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Belichick’s staff comes from same mold

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Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
February 2, 2012
— Almost every time Bill Belichick hires an assistant coach, the typical reaction is, “Who’s he?”

The New England Patriots’ coaching staff is one of the youngest and smallest in the National Football League. These no-names weren’t even close to making the league as players and by most indicators would have had little chance ever to make it as coaches.


But with everything Belichick does, there is method in his madness.


Belichick couldn’t care less what kind of player you were. He also isn’t all that interested where or how much you’ve coached.


His objective is to find the “it” factor. When Belichick does, he takes it upon himself to coach that coach to do the job exactly as he wants it done.


“If you bring in guys that maybe haven’t been a lot of places, they don’t have a lot of their own ideas how to do things,” said Brian Ferentz, the Patriots’ tight ends coach. “Not that we’re drones. But we’re not going to come in and say, ‘This way is better.’


“I think that’s a head coach’s prerogative. That’s a very smart way of doing business.”


Ferentz is the youngest member of the Patriots’ staff of 13 that grew to 14 last month when Belichick rehired Josh McDaniels. At 28, the son of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has helped develop Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez into the NFL’s finest set of tight ends.


It’s an unlikely match to be sure, Ferentz working as a full-fledged position coach for a Super Bowl team even though he hadn’t coached a day in his life before Belichick brought him on as a “go-fer” in the scouting department four years ago.


At least Ferentz was a starting offensive lineman in the Big Ten for three years at Iowa. On defense, three of the Patriots’ four position coaches played at collegiate levels that their charges probably tease them about.


Matt Patricia, the safeties coach who functions as defensive coordinator, played at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He’s 37.


Patrick Graham, the linebackers coach, had what he called a “terrible” career as a reserve at Yale. He’s 33.


And Josh Boyer, the secondary coach, played at Muskingum College (Ohio). He’s 35.


“What I love about Bill is he’s willing to give young guys a shot,” said Brian Flores, the 30-year-old defensive assistant who did start for two years at Boston College. “Somebody gave him a shot, obviously.”


Belichick, the son of a career assistant coach, was 23 when Baltimore coach Ted Marchibroda hired him in 1975 to do menial tasks. He had played lacrosse, squash and center-tight end on the football team at Wesleyan University (Conn.).


Just as Marchibroda and others taught the young Belichick, he now molds his coaches. Given Belichick’s unmatched technical knowledge of the entire game, he could coach any position.


“Everything at our place starts with Coach Belichick,” said Ferentz. “You’ll hear him say all the time, ‘Do your job. Do your job. Do your job.’ There’s a lot of truth in those words.


“Our vision is inconsequential. Do we have input? Sure. But I’m just a foot soldier. My job is to relay orders and make sure my players execute them properly.”


Belichick did the same thing with Jim Schwartz and Kirk Ferentz during his five years coaching the Cleveland Browns, and in New England he did it with Eric Mangini and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who will leave Monday to replace Joe Paterno at Penn State.


“Whatever I thought I knew when I got hired, it’s probably quadrupled in the last three years,” Graham said. “Our place is the best environment.”


Belichick isn’t averse to veteran coaches. Dante Scarnecchia, the steely offensive line coach, pre-dated him in New England and is 63. Running backs coach Ivan Fears and special-teams coach Scott O’Brien, a native of Superior, Wis., are in their 21st NFL seasons.


Moreover, Belichick hired Dom Capers as a special assistant in 2008 when he was between coordinator jobs.


Still, it’s a decidedly atypical blend. Pepper Johnson, the defensive line coach, is the only assistant with NFL playing experience; by comparison, 10 of Mike McCarthy’s 20 assistants in Green Bay played in the league. And just one of the Patriots’ 10 coaches age 41 and under had ever coached in the NFL.


If there’s a common denominator, it might be intelligence and East Coast roots. Patricia’s degree from RPI was in aeronautical engineering. Graham was a Yale Merit Scholar. Bill O’Brien is another Ivy Leaguer (Brown). Flores graduated in English and holds a master’s degree in administrative studies. Ferentz is sharp as a tack.


In some cases, Belichick starts them off in scouting for a year or two. In others, he hires them as coaching assistants, entry-level positions referred to as quality control elsewhere.


It’s a brutal environment that not all survive. Having won three Super Bowls in the previous decade, management and the fan base probably are equally demanding.


The fledgling coaches are tested all the time. Some fall by the wayside. It takes thick skin and the willingness to work ungodly hours.


One of the young aides said that for as many times as Belichick barked at him, not once did he then fail to tell him the way he wanted the assignment done.


Some in the NFL will tell you there is no substitute for experience on a coaching staff. But in New England, Belichick tries to substitute for everyone else’s inexperience.


At the same time, Belichick’s hiring practices no doubt inspire intense loyalty within the building.


“Every day I remind myself of who gave me this opportunity,” Ferentz said. “The guy has taken a lot of chances on me. I think maybe some guys here would echo those sentiments.”


Linebacker Tracy White has played for Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid, McCarthy and Belichick. This staff, said White, has taught him about the game more than any other.


It’s the Belichick way. Unconventional? Always. Effective? That goes without saying.



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