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Lifelong preparation led Bill Belichick to NFL pinnacle

By Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange
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New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (C) celebrates with his coaching staff after defeating the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston on February 5, 2017. The Patriots defeated the Falcons 34-28 in the Super Bowl's first overtime game. Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (C) celebrates with his coaching staff after defeating the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston on February 5, 2017. The Patriots defeated the Falcons 34-28 in the Super Bowl's first overtime game. Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI | License Photo

HOUSTON -- Immortal traditions are spun up from conviction and expectations, which begins to shape understanding of the mind that put Bill Belichick in his 10th Super Bowl on Sunday.

Belichick's journey to get here enhances the picture.

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A football and lacrosse star in high school, Belichick mastered scouting film by age 13 as a greenhorn tagalong to his father, Steve Belichick, then a Naval Academy football assistant coach. Though his dad discouraged it, Bill decided out of college that coaching would be his career path.

While still enrolled as a senior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., Belichick set his career game plan in motion. Today, he still has the "eight or maybe 10" letters of response he received in reply to 130 job queries sent to college and NFL contacts of his father.

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"I thought there would be more options than there were," Belichick said.

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His first NFL job was in 1975 with the then-Baltimore Colts, after Steve Belichick arranged a meeting with coach Ted Marchibroda for a "gopher job" that paid $25 week.

"He was willing to work 'round the clock for nothing and learn everything he could about the game," Marchibroda told me in 2004 when the Patriots were preparing for their previous Super bowl in Houston.

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Belichick came pre-programmed in professional etiquette. As a kid playing catch with Roger Staubach in the 1960s at Navy, he learned about interaction with players. Watching his father interact with peers -- dignitaries such as Don Shula, on campus to scout for NFL talent -- became a tall stack of learning moments, too.

The door opened to Belichick, he maximized every moment from his first day on the job.

"The way I started out was pretty unusual," Belichick said. "At the end of my first four years (in the NFL), I had four years on special teams, a year with wide receivers and tight ends, two years of being like the quality-control guy on defense, a year with primarily the secondary and another with the linebackers. That was tremendous exposure to a lot of different coaches and systems and philosophies."

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Belichick rarely perorates on his past. His bio speaks for its. Most playoff wins all-time. Most Super Bowl appearances. Five Super Bowl rings, more than any head coach in history.

"No stone unturned," said Pat Hill, former head coach at Fresno State and a special-assignment scout in Cleveland under Belichick in 1993. "His organizational structure, a lot probably comes from his father with that military background, but he's so prepared for any and every situation. Nothing is ever half-assed."

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, 40, was born a year after Belichick's big break for little bank with the Baltimore Colts in what was Marchibroda's first year as head coach. McDaniels' big break came from Belichick in 2001. McDaniels, an unpaid assistant at Michigan State, came in as a personnel assistant with no promises regarding role and little indication how long he'd be sticking around.

"I pinch myself," McDaniels said. "This is my seventh Super Bowl. I owe Bill everything."

McDaniels' story is not unique. In many ways, it defines the Patriots under Belichick and owner Robert Kraft.

Consider the arrival of Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick and No. 199 overall in 2000. The Patriots passed on him in every round, primarily because Belichick was still building a roster with more needs than talent. One spot where New England had invested was quarterback, with former No. 1 overall pick Drew Bledsoe in the starting job.

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Belichick offered Brady the same invitation McDaniels would get -- do your job, be ready for an opportunity.

"Every player is coached like a starter," said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who was a centrifuge salesman when he decided to give coaching a shot. It helped to have a common bond with Belichick -- Amherst -- and be openly willing to do any job offered. He bounced from offensive coaching assistant to assistant offensive line coach to linebacker coach and safeties coach.

Belichick could ask Patricia to complete unpleasant or menial tasks. They were already on Belichick's resume.

In 1992 with the Browns, one year before the advent of NFL free agency, Belichick offered personnel man Scott Pioli a job for $12,000 less than Pioli's salary at Murray State. But Pioli, who had known Belichick in the late 1980s when Pioli's father-in-law Bill Parcells ran the New York Giants and Belichick was defensive coordinator, didn't flinch.

"He said, 'I'm not sure what the job is, I'm not sure what the title is. And I have no idea what the salary is. Do you want it or not?'"

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The Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX over the Seattle Seahawks when a no-name cornerback intercepted a pass at the goal line with 25 seconds remaining and things looking dire for New England.

When Malcolm Butler shifted at the snap, it was execution of a compendium common in Belichick's preparation.

Butler, an undrafted cornerback from West Alabama, was expected to be active but said he had "no idea I was going to play."

That he found himself on the spot on the final snap of the Super Bowl was a testament to Belichick.

The Patriots found him at West Alabama unintentionally, invited him to a post-draft tryout minicamp -- 31 other teams had every chance to do the same -- and signed him as a developmental prospect. He was the fifth cornerback on the depth chart when Super Bowl XLIX began.

Butler was tipped off Saturday night -- about 18 hours before that game kicked off -- by Belichick right-hand research man Ernie Adams about the frequency of the "Twins Right" formation. From it, the Seahawks often ran a rub route in which the outside receiver slams off the left shoulder of the inside receiver and runs a slant route.

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"It wasn't until I got to the Patriots that I truly realized, at the core, of the team concept," said current Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff, who met Belichick as a member of the grounds crew in Cleveland and eventually ran the college scouting department for the Patriots. "I grew up hearing about it all the time but being a part of it in New England, I'll take that with me forever."

Every coach in the NFL keeps a round-the-clock type of schedule during the season. What they do with those hours can dictate how long their season -- and career -- lasts.

"Bill was right for me," Kraft said of hiring Belichick two years after the franchise owner spat in the face of popular opinion and even traded a first-round pick to hire Belichick.

Nowadays, the Patriots and Belichick are the gold standard, and New England doesn't mind sharing how enjoyable being hated has become.

"I say jealousy and envy are incurable diseases," Kraft said. "It's nice to be on this end of it."

The Patriots had the second-most home-grown talent in the playoffs, 27 draft picks and 10 undrafted signees.

From top to bottom, the Patriot Way reflects a mindset of team, eagerly contributing to complete any and all tasks that benefit the end goal -- winning games and ultimately the Lombardi Trophy.

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"What Coach Belichick, Tom (Brady) and Mr. (Robert) Kraft have been able to accomplish here I think it speaks volumes to who they are, what price they've paid to the game of football, the respect they've shown it," said Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater . "They've had a great fortune along the way, obviously, but if we're able to win this game ... You know, that's not for me to say what the legacy is. That's for you guys to say it, but I feel like it's a pretty strong one."

Belichick was downright stupefied to be asked about his legacy this week at the Super Bowl. The matter of media and public debate was too far out of the four-lane superhighway that is Belichick's one-track mind to the top.

Belichick and the Patriots are making greatness a tradition. Expectations won't change. At 64, Belichick plans to remain dedicated to keeping the end result in his favor. The immortal tradition, The Patriot Way.

"He's right there with any coach in any sport," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Belichick being the best coach of all-time in any sport. "One of the secrets to his success is each year he starts out 0-0. He has no rearview mirror. He's completely focused on what that team needs to do to win that year."

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