WINNING COMBINATION

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Interview by Bruce A. Percelay | Photography By: Kerry Brett

Bill Belichick is unknowingly playing with one of his Super Bowl rings. The ring is the size of a shot glass, and each time he turns it in his hand, light dances around the room. His other hand is draped casually over the shoulder of his longtime partner, Linda Holliday, and clasps hers. They’re sitting on a casual, unfussy couch in the Belichick’s living room in ‘Sconset. The space is quaint and comfortable. An antique Wurlitzer jukebox stands quietly behind them and there’s a seascape painting hanging over the mantel. Beyond locker rooms, practice fields and stadiums, this is the inner sanctum of arguably the greatest coach in the history of sports.

“I started off in Detroit, then Denver, then the Giants, then Cleveland, then the Patriots, then the Jets, and then the Patriots [again],” Belichick says. “But at the end of every one of those years I was here.” He slaps his knee. “Nantucket has always been a constant.” Belichick first discovered the island while he was in high school in Annapolis, Maryland where his father was a football coach at the US Naval Academy. His high school friend Mark Fredland had a family home on the island and invited him to join one summer. In 1979, he and Fredland purchased this plot of land off Sankaty Road and developed it together. Fredland still lives nearby. It’s a charming property that harks back to the old Nantucket when screen doors clapped closed and unpretentiousness was a community ethos.

“This is where everybody flocks home,” says Holliday. “No matter what everybody is doing during their busy lives, Nantucket is where family comes together as a unit again.” If there was ever kryptonite to soften the steeliest coach in the game, it’s Linda Holliday. Warm and vivacious, she pairs well with Belichick — or as he put it earlier in the day, “She’s the rose next to the thorn.” The couple appear completely at ease with one another and share a playfulness and unabashed affection that belies Belichick’s stern on-field persona. Indeed, Holliday knows a side of the coach that very few do, and she smiles widely when asked what most people would be surprised to learn about him. “I’ll tell you something about Bill,” she says with a hint of Tennessee twang in her voice. “He can sing. And he can sing well. You won’t hear it. You won’t see it. But he can sing well.” A boyish grin spreads across Belichick’s face, and for an instant, one almost forgets that this is the same man who leads 350-pound behemoths into battle.

Belichick is coming off what is widely considered to be the greatest victory in Super Bowl history — perhaps the greatest comeback in all of sports. His improbable win over the Falcons — clawing back from a 28-3 deficit with less than a half to play—only further cemented his legend. If there’s ever a question of how many championships he’s won in his forty-two-year career, one only needs to find Belichick’s fishing boat—now renamed VII RINGS — bobbing in Nantucket harbor to get the official count. And yet despite being one of the winningest coaches in NFL history, Belichick has earned a reputation for not relishing his victories.

It begs the question whether he allows himself to savor victory at all? Or is his taciturn demeanor a deliberate part of his coaching style to keep his team level? “It’s definitely part of keeping level,” Belichick responds when asked these questions. “Part of my job is to tell the truth to the team, because I feel I know the truth. When we win — and we’ve won a lot fortunately — there’s a lot of accolades of how great things are. The team gets plenty of that from outside sources. I think the pendulum swings a little too far that way in general. And so I try to swing it back a little bit the other way. Now, it’s important to celebrate wins, but not for very long.”

When asked how long his team can afford to soak up a victory, Belichick says, “For the most part it’s brief because you have to move on. If you win on Sunday and you have another game on the following Sunday, you can’t hang on to [the win] for very long. I’d say less than twenty-four hours because you have a new challenge ahead.”

Instead of reveling in the touchdowns and goal-line stops, he focuses on dropped passes, missed tackles, and botched plays. “We’re going to point those things out,” he says. “We’re going to work on them. We’re not just going to be happy that things went our way. The truth is if we don’t do better than this, we’re probably not going to win too many more games.”

He continues, “Now when things go the other way. When things aren’t going well. When the pendulum is swinging down on your team and everybody is pounding on them — the fans, the media, maybe a little bit of self doubt or lack of confidence — then that’s when they need to be brought up. I try to keep it on an even keel.”

Perhaps the most extreme example of Belichick swinging the pendulum back to center came the day after his most recent Super Bowl win. “As great as today feels,” he famously told a pack of reporters, “we’re five weeks behind the other teams for the 2017 season.” Instead of basking in the afterglow of such a biblical accomplishment, Belichick already seemed to have his eyes set on the next game eight months away. Was this statement calculated or would he simply not allow himself to revel in what many considered the greatest victory of all time?

“I definitely can hang on to that game,” he says when asked these questions. “I mean I wasn’t saying [that statement] critically or with remorse or anything; that was just a point of fact. Had we been eliminated from the playoffs in the regular season like twenty of the thirty-two teams did, we would have started immediately working on the draft, free agency, going back over the previous season. When you play an additional five weeks, and then if you win the [Super Bowl]… the reality is once you pick up the pen and paper and start going to work for the next year, the other teams are six weeks ahead of you. I was just pointing that out.”

