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The Education of a Coach’s Son

Steve Belichick is the Patriots’ secondary coach. He’s also Bill’s son. And while the 29-year-old is undeniably the product of his upbringing, he’s also eager to show on the eve of the Super Bowl that he’s more than just a name.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s Super Bowl week in Houston, and there’s a growing media horde around a Belichick. Only this one has blond hair that would fall to his shoulders if it weren’t tied behind his head. A TV reporter swoops in and asks, “What’s the hardest thing about being Bill Belichick’s son?”

“You having to come over and ask me that question,” he responds. “I’m Steve Belichick. So, that’s the hardest part.”

The hard parts continue. Another reporter asks about Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons offensive coordinator and the son of Super Bowl–winning coach Mike Shanahan. On Sunday, Kyle’s league-best offense will try to exploit the Patriots defense, where the 29-year-old Steve oversees the safeties while carrying the most famous name in coaching. Like all coach’s sons, the reporter ventures, Kyle Shanahan has encountered critics who say he’s gotten jobs because of his father; has Steve had to contend with such comments? “Yeah, I experience that every day, thank you,” Steve says. “Thanks for bringing that up.”

If a kid named Springsteen picked up a guitar or a youngster named Spielberg whipped out a camera, he or she would struggle to keep a low profile. The same is proving true for Steve Belichick, who’s in his first year as a full-time Patriots position coach after spending four years as a team coaching assistant.

He may not be world famous, and he may not continue to draw large crowds this week, but he’s as complex a figure as there is in Sunday’s Super Bowl LI. He shuffles between expressing frustration over the assumptions that people make about the role his name has played in his life and embracing the ways in which that name has granted him the best possible football education.

“How many people tell you that you sound like your dad?” a reporter shouts from the back of the growing pack at the first media session of Super Bowl week.

“I’m sure a lot of sons hear they sound like their dad,” says Steve, whose voice does, in fact, sound almost identical to Bill’s.

The reporter responds that because he personally doesn’t sound anything like his own father, he was curious. And then the complexity surfaces: Steve continually speaks about being his own person and not living in anyone else’s shadow, but when he starts to answer a question that he doesn’t like, he instantly earns the Belichick name. “Everyone’s entitled,” Steve says to the reporter, “to their own opinion.”

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Steve is named after his grandfather, the famed Navy football lifer who wrote an influential book on scouting, Football Scouting Methods. Bill’s football tutelage under his father became so legendary that it was the basis for a book, The Education of a Coach. While the younger Steve learned plenty of lessons from his own father, who happens to be the greatest coach in NFL history, he tells me that the bulk of his football education came from his grandfather. Given his familial circumstances, the Patriots assistant has probably learned more football from an early age than any other millennial.

The sessions started with the mute button: “My grandfather hated listening to announcers, so the game was always muted and he could talk,” Steve says. “He taught me how to watch and taught me what to look for. He’d sit there and watch — that’s how he died [in 2005] — in his chair, watching football on a Saturday.”

Their studies extended to Army-Navy games, which grandfather and grandson began attending annually when the younger Steve was in elementary school. The former Navy football scout would instruct his grandson to watch certain areas of the field before the snap. “On a kickoff, he’d find the best coverage player and have me watch,” Steve says. “On third down he would tell me which receiver to watch because he figured out which guy was getting the ball. It wasn’t, ‘Did you see the way they did that?,’ because the game moves so fast and I was so young, we were already on to the next play. He would slow the game down and narrow the game down for me because he knew what was going to happen next.”

When Steve was around 12, his grandfather started teaching him the intricacies of special teams, including how to long-snap. “It’s not a drill you want to be doing for hours. It’s not like running routes and catching passes,” the younger Steve says. “It’s shooting balls between your legs and getting light-headed.” They did it for hours anyway.

