- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2002

NEW ORLEANS When Bill Belichick was a coach for the first time in Cleveland in the early 1990s, he epitomized the gruff drill.

"My perception of Bill then was, 'Stay out his way, don't make eye contact with him, don't talk to him,'" recalled Ken Walter, a training camp ballboy for Belichick's Browns.

Belichick wasn't much more cordial with his players or the media and was fired after producing one playoff berth and a 36-44 record in five seasons. He went back to masterfully running the defense for his former New York Giants boss, Bill Parcells, first in New England and then with the New York Jets. But Belichick still itched for command.

When Parcells retired after the 1999 season, he turned the Jets over to his longtime lieutenant only to have Belichick jump the next day to the AFC East rival Patriots. Parcells and Belichick haven't spoken since.

Now the protege has emerged from the mentor's shadow, steering a team largely comprised of castoffs and unknowns to Sunday's Super Bowl XXXVI despite having to surmount more hurdles this year than Edwin Moses in an Olympic race.

Joe Panos, who had been signed to start at right guard, retired after one training camp practice. Linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer went down for the season three days later. Beloved quarterback coach Dick Rehbein, just 45, died of heart failure shortly thereafter. Top receiver Terry Glenn was suspended by the NFL for four games for substance abuse.

And that was just training camp. The season opened with a loss to lowly Cincinnati. Then came September 11. When play resumed, quarterback Drew Bledsoe, the team's focal point, was lost for seven weeks after suffering massive internal bleeding on a hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis.

Glenn returned only to be suspended for refusing to practice. He wound up playing in just four games and is suing the NFL for discriminating against those with clinical depression.

Linebacker Bryan Cox, Katzenmoyer's replacement, suffered a broken leg on a illegal block by Denver's Dan Neil. Defensive end Bobby Hamilton was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife. And rookie safety Hakim Akbar was lost for the year after being hurt when he flipped his SUV on I-95.

Dealing with all of these woes while trying to integrate 17 free agents and eight rookies on a team that was just 5-11 last year could well have proved too much for the most unflappable and proven coach. But the 13-5 Patriots have won eight straight games.

"That's a testament to coach Belichick," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "He has had to deal with situations this year that [most] coaches haven't had to, and he has handled them all pretty well, keeping us focused on one goal: winning games."

Receiver Troy Brown, a rookie on New England's 1996 AFC champions, said, "He's always going to be hard-nosed Bill."

Added safety Lawyer Milloy, another veteran from 1996: "It's a challenge to get Bill to smile. He's not a very personable guy."

But when Walter, now the Patriots' punter, informed Belichick that his wife was on the brink of delivering the couple's first child during the AFC title game in Pittsburgh, the coach couldn't have been more considerate, helping to set up a plane ride for Walter immediately after the game so that he hopefully could be there for the birth.

The Patriots were one of just two teams that normally prevent the media from watching practice or speaking to assistant coaches. When Tom Brady was hurt in the second quarter last Sunday, Belichick and the Patriots didn't reveal anything more than that the quarterback had sustained a leg injury until almost an hour after the game. And Belichick was typically evasive and curt this week about Brady's status until finally revealing late Wednesday that the sprained ankle wouldn't keep him from starting the Super Bowl.

"I feel like I'm still pretty much who I am, for better or worse," said the 49-year-old Belichick, who played squash at elite Wesleyan (Conn.) University and is buddies with rock singer Jon Bon Jovi and ex-NBA star Charles Barkley. "Have I lightened up a little bit? I probably have.

"Looking back, I might have been a little too rough on [the players] in Cleveland at times. I've learned a lot of things in the last 10 years. I've delegated more. I'm probably a little less involved in some of the details, and I spend more time on some of the bigger picture things, not just what happens between the lines, but what goes on in the locker room, the players' attitude, their motivation."

So much so that during his 27th NFL training camp, Belichick took the Patriots to see the film of Sir Ernest Shackleton's against-the-odds 1917 journey to Antartica and had the rookies put on skits during which they were encouraged to imitate him and the other coaches.

"The guys who'll get up there and have the confidence to make jokes about him, those are the guys that Bill likes," said inside linebackers coach Pepper Johnson, who has coached or played under Belichick for 14 of the past 16 years. "The guys who feel they're too big for that or who feel they'll look stupid, they don't stay around too long."

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