“He can separate enjoying the win, and realizing that he has to get back to work, too,” says Holliday, who has witnessed this up close during their ten-year relationship. A former boutique clothing store owner and television personality, Holliday has brought her own unique air to Patriots Nation. This Super Bowl she grabbed fashion headlines with a custom-made Swarovski crystal Patriots hoodie, complete with BELICHICK in big sparkling letters bedazzled from shoulder to shoulder. Now she has two of her own custom-engraved Super Bowl rings to match.

“I grew up in the south, so I was an SEC football girl and never paid attention to pro football,” Holliday says. “They didn’t have pro football when I was growing up in Tennessee, so Bill has brought me into that world.” Today, Holliday serves as the executive director of the Bill Belichick Foundation, an organization Belichick credits her for starting. The organization has helped change the lives of hundreds of students from Nantucket to Uganda.

“The foundation all came together around Bill’s sixtieth birthday,” says Holliday. “In lieu of birthday presents, friends gave the first donations to the foundation.” For years, Belichick awarded scholarships in honor of his father to student athletes at his alma mater Annapolis High School. Holliday saw an opportunity to expand upon this through a nonprofit that would not only continue to award scholarships to Annapolis students, but to students across the country. “Bill and I handpick every single person,” Holliday says. “It’s not something that we take lightly. We want to know who the person is on a first name basis.”

The foundation also awards grants to help programs such as The Nantucket Skating Club, which gained vital support in 2015. Beyond Nantucket, the foundation’s reach has expanded across the country and around the globe, particularly in supporting football and lacrosse programs. “We built a field in Uganda,” Belichick says. “We’re in foreign countries. We’re national and we’re local. In particular, we try to help out Boston’s underprivileged lacrosse teams.” With a faint glimmer of pride in his voice, he adds that the lacrosse team they support in Croatia recently won the European championship.

The Bill Belichick Foundation was established in memory of Belichick’s father, Steve Belichick. Steve’s parents immigrated to the United States from Croatia at the turn of the twentieth century, and he grew up in the thick of the Great Depression. Football became his saving grace, earning him a partial athletic scholarship to college and eventually a season playing with the Detroit Lions before the war. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Steve Belichick coached for a number of college teams before assuming his thirty-three-year post as coach and scout for the US Naval Academy. Bill Belichick was four years old when his father took the job, and he grew up absorbing formative lessons from his dad on and off the field.

Woodie courtesy of the Wetterau Family

“When I look back on it, one of the things I learned at Annapolis, when I grew up around the Navy football teams in the early sixties — Joe Bellino, Roger Staubach, Coach Wayne Hardin and some of the great teams they had — I didn’t know any differently,” he says. “I just assumed that’s what football was. Guys were very disciplined. They worked very hard. They did extra things. They were always on time, alert, ready to go, team-oriented, unselfish. I thought that’s the way it all was. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I can see how that molded me.”

The military mindset Belichick witnessed at the Naval Academy is now a trademark of his coaching style. Watching him stalwartly prowl the sidelines directing his players, it’s not hard to imagine him as a field general in another life. In fact, Belichick is passionate about military history, and even narrated a PBS documentary about World War II called D-Day: Over Normandy that premiered this spring. His coaching style and personal interest in military history begs the question whether the coach could ever have pictured himself as a military leader? Could Bill Belichick see himself as a general leading troops on the battle field? “I probably wouldn’t have been a general, because I wouldn’t want to be in the Army,” Belichick says, when asked this hypothetical question. “I would have wanted to be in the Navy. I’d want to be an admiral.”

“You’re my admiral,” Holliday laughs.

There’s a certain military mentality,” Belichick continues. “When you join the military and make it a career, you’re doing it to defend the country from all enemies foreign and domestic. Basically you want to fight. That’s what they’re trained to do: to fight and to win battles and not to lose them. I’m not sure that I have that type of mentality. It’s not quite the same in business or in sports. I mean, there’s certainly things that are similar, but that fighting and playing for keeps is a little bit of a different mentality. I’m not sure that’s really the way that I’m wired.”

When asked which feeling is more intense, the thrill of winning or the pain of defeat, the coach responds without hesitation: “The disappointment of losing. The lows are lower than the highs.” He contemplates it more and continues, “But when the last game turns out like it did this year, or like it turned out two years ago — or, you know, I’ve been involved with seven championship seasons — those last a little bit longer. At some point you’ve got to move on from them, but you can hang on a little bit longer.”

