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Change in the game plan

2-2-01, 4:30 p.m.


NEW ORLEANS - It's the Super Bowl they put Bill Belichick on the nation's couch and psychoanalyzed him to the last strand of software.

But while the media decided that his son isn't the same stone cold serious and unsmiling tyrant who coached the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s, Steve Belichick stood in the back this week and shook his head

"Is he a better coach than he was 10 years ago?" someone asked the father.

Steve Belichick gave the answer of a coach who has sat for 60 years in darkened rooms watching football whir away on a screen.

"He should be," Steve Belichick said. "He's a better coach today than he was yesterday I hope. He works at it. If you work at it, you get better."

Bill Belichick's throwback fullback, Marc Edwards, calls his coach, "old school." That's because he graduated from his father's college. The only thing for sure about Bill Belichick is that he's a career coach's son.

How old school?

Steve Belichick, a son of Ohio, traces his roots to the beginnings of the pro game and Paul Brown's playbooks as a young college coach.

Steve Belichick, 83 years young, coached at Hiram College in the first days of the Cleveland Browns. He went to Paul Brown's coaching camps and has fond memories of Tower B

That's where Brown locked away the team's playbooks, the NFL's first playbooks. Steve Belichick still remembers the Hell that was paid when one was found missing.

How old is the school? They are calling Steve Belichick's son a defensive genius this week. But when someone compared his genius to three-time Super Bowl champion Bill Walsh's offensive magna cum laude, Steve Belichick bristled.

"You know where Bill Walsh got that West Coast offense? Paul Brown," Steve Belichick said. "It should be called the Ohio River offense or the Lake Erie offense. He admitted that at a coaches' convention in Dallas. Hells bells. (Brown's) contributions are great. . .The NFL should erect a damn monument to him."

Bill Belichick's genius has always been in the details. The other stuff? He'll tell you himself he's a better head coach because he's more of a big picture man now.

But once a detail man, always a detail man. Has Bill Belichick really changed from the deposed Cleveland head coach who coordinated this Pats' defense to the Super Bowl five years ago?

Asked if he talks defensive philosophy with his coach, linebacker Tedy Bruschi laughed.

"I can barely say hello to him in the morning," he said. "He's a pretty serious guy."

Linebacker Roman Phifer isn't so sure.

"As a coordinator, it was hard to get two words out of him besides football and game planning," Phifer

said. "Now, if you have any problems, you could go to his office. He's easy to talk to. He tries to work with you in every possible way to try to help you out."

Is he different?

The national media is celebrating how the New Belichick loosened up this year. The Boston media isn't happy with the secrecy surrounding the Pats this week. While Rams coach Mike Martz freely kibitzed with the St. Louis reporters at the team hotel, Belichick conjured up memories of his Nixonian days in Cleveland by pulling a Dick Cheney and being virtually invisible. Except at news conferences.

"He's always going to be 'hard-nosed Bill' and tough to get a smile out of," said wide receiver Troy Brown. "It has to be really funny to get a smile out of him."

Will the real Bill Belichick please stand up?

"Bill plans everything," Steve Belichick said. "He doesn't go into anything haphazard. If he's going to do it, he has a plan. During his high school days and junior high, he went to Nantucket with the family and he decided a long time ago he wanted have a house in Nantucket."

He's got one. But not after he bought a place there on Cape Cod, lived in it for a year and sold it for $260,000 the year after he refused to take $171,000 when his offer was $175,000. He used it to build his current home.

"It may take a couple of years," Steve said, "but he'll do the plan."

His parents let him make his own decisions at a young age. They let him order for himself at restaurants and at six he was ordering in cuts on the roast beef.

The same thing when they let him choose a college. He had never been to New England, but Bill wanted to go to college there. He ended up at Wesleyan, but not before he decided he should go to prep school, also in New England, at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

The son has always been serious and smart. Since some of the media is neither, that has hurt him. When Bill was four years old and went on driving vacations to see his grandparents in Florida and Ohio, they would stay overnight in a hotel.

Father and son would go for a walk and Steve recalls, "I'd show him the front of a car and say, 'This is a Buick,' and he saw it once. We'd be driving and he'd say, 'Dad, there's a Buick,' or, 'a Ford,' He could see it. That impressed me."

Steve Belichick met Paul Brown through Bill Edwards, a coach that knew Brown from Massillon, Ohio and later worked on Brown's first staffs in Cleveland. When Edwards got the head job at Vanderbilt in 1949, Steve Belichick went with him and Bill was born in Nashville in 1952.

When Bill was four, Steve joined the Naval Academy's staff and stayed until 1988. It was there, when Bill was nine or 10, that he began helping his father break down film.

