One of the all-time great Bill Belichick moments came in 1998, when he sat across from Al Davis during an interview for the Raiders head coaching vacancy. Davis was in the process of picking Belichick’s brain about the way Belichick presided over a defense.
Belichick was an assistant coach under New York Jets head coach Bill Parcells at the time. The Raiders were fresh from a 4-12 season under Joe Bugel, who Davis fired soon after the 1997 season ended. Davis and Belichick spoke almost exclusively about defense over the two days they met.
As things progressed, Belichick became more and more convinced that Davis wasn’t going to hire him, simply because of his pedigree as a defensive-minded coach.
“It really seemed like a waste of time,” Belichick said years later, “because I felt pretty certain that he wouldn’t hire a defensive coach. … “It’s a parade of offensive coaches out there. He’s really a defensive coordinator.”
If ever something needed to be recorded, it was that interview.
As always seems to be the case, Belichick’s instincts were spot-on. Davis interviewed Belichick, Jon Gruden and Jim Haslett, who was a defensive assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time. In the end, Davis hired the offensive-minded Gruden.
It says here, that Davis made the wrong decision 20 years ago. He would have been better off hiring Belichick, without benefit of knowing what we know now.
Of course, almost everyone would say now that Belichick would have been the better hire, given he has proven to be the most successful coach in NFL history. Since he was hired by the New England Patriots in 2000, the Patriots have won five of the seven Super Bowls they reached. Oh, and they play in yet another Super Bowl this Sunday. They have won 74.4 percent of their regular-season and postseason games (241-83) during Belichick’s tenure.
Yet, few people were racing to hire Belichick 20 years ago, and certainly not as a head coach. The memory was too fresh in regard to Belichick’s first head-coaching gig, with the Cleveland Browns, in which he posted a 36-44 record from 1991-95 before being fired.
Davis came close to hiring Belichick, though. He loved Gruden’s energy, passion and knowledge, but Davis also was worried that Gruden was too young. He finally realized that he had been Gruden’s age when he was hired to be a head coach for the first time, in 1963, and took the gamble.
The leap of faith paid off big time, as Gruden took the Raiders from the nadir of Davis’ tenure to that point to the playoffs in his third season. Along the way, the Raiders became relevant again, a place where players wanted to play.
Even so, Davis would have been better off with Belichick. Here’s why.
One, Davis would have loved working with a guy that knew as much about football, including its history, as Belichick and seeing if they could find a way to parlay that knowledge into perennial dominance.
Here’s where people say that Belichick and Davis would have butted heads. I counter by saying, that’s inaccurate because Belichick didn’t have the resume and sustained success that he boasts now to use as leverage. He would have been grateful just for the opportunity to be an NFL head coach again. This isn’t to say that things wouldn’t have changed after a few years, especially if Belichick started winning Super Bowls for the Raiders and received too much credit.
Secondly, Belichick showed early on that he could assemble a coaching staff unlike few others, not to mention a front office. He hired Nick Saban to be his defensive coordinator in his first year as the Browns head coach, for crying out loud.
He later added the likes of Ozzie Newsome (director of pro personnel), Scott Pioli (scouting assistant/pro personnel assistant), Mike Tannenbaum (player personnel assistant), Kirk Ferentz (offensive line coach), Jim Schwartz (pro, college scout), Thomas Dimitroff (grounds crew), Eric Mangini (coaches assistant), Phil Savage (defensive assistant coach, national scout) and Pat Hill (tight ends, offensive line), among others.
Belichick doesn’t get full credit for all the aformentioned hires, but he had some level of say. Any way you look at the names associated with Belichick’s tenure, it’s beyond impressive.
Perhaps most impressive, Belichick managed to get the Browns to win a playoff game — in a great coincidence, it came against the Patriots. Who’s the last coach who could make such a claim?
Third, Belichick could have brought back defensive dominance to a Raiders team that used to intimidate the hell out of opponents with their style of play. Sure, the rules had changed by 1998, but Belichick would have found a way to get the Raiders defense up to an elite level.
Davis and Belichick would have had their differences, especially when it came to defense. But Belichick has such a sense of respect for those who came before him, that he would have deferred to Davis and worked things out in a diplomatic way.
Best of all if you’ll allow me this one nod to factoring in what we know now, the Tuck Game never would have happened if Davis had hired Belichick in 1998.
Need I say more?