Here in his home in ‘Sconset, there’s an airiness to Bill Belichick that television cameras don’t capture when he’s pacing the sidelines or stonewalling reporters after the game. Sitting next to the woman he loves, still hand in hand, he’s quick to laugh. While the conversation may have begun in true Belichickian fashion, with his responses clipped and measured, there’s now an undeniable ease to his demeanor. He’s talking about Nantucket and no question seems out of bounds.

Then, this question: “Bill, you’re obviously very well compensated for what you do…” The conversation suddenly groans to a halt. The interview has just entered uncharted waters and an uncomfortable silence floods the room. Waiting for the rest of the question, Belichick stares back with a look that could stop a bullet. “…But are you paid well enough to shop at the ‘Sconset Market?”

The coach throws his head back and breaks out into a full belly laugh. Holliday joins him. “The market is great, but the prices…” he jokes, continuing to chuckle. “That place could be a study in monopolies!” Belichick clearly loves what the ‘Sconset Market represents. Like so many spots on the island, the ‘Sconset Market connects him with his past, conjuring fond memories of when his children were young and began the day by scampering up to buy warm baked goods for breakfast. “The baked goods there are pretty hard to resist,” he says, smiling, “especially their muffins or cookies.” “And the ice cream,” Holliday adds. “Nothing better than walking down there to get ice cream.”

The exchange illustrates why he and Holliday love this island so much. Belichick appears to still relish the folksy charm and simplicity that drew him here nearly forty years ago. “The island is spectacular,” he says “The people are great, fishing, bike paths, the lighthouses, the beach, the history — I mean it’s got it all.” Holliday smiles in agreement. “It’s the feeling of getting over here and having that island factor,” she says. “You’re away from everything and yet you’re still among friends.”

“You know how it is,” Belichick continues. “When you drive along the moors, you’re going to pull over for me, and I’m going to pull over for you. It’s just a question of which one of us is finally going to go first. Because you always want to be courteous and polite to the other guy.” This good will and sense of community continues to afford Belichick and Holliday an escape from the flashbulbs and microphones that define much of their year. So no matter how many more Super Bowl rings he collects, no matter how far and wide his foundation reaches, life will always return to this quiet retreat in ‘Sconset where the most enigmatic, scrutinized coach in the game can enjoy a long, much-deserved timeout.

 

BELICHICK FOUNDATION SCHOLARSHIPS

Since launching in 2013, the Bill Belichick Foundation has awarded $350,000 in scholarships to student athletes across the country. Here on Nantucket, past recipients have included James Aloisi, Kezia Duarte, Megan Cranston, Nathan Leibowitz, and Olivia Slade. This past May, Katie Fox, daughter of Chicken Box co-owners Rocky and Lori Fox, was awarded one of the most recent scholarships. “I was super excited,” Fox says. “A scholarship goes a long way and motivates me to work even harder and not let the Bill Belichick Foundation down.”

An exemplary student, Fox also played varsity basketball and field hockey all four years at Nantucket High School and later became captain of both teams. Despite the time required by her athletic endeavors, Fox also volunteered extensively on the island. She was an ideal candidate for the scholarship.

“Although I don’t know Bill Belichick personally, I think that he’s a great football coach, but even a better person for helping all these kids and groups with his foundation,” says Fox, who is entering her sophomore year at UMASS Amherst and is considering studying social work. “He’s truly taken the platform he was given and is now doing whatever he can to give back. After attending the ceremony, I can see what a difference it is making.”

BELICHICK FOUNDATION GRANTS

In an effort to champion communities, the Bill Belichick Foundation has awarded $385,000 in grants in the last four years. The grant program began when Linda Holliday observed the dire needs of fledgling lacrosse programs in both inner cities and rural areas of the country. “Several friends of mine were having to do bake sales to get enough money to hire a coach and buy lacrosse sticks and get uniforms,” she says. “I was thinking that there has to be better ways to raise money and awareness for youth fun in sports as well as continue education.” Enter the Bill Belichick Foundation (BBF) grant program.

Since 2013, the BBF has awarded forty-two grants, supporting everything from building a field in Uganda to outfitting a lacrosse team in Croatia. Here on the island, The Nantucket Skating Club received a grant that dramatically propelled its mission. “We’re a small organization, but we are unique in that we have a lot more expenses compared to off-island skating clubs,” says Nantucket Skating Club president, Jody Paterson. As a 100 percent volunteer nonprofit, every fundraising dollar goes to paying for ice time, coaching, and travel to off-island competitions. The grant enabled the Skating Club to not only meet its needs on the ice, but also expand its program to incorporate off-ice training and coaching year-round. “What the Bill Belichick Foundation has done for the club has been amazing,” says Paterson. “The financial support is always welcome for any type of nonprofit, but in particular the name recognition of Bill Belichick gave a huge boost to morale and raised people’s awareness of our club.”

 

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