New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick says he appreciates the "great people" who have been with the Lions franchise. By Matt Schoch, Special to The Detroit News
Allen Park — Maybe the Midwest is bringing out a new Bill Belichick this week: A warm and fuzzy one.
You couldn’t quite read it on his famously gruff face, but the New England Patriots coach allowed for some real human emotion — words, at least — Monday morning as he detailed his trip through memory lane via Ohio and Michigan.
Belichick even deadpanned a joke about the attentive media as he took the podium to a packed audience before his team’s joint practices opened with the Lions.
“Wow, this all looks so official: Everyone has their own desk. And notepad,” wisecracked Belichick.
He then offered his condolences for the family of longtime Sports Illustrated writer Don Banks, who passed away over the weekend while covering the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in Canton, Ohio.
Belichick was there too, celebrating the induction of former Michigan standout cornerback Ty Law, who helped the Belichick to his first three Super Bowl titles as a head coach — eight total when adding his days as defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells with the New York Giants.
The defensive game plan that Belichick devised to slow down Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and the Buffalo Bills to win Super Bowl XXV in 1991 is part of the Hall of Fame.
But while in Canton, Belichick’s mind was more on a former Lions fullback who played six games with Detroit before his only NFL season wrapped up eight days before the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor.
Belichick said he dug through a scrapbook and found Steve Belichick’s picture from the 1941 Lions, along with an article about the 4-6-1 team coached by Bill Edwards right before the world changed forever, and his father enlisted in the Navy.
“Their objective, and I’d say they’ve achieved it, is so that every family member, son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter, or whoever could actually go there, or the player themselves could actually go there and not just see their name, but see something about the person,” Bill Belichick said of his dad, who died in 2005. “Pictures, articles, as well as stats or whatever the case may be, regardless if the player played one year or 20 years in the league. They’ve done a great job preserving the history of the game.
“When only 1 percent of their memorabilia and collection is on display, then you realize the enormity of what they have and how great and how special it is. It was quite a — to see Red Grange’s shoulder pads, Joe Namath’s cape, and Johnny Unitas’ high-top shoes — it’s just thrilling.”
This year with the defending Super Bowl champs, Belichick is trying to squeeze another remarkable season from another Michigan legend in Tom Brady, who turned 42 on Saturday and is the most decorated quarterback the game has ever seen.
Known for his singular focus on the journey to football success — “Do your job” and “no days off” were Belichick memes before there were memes — Belichick was typically on message when asked about matters of Patriots’ football.
But when addressing his return to Detroit, where Belichick spent two seasons in his second NFL coaching job in 1976 and ’78, the coach opened up once again.
“It’s great personally for me, even though I was never part of this particular facility, just to look back on some of the pictures here in the facility — Charlie Sanders, who I coached, Lem Barney, Mr. (William Clay) Ford, and many other great players and great people in this organization,” said Belichick, who was a special-teams assistant and tight ends/receivers coach for the Lions. “It has a long history, so I really appreciate the opportunity to be here and for our football team to improve over the next few days. That’s what we’re here for, just to continue to get better and to work towards the start of the season and the opening game.”
Belichick bemoaned his last trip to Detroit with his team, a 26-10 September dismantling last season at Ford Field on national television.
It was one of few highlights in Matt Patricia’s 6-10 debut after leaving his defensive coordinator post with the Patriots to take over in Detroit.
Patricia has a believer in Kyle Van Noy, a linebacker who was traded by the Lions to New England in 2016, and then helped Patricia’s defense secure Belichick’s seventh ring.
“Detroit, they’re building something, Matty P is running a tight ship,” Van Noy said. “They just have to put the pieces together, and I feel like they’ll be pretty good.”
“Pretty good” would be a step in the right direction for Detroit, which, from the former players and practice times, to the new conditioning hill on the practice field, are in many ways using Belichick’s blueprint, where "pretty good" would not be enough.
As for the original, when asked about his Detroit trip again, Belichick wouldn’t allow himself to get too far away from the message that has helped take him to unimaginable heights.
“It’s a tremendous facility and it certainly brings back a lot of memories for me from ‘76 to ‘77 when I was here,” he said. “That being said, the real purpose of our trip here is to improve our football team. That’s what we’re here for, so I don’t want to get caught up in a lot of the other things. “They’re nice and they’re there, but what we’re here for is to do what we need to do and help our football team get better.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.