The New England Patriots go for their fifth Super Bowl win this weekend under Coach Bill Belichick. The man who’s known for his brash personality and oversized hoodies is already being labeled by many as the greatest NFL coach of all-time. Many fans here may remember his beginnings in Cleveland.
WKSU’s Amanda Rabinowitz talks with our commentator Terry Pluto about Belichick’s five tumultuous years with the Browns.
Terry Pluto says Bill Belichick’s journey to greatness is a remarkable one. “It began in desperation and then failure and then redemption -- at least for Belichick -- and of course frustration for Cleveland fans.”
Finding the next great coach
Pluto says Browns owner Art Modell wanted to discover his own great head coach. He began that search after firing the legendary Paul Brown, seen by many as the "godfather of pro football," shortly after he bought the team in early 1960’s.
Pluto says Modell thought he found his coach in Bill Belichick, a young defensive coordinator from the New York Giants.
“Belichick came in right after the Browns had just had their really good run in the late 1980’s with quarterback Bernie Kosar. Belichick correctly saw this team was getting old.”
In 1993, Belichick cut Kosar at mid-season and that didn’t go over well with fans. “This guy comes in from New York with this arrogant attitude and fans saw him getting rid of their favorite players."
Building a winner
Pluto says that by his fourth year, 1994, Belichick started winning and finished that season 11-5. He led the team to the playoffs, where they won one game – over the New England Patriots. That was the last time the Browns won a playoff game.
The next year, the team moved to Baltimore.
“Art Modell is nowhere to be found, other than doing this press conference in Baltimore where he’s standing up announcing, ‘I want to thank my friends -- the Baltimore, Md. bankers.’ And then he disappeared.”
Pluto says this is when he gained respect for Belichick.
“He never said, ‘Hey! Don’t look at me! I didn’t move the team!’ But he had to take it every day. And then you went to the games and the fans are chanting, ‘Bill must go!’
"And the whole team fell apart and it was a mess.”
Belichick was fired when the team moved. He had four losing seasons and one playoff victory and Pluto says nobody would touch him.
He ended up getting hired as an assistant under Bill Parcells with the New York Giants and New England Patriots and then became the head coach in New England in 2000.
Learning from his mistakes in Cleveland
Pluto says Belichick started learning from his mistakes in Cleveland.
“He realized that they needed to start drafting football players, not just guys that test well on the cone drills and all this combine stuff. They wanted skilled football players, too. So they changed their whole drafting style around.”
Ultimately, what has put Belichick on the map is his quarterback, Tom Brady, who was sixth-round draft pick.
“In the same way that Paul Brown early in his career with the Browns hooked up with the quarterback of his era, Otto Graham, Belichick and Brady have hooked up.”
What do Cleveland fans think now?
“I just think still, those of us who saw Bill are just shocked to see this. There was no question he knew football, but his communication skills were poor. Some say he’s a genius, others say he hooked up with quarterback of his generation and he’s been riding that. The answer is both.”
Does Pluto see any of that in current Browns coach Hue Jackson?
“In my mind, I’m more encouraged by Jackson than the last few coaches. The players trusted him a lot more this year than I saw them trust other coaches. That’s part of why you can’t just dump out on this coaches right away. No coach since 2008 has lasted more than two years and you wonder why you stink!”