"It started out drawing the formations," Steve said. "Down and distance. I could go through it a lot quicker. Then (it progressed) to, 'what if you're the end on this play? He was neater than I ever was. He still is. He's always been very meticulous and neat."

But the knock had always been Bill couldn't look up long enough from the film to deal with people ,which hurt him as a head coach.

"Back in the day in Cleveland, he wasn't my favorite coach," said Patriots defensive lineman Anthony Pleasant, who played for Belichick for those five seasons with the Browns. "Nobody liked him then. These guys think this is hard. There is no comparison. He's changed. In Cleveland they used to call him, 'Little Hitler.' There was no light at the end of the tunnel. That's how hard it was. You dreaded going to work every day There was no light."

Steve Belichick shrugged. Coaches change because they have, to, but the person is the same. He thinks his kid got a bad rap as coach of the Browns from 1991-95.

"People talk about him in Cleveland and they don't know a damn thing about what he did in Cleveland," Steve said. "Some of the statements they make about him are so absurd. It's ridiculous.

"John Madden came in and watched him for two days and said it was an expansion team. In four years (they made the playoffs)."

But the Cleveland image will have a hard time dying. He is, after all, the man who fired beloved Bernie Kosar. And no one remembers if he was right. It was just the brusque, unblinking way he did it.

"I really can't repeat what I heard in Cleveland about him," said Edwards, who played for the expansion Browns. "They are really upset about the Bernie Kosar thing. The people there hold a grudge. I don't know which team they hated more. The Baltimore Ravens because of Art Modell or the New England Patriots because of Bill Belichick the week that we played them. Belichick this and Belichick that. 'We have to beat Belichick.' He had 70,000 people booing him in that stadium."

If Belichick mishandled Kosar, he certainly didn't botch the fallout from the sudden death of Patriots quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein late in this past training camp. Belichick, the alleged inhuman game plan, gave the players the day off and told them to go home and think about the important things in life.

Oddly, Rehbein's death showed the depth of Belichick's knowledge. The Patriots quickly scrapped the idea of hiring a coach because offensive coordinator/ running backs coach Charlie Weis would have to teach the new guy the offense. So Belichick, the defensive guru, took over the quarterback meetings and produced a Pro Bowl player out of nowhere in Tom Brady.

"He's as good as they get," said No. 3 quarterback Damon Huard. "He's been in the league 29 years, been to four Super Bowls and he's pushed all the right buttons, this year. He's in our meetings two hours a day and you'd think he's a defensive coordinator, but that helped our perspective as quarterbacks. He knows all the defensive coordinators. He knows their schemes and it's so detailed. He basically says, 'We're going to know everything there is to know about the sixth defensive back even if he might not get into the game.'"

That course came out of the old school. Steve Belichick spent most of his Navy career as one of the first road scouts. In fact, one of the only games he would see the Midshipmen play each season was the last one against Army.

"I'm sure if he had been a fireman, I'd have been pulling the hoses behind him," Bill Belichick said. "Just watching him work during the game and understanding how he could see what all 11 players were doing on offense, defense, and special teams. . .it wasn't as specialized as it is now. . .seeing offensive plays, the triangle, the guards, the fullback, being able to get the entire blocking scheme and the entire pass pattern, shifting your eyes down (where) the receivers run their routes."

Bill Belichick thinks those years with Steve is a major reason why he can see a game quickly. They are years he savors. One of his heroes growing up was Navy Heisman Trophy winner Joe Bellino.

He dined with Bellino earlier this season, along with Jack Clary, Paul Brown's collaborator for "P.B.: The Paul Brown Story," Clary was struck at the way Belichick matter-of-factly ran through the Patriots' problems.

There was Rehbein's death, the Brady-Drew Bledsoe debate, the Terry Glenn saga. Andy Katzenmoyer's season-ending neck injury.

"He reminded me a lot of the way those old Ohio coaches from P.B.'s day looked at problems," Clary said. "He didn't talk to Bellino much about the old days. It was mostly about the season. He was logical. He was reasonable about it. It was all common sense."

Clary, who shared a New York publisher with Steve Belichick's book on scouting, has known Bill since he was a kid. He was always there at the annual Army-Navy pre-game media dinner, and he was always well-mannered and bright.

"Most people have the wrong image of the guy," Clary said. "Sure, he's serious. But you go to dinner with him and he cracks a joke, smiles, and can take a wisecrack."

Steve Belichick, standing in the back this week, wondered what a smile is supposed to mean.

"People probably have never seen my teeth when I smile," he said. "The only time people see my teeth is when I take them them out."

Which may be the best way to end this Super Bowl psychoanalysis of one Bill Belichick. You may not see his teeth. But that's only a detail.

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