Bill is famous for working with every position in all three phases of the game; he’s as likely to spend a period coaching the defensive backs as the quarterbacks or long snappers. Steve is also built in that mold. He played every snap of every game his senior year of high school, seeing time at linebacker, safety, long snapper, fullback, tight end, and in kick coverage. If he could stay on the field by sliding into a new role, he would. He attended Rutgers, where he was a long snapper and also played lacrosse, a sport that Bill is, to put it mildly, obsessed with. Hear the younger Steve talk about long snapping, and it’s easy to wonder whether Bill, who loves discussing the intricacies of special teams more than any other NFL head coach, may not even be the biggest special teams fan in his family.

“We won a couple of Super Bowls with a good snap, and everyone talks about Adam [Vinatieri] making the great kick, and trust me, I’m not taking anything away from Adam’s great kick, but he’s not able to kick that ball if Lonie [Paxton] doesn’t get down a good snap,” Steve says.

Though special teams has a special place in Steve’s heart, his primary focus heading into Sunday’s showdown will be helping New England’s secondary stop, or at least slow, Julio Jones and the Atlanta offense. Pats safety Duron Harmon says that above all else Steve preaches sound tackling, which will be crucial against the Falcons, who lead the NFL in yards after the catch. It’s a massive day for Steve — and he doesn’t care how you think he got here.

“Life isn’t fair. I don’t expect it to be,” Steve says. “I like to work for everything I get. I’ll always be Bill Belichick’s son to everyone in the media. To the people who really matter, my friends and family, I’m Steve, and those are the people I care about. I couldn’t care less about everybody else.”

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Harmon makes one major comparison between father and son. “Steve is a lot more relaxed than Bill,” he says. Steve has his dad’s smarts, but a young person’s chill. “He’s smart, he knows football, he’s a Belichick,” says New England safety Brandon King. “At the same time, he’s younger and we can relate to him. He understands we are put in tough situations and he tries to relate to us, but he also wants us to do our job.” Yes, even the younger Belichick espouses the “Do Your Job” mantra.

Steve says he didn’t necessarily always want to be a coach, but he did always want to be around football. When he was a teenager, he’d crash in his father’s dorm room during training camp, observing and fostering a deep desire to be a part of what he was witnessing, in any capacity. I ask why he chose to focus on defense, and he says to ask his dad, then adds that he’d be happy with any role on special teams or defense (emphasizing that he really, really likes special teams). He refuses to say what his coaching goals are, specifying only that he wants to “stay happy like I have been.”

In some ways, though, it remains a surprise that Steve chose to be around the game at all. He’s been stung over the years by criticism of his father and his family, and despite all of Bill’s success (this is his seventh Super Bowl appearance), the losses clearly stick with Steve more than the wins. He calls the people who smeared Bill at the end of his Cleveland Browns head-coaching tenure “too stupid to know,” adding how hard it was to hear his father ripped “before you’re 10 years old.”

“I don’t know if anyone will understand what those headlines in newspapers really do to families,” Steve says. “It’s hard, obviously, everyone in the NFL signs up for these jobs and understands the pressures. But some things are more necessary than others. … One thing I’ve learned from my dad is we don’t do it for the media, we do it because we love it. We don’t it for the press conferences, which is maybe why other coaches do it.” (I can confirm that Bill Belichick does not do it for the media.) Steve says his family has toughened up enough over time that criticism is now “fun” and something to “talk about at Thanksgiving,” adding: “We’ve been labeled every word in the book our whole lives; what’s another [insult] on the list?”

Speaking of families, Steve and his girlfriend had their first child, and Bill’s first grandchild, in October. (Bill has two other children, Amanda, the head lacrosse coach at Holy Cross, and Brian, who works for the Patriots as a scouting assistant.) When a reporter asks about the notion that grandparents are easier on their grandkids than their kids, Steve says he can now “speak to that truth.”

Now, Steve is spending the week talking about the Belichick name and everything that comes with it: the pressure, the assumptions, and the education. He says that Monday’s was “by far” the longest press session of his life, and this is undoubtedly one of the biggest weeks of his life: a chance for glory under his father and for himself. It’s not quite an opportunity to make his own name, but that may come in time. When I ask where he feels he’s grown the most this year, he says, “My hair. There you go.”

Yeah. He’s a Belichick.