A final Navy salute

Annapolis coaching legend remembered as tough, compassionate

Steve Belichick 1919 -2005

November 24, 2005|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

Coaching tough guy Bill Belichick, winner of three of the past four Super Bowls, left no doubt yesterday.

His father was tougher.

Steve Belichick, the longtime Navy assistant football coach and scout extraordinaire, was remembered during funeral services at the Naval Academy Chapel as flinty tough, indefatigable and fair-minded, not only by his successful son, but also by his former players and fellow coaches.

"Steve knew football inside and out, plus he cared about you as a person," said former Navy and Detroit Lions coach Rick Forzano. "He was recognized around the country for his expertise, and he had many coaching opportunities. They were presented to him just about every year. But Steve wanted to be in just one place, the United States Naval Academy."

Belichick, who died Saturday at age 86 of a heart attack while watching football at home, joined the Navy football program as an assistant coach in 1956 and remained there until he retired in 1989. Before that, he had been a football and basketball player at Case Western Reserve, played a year in the NFL, served in the Navy during World War II and had brief coaching stints at Hiram, Vanderbilt and North Carolina.

But once at Navy, where he was also an assistant professor of physical education, the elder Belichick found and embraced an extended family he would never leave. Until the day he died, he continued visiting coaches several times a week at the athletic facility, faithfully attended Navy football games and even worked out at the academy.

"He still had a locker there," Bill Belichick said.

The New England Patriots coach, who is known for his no-nonsense approach and stony-faced demeanor, talked warmly of his father during his eulogy and, not surprisingly, much of what he recalled revolved around football and his father's uncanny ability to scout the opposition.

Belichick said on one such trip to a game with his father, the son offered his opinion about a linebacker named Palmer. According to the press clippings, the player had more than 100 tackles and young Bill was mightily impressed.

The elder Belichick was less so, saying, "They must be counting the ones he makes in practice."

The New England coach also provided a glimpse of his father that might help explain how Belichick himself came to be one of the NFL's most determined taskmasters.

Steve Belichick helped run a kids football camp from 1964 to 1974.

"No horseshoes, no swimming, just football," Belichick said. "If it were today, there'd be no cell phones, no video games."

And when it was lights out and there was still talking and laughing in the cabins, Steve Belichick had a routine. The offenders dressed and ran sprints at midnight.

"Then the sprinklers came on," Bill Belichick said. There were also pushups and grass drills.

It didn't matter to Steve Belichick that - as another camp coach pointed out - the youngsters were paying $450 each to be there. So perhaps it's not so coincidental that, years later, Bill Belichick's initial training camps in Cleveland became infamous for their relentlessly grueling tempo.

While football dominated much of Steve Belichick's life, his son said there was another passion, a surprising one. Painting.

One Christmas, Steve's wife, Jeannette, gave him a paint set. The son said, "I figured this wasn't going to work."

He was wrong. Today, the home of Steve and Jeannette Belichick - the couple celebrated their 55th anniversary this year - is crowded with paintings.

Yesterday, former Navy halfback and 1960 Heisman Trophy winner Joe Bellino was a pallbearer who remembered the elder Belichick as a coach who wanted his players to work as hard in practice as they played in the games. And 1963 Heisman winner Roger Staubach sent word through ex-teammate and retired Rear Adm. Tom Lynch, who spoke at the service, that the quarterback recalled Steve Belichick as "the integrity of the team."

Lynch also told of a day in October 1962 when the players were called together to watch television reports of a looming crisis - missiles in Cuba. Soviet ships were headed for an potential showdown with the U.S. Navy, and it looked like "World War III," said Lynch, who would later serve as the academy superintendent.

But Steve Belichick wanted to get the football meeting going.

"Smoke was coming out of his ears," Lynch remembered. "And he said, `Don't these people know we have Pitt this weekend?'"

Bill Belichick gave further testament to his father's competitive nature, recounting how even as a collegiate squash player at Wesleyan, the younger Belichick could never manage to beat his father, who was twice his age. Best-of-three matches became best-of-five, then best-of-seven, then best-of-nine until the young Belichick's racket was kindling from smashing it in frustration.

As usual, Belichick said, his father prevailed. And to cement that thought, he finished the story about the trip to see the linebacker who had been getting all the rave reviews, the one Steve Belichick had reservations about.

On the way home, the two thumbed through the game play-by-play. They were looking for the same thing - Palmer, the linebacker.

"One tackle and two assists," Belichick said with a soft smile.

"He never believed the hype," he said of his father. "He always reported just what he saw."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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