Bills-Giants match rooted in Colt history

John Steadman

January 22, 1991|By John Steadman

TAMPA, Fla. -- When they first met in football, one was the boss, the head coach, and the other a mere intern, being paid the staggering sum of $25 per week to slice and roll game film onto separate reels for the offense, defense and special teams.

Now Ted Marchibroda is on one sideline in the Super Bowl and Bill Belichick the other. It illustrates how careers, like footballs, take unpredictable bounces.

But this is a different kind of an evolvement, adding an unusual personal and professional touch to Sunday's 25th anniversary game in the Super Bowl series.

Marchibroda is the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills and the man plotting to stop him, Belichick, devises defensive strategy for the New York Giants. It's an underlying, but important, feature to the match -- Marchibroda trying to formulate points for the Bills and Belichick deploying the Giants in a way to shut them down.

But it was in 1976 with the Baltimore Colts, gone but hardly forgotten, when the two men met for the first time. Little did Belichick, a 23-year-old coaching trainee, realize he would inadvertently be responsible for creating an internal battle that resulted, first, in Marchibroda quitting temporarily and, second, in general manager Joe Thomas being fired three months later.

It also was an occasion for the owner of the club, Bob Irsay, to refer to Belichick, since he forgot his name, as the "Michigan Break Down Man." Only Irsay could have arrived at such a convoluted deduction, since in trying to identify the "Michigan Break Down Man" there was no obvious point of reference.

But here's how Irsay arrived at the "Michigan Break Down" appellation, as difficult as it is to follow an unusual mental process at work. Clue No. 1: Belichick's meager assignment was to break down film, meaning he divided the game movies as a time-saving measure for the coaches.

It was Belichick's ambition to get into coaching. The chance to break down film, as they say in business, was like starting in the mail room.

Belichick, whose father was a coach and scout at the Naval Academy for more than 30 years, only wanted experience with the Colts. Certainly, the money wasn't a consideration: He started at $25 a week and then a raise took him to $50.

Rick Forzano, meanwhile, had been a Navy coach and knew the youngster. Forzano had become head coach of the Detroit Lions and wanted to hire Belichick for much the same job he was doing with the Colts. The pay, though, was going to take him all the way to $10,000 a year.

This disturbed Marchibroda, who wanted to keep Belichick with the Colts. But Thomas told Marchibroda he couldn't hire Belichick full time. "I used to be a coach myself," said Thomas, "and there's not much else for assistants to do offseason except work with the film. We don't need another employee."

So Belichick left for Detroit, which the last time we looked was in Michigan. Ah, Clue No. 2. Belichick was going to a team in the state of Michigan (Bob probably forgot it was the Lions) and would be breaking down film. So this was how Irsay got caught up in the scenario of the "Michigan Break Down Man."

The Baltimore incident played out in 1976. It came after %o Marchibroda left as coach for several days, following a meeting on Irsay's yacht, "The Mighty I," and Thomas said, "If he wants to walk then let him keep walking."

But the players wanted Marchibroda back, and then commissioner Pete Rozelle played a behind-the-scenes role in helping to maneuver his return. This made Marchibroda the winner in what was an unfortunate power struggle that never should have happened.

After winning three division titles in the mid-1970s, and then having two losing years, Marchibroda was discharged. Now he's in Buffalo, doing what he did for 14 years prior to Baltimore -- styling and preparing an offense.

His foremost adversary is Belichick, who led the Giants to the premier spot among team defenses and is being considered for the head position with the Cleveland Browns. His resume, quite understandably, makes no mention of when he was the "Michigan Break Down Man."

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