ESPN The Magazine’s “Great Debates Issue,” on newsstands Friday, features a cover story – published this morning on ESPN.com – on New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, one of the most enigmatic figures in sports.
Veteran ESPN writer David Fleming collaborated with a group of ESPN NFL Nation team reporters for this piece. Together, they filed a comprehensive oral history of arguably the greatest coach in NFL history. In the story, fellow coaches, players, and other Belichick associates through the years present as complete a portrait as possible of the coach who has won 13 division titles, six AFC championship games and four Super Bowls.
Fleming discusses the project with Front Row.
How did the idea and format for this story come about?
Once Tom Brady’s suspension became a certainty, our NFL editor brain trust – Paul Kix, Mike Drago, Chris Sprow and John Pluym – anticipated how the focus would be on Belichick’s coaching the first month of the season.
In the same way that The Mag has so successfully teamed up with espnW, Outside The Lines and The Undefeated, they decided to utilize the unparalleled knowledge and reporting reach of ESPN’s NFL Nation to gather as many voices and insights as possible on Belichick and then weave it together into a definitive character study of, perhaps, the greatest – and most controversial – coach in NFL history.
In the end, it was Drago’s deft touch with the story, Pluym’s leadership, and NFL Nation’s tireless reporting – of close to 50 different subjects – that took the whole project to another level.
What was the most enlightening interview and why?
You have to drill way down to get to Belichick’s soft, human side but we uncovered it – thanks to [New Orleans Saints reporter] Mike Triplett, [New York Jets reporter] Rich Cimini, [Tennessee Titans reporter] Paul Kuharsky, [Detroit Lions reporter] Michael Rothstein and many others – and it will surprise and enlighten readers.
Triplett got former Patriots fullback and NFL Network analyst Heath Evans to really open up and take us behind the scenes inside the devastated Patriots locker room after Super Bowl XLII where an emotional Belichick was apologizing to the team that finished 18-1.
– David Fleming
Many of the former players we reached out to, even the ones now in the media themselves, refused to help with this project. But Evans told Triplett that, despite the heartbreaking loss, in that moment listening to Belichick he never had greater admiration for a man not his father.
What do you hope fans will take away from this piece?
Just like many of the people we profile, Belichick isn’t all bad or all good. He’s a mix of both. It would be easier to paint him one way or the other, and it would probably make a bigger splash, but it wouldn’t bring us closer to the truth. Is Bill Belichick a guy who would secretly drop off a teddy bear dressed in a hoodie for a staff member’s sick child? Is he a guy who would refuse to say “good morning” to his favorite player for almost three years? Is he the evil genius who steps over the line from time to time? Is he the greatest coach in NFL history? He’s all of that, actually, and more.
Carrie Kreiswith contributed to this post.