a championship team. Had Vince lived longer and won a couple of titles in Washington, he’d still be at the top of that mountain.

The relationship with owner Kraft hasn’t always been silky smooth. In fact, early on when Belichick started with the Pats, the team labored and Kraft considered firing him. How has their relationship been in recent years?

Much like the Belichick-Brady relationship, the Belichick-Kraft relationship has always been a transactional one. Not much love or affection, but a partnership defined by results. Kraft didn’t want to fire Belichick after Year 2, which Bill opened 0-2 for a 5-13 overall record in New England, but the owner was concerned that he might have to. But then Tom Brady stepped into Bill’s life, and the rest is NFL history. Over the years there have been times when Belichick has walked by Kraft in the hallway and not said a single word to him. Other people in the Patriots’ organization have had similar encounters, or non-encounters, but then again, those other people aren’t paying Belichick millions of dollars every year to coach the team. Kraft has learned to put up with his employee’s quirks because of the win-loss record and Super Bowl hardware. One fellow owner once asked Kraft, “When are you going to fire that asshole?” Kraft responded, “When he goes 8-8.” Belichick never goes 8-8.

You wrote about the transfer of power from Big Bill (Parcells) to small Bill (Belichick). That’s when Belichick didn’t accept the Jets head coaching job due to an impending ownership change. It didn’t end right between the two at the time. What’s their relationship like today?

They’ve never been close friends, and they never will be close friends. Little Bill didn’t take the Jets’ job primarily because Big Bill would remain in the front office, and he wanted no part of that. Parcells had been extremely rough on Belichick in their three years together with the Jets, and Little Bill needed his escape. They didn’t speak for a long time after that stormy exit, but they repaired some of the damage in a meeting brokered by Scott Pioli, Belichick’s personnel chief and Parcells’ son-in-law, on Nantucket years ago. The relationship remains fragile. Big Bill’s quote in my book about Little Bill’s defensive game plan from the Giants’ Super Bowl victory over Buffalo not belonging in the Hall of Fame likely won’t help.          

A few weeks ago, Cris Collinsworth told a Sunday night television audience that he asked Bill an Xs and Os question and that his answer was so deep that he couldn’t follow him. Is Belichick a better motivator or an Xs and Os coach?

I’d still take Belichick’s Xs and Os, extreme attention to detail, and mastery of situational football over his work as a motivator. But I do think his human relations skills are underappreciated, and for good reason: He never shows those skills in the public arena. Belichick has created a role he plays at the news conference podium, a character who sticks to a give-them-nothing script. I think one on one, in his office, he’s an entirely different person. Many New England players told me that. Bill has inspired those players to perform at the highest level because he has convinced them that he cares about them on a personal level – something he did not do in Cleveland.

Will Belichick ever be able to give it up or is he just so obsessed with coaching? 

I think he’s a young 66 and a man who remains very much in love with his craft. So I think he can easily coach into his 70s. He likes to play a little golf at Pebble Beach, and sail on his boat off Nantucket, but I think he realizes he was put on this earth to win football games, and I don’t see him stopping any time soon.

Newspapers are hurting. It’s no secret. You work for ESPN. How’s it going?

I think I’ll always be a newspaper man at heart. A newspaper columnist. That was a dream job that I was fortunate to land at a young age, in the early 1990s, and it really is amazing how much the landscape of sports journalism has changed since. The demise of many great American newspapers has been hard to watch. …I’ve worked at ESPN.com since 2010, and the impact and visibility of the site is clearly unmatched. I felt a profound sadness when we lost hundreds of talented colleagues to layoffs, and that feeling is still there. But ESPN has kept a hell of a roster, and for someone who cares deeply about the power of the written word it remains a very good place to work.  

 

 

 

 

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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