Bill Belichick: cultural innovator or bobo poseur?

Bill_belichick Tom Guarriello and I had a good conversation at the Stamford Diner yesterday.  As all diner conversations must, it turned eventually to Sunday’s game.

Sunday will see the clash of the titans. The unbeaten Indianapolis Colts will play the unbeaten New England Patriots in Indianapolis at 4:15 p.m.  It is being billed as a contest between quarterbacks Payton Manning and Tom Brady.  But it is also, of course, a contest between coaches Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick. 

The thing I like about Belichick is that sweatshirt.  Coaches are inclined to make themselves presentable.  But Belichick has taken on a monkish quality, cowl and all.

When you are as successful as Belichick, you can dress anyway you want. In 7 years at New England, Belichick has delivered three Super Bowl championships, three conference titles, five division crowns and 12 playoff victories, posting a record of 87-39.  Everyone seems to think there’s a good chance he could win all 16 games this season.  (This would take his win-loss to 103 and 39.  Crazy good, technically.) 

Mr. Belichick is a little like a God.  To be this good in a game where no one gets to play unless they are extraordinarily talented…that’s very good indeed. 

So what’s with the sweatshirt?  Tom thinks it’s posturing, an ostentatious gesture, a way of saying "I’m special."  Belichick is telling us the rules don’t apply to them.  For Tom, Belichick is a faux bohemian, someone who insists on an outsider status that does not truly belong to him.  Tom says that Belichick is a football coach, plain and simple.  The fact that he is a very good football coach does not warrant posturing.   (See below for a more nuanced statement of Tom’s position, taken, with his permission from an exchange of emails we had this morning.)

I don’t know.  Tom could be right.  But I like an interpretive alternative.  What if Belichick is charting new ground?  What if we are looking at the evolution of American culture here on its most hallowed ground, the grid iron? 

Bill Belichick was born April 16, 1952.  His Dad play played fullback for the Detroit Lions and coached at the Naval Academy for 33 years. Bill went to Annapolis High, attended Phillips Academy, and graduated from Wesleyan with a degree in economics. 

This guy is second generation football.  He grew up in a household steeped in the game’s strategy and drama.  In the right life, this kind of exposure can do interesting things.  A deeply intelligent kid can take possession of the game, master it in ways previously impossible. In the cliche, he can take the game to "a whole new level."  And we know what happens when this happen.  Those who serve as vehicles of transport are changed by transport. 

Call it the Cambridge Don effect.  If you devote yourself to the study of something, there is an inclination to remove yourself from the world.  You forget your car keys.  You might even forget to take a bath.  (At the Royal Ontario Museum, we had a curator who relied on his secretary to tell him when this was so.)  You dress in whatever is at hand, because even first thing in the morning, you are already scheming on the best way to take the long pass away from Payton Manning.  You don’t so much renounce the world as have it taken away from you. You are turning the gaze inward.  You put your hood up.

Tom’s model is a bohemian one.  Belichick is located at the center with pretensions of alternative standing.  My model is something like a cultural involution.  Belichick is burrowing into the game.  He is find new ways to think about it, new ways to explore its complexities.  In this interpretation, we are looking at an excavation of our culture at the very center of our culture.  By a coach, for crying out loud. 

Coaches are that most elemental of creatures.  He’s the one charged with taking dreamy kids and introducing them to the harsh realities of the world.  Coaches are supposed to be what they are and not another thing.  They are our reality principle, or, better, our reality principles.  If there is a fundament in our culture it’s a guy like Mike Ditka, force of nature, arbiter of culture.  If Coach is changing, something is happening. 

Tom might be right.  Bill Belichick might be a poser.  But I wonder if we are not looking at a man who went looking for a better way to play football and stumbled out of our culture into something…else…new…next? 

Post script by Tom Guarriello:

The problem I have with the "monkish" image is its ostentatious rejectionism. Professional football is show business, athletic ascetics notwithstanding. There is no way to opt out of the show business aspect of it. Most coaches simply live out their relative discomfort with it by giving press conferences filled with "uhs" and "ohs" and saying the kinds of things that can be de- and re-constructed in Miller Lite ads. Belichick acts as if all this show business stuff is nonsense; as if he’d be happier playing the game without cameras, know-nothing fans, the ignorant press (watch one of his press conferences sometime; he’s such a prick) or any of that "distracting" stuff. You know: Pure man-on-man action, preferably in the mud.
For his current salary, of course.

Which is where my charge of ostentation comes from. This kind of willful symbolic rejection of the fundamental economic infrastructure of pro sports, by cutting off his sweatshirt and pretending he is above  the cult of celebrity (by dressing as if below it), is just too cute by half.

7 thoughts on “Bill Belichick: cultural innovator or bobo poseur?”

  1. Grant —

    Wearing jackets with hoods, and then wearing the hood up, has been fashionable among European teenagers for the last several years. In Britain, this fashion became a political issue a couple of years ago, when some public places (eg, shopping malls) began banning people who were wearing their hoods up, alleging that the wearers were intent on perpetrating a crime and threatening other people. The official Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, even made a point of embracing “hoodies”, as such teenagers have come to be called, to indicate the compassionate conservatism he was proposing.

  2. Is Bill being authentic with what some may view as his “ostentatious rejectionism?” If so, shouldn’t we embrace him? Aren’t we all for authenticity? Ah, but if authenticity detracts from our consumer experience, what then? 🙂

  3. Didn’t Phil Jackson lay claim to the bobo head coach like 20 years ago? The whole former hippy, the zen buddhism, the beard. And of course the championship Bulls and then the Lakers. In the the cult of authenticity then, Bill is just a poseur. (What a small strange clique it is which only has two members and so far apart.)

  4. Maybe it’s cold and there is a high chill factor. Hoods are nice when it’s cold.

    Obviously your friend Tom is the type of Academic who doesn’t like things. For such a type the television presents a never ending picture of things-not-to-like. Things to decry. Things to worry about. Things not to participate in.

    You, on the other hand Grant, like things. You like the dance, the spectacle, the carneval, så you are ready with a charitable interpretation.

    You are much more fun to read than Tom.

    By the way with European eyes – this guy Belichick – just looks like the typical Hollywood thug.

  5. Maybe Belichick just wants to be comfortable. Sunday, indoors in Indianapolis, he was wearing a team polo shirt, khakis and sneakers. In one picture, the shirt was partially untucked but that can happen when you are fiddling with the clunky communications gear these guys use. I can’t imagine that someone who spends as much time looking at video as a pro football coach does could be unaware of how he looks so Grant’s thesis is unconvincing. And I think I remember that the man was studiously under-dressed even early in his NE career so, if he is a poseur in the Phil Jackson genre, he acquired the style before he had the bona fides to justify the conceit. Or perhaps he’s way hipper than we can imagine, responding to the Friday post in his own way on Sunday to keep all the critics guessing.

  6. I have questions…
    Don’t true celebrities tend to define the style? Maybe others will soon emulate this look.
    what did he wear in the past. Is this a new thing, or has he always been an oddball in his clothing choices? (from the previous commenter, there appears to be a pattern here, for which the hoodie is just the latest manifestation)
    Functionally, there’s no question that this kind of garb helps you focus your attention. It’s the sartorial equivalent of headphones. Maybe he needs this sometimes.
    Could it just be that he wants to set himself apart in a psychological sense, to find his own path in the game. When we make a choice to be different in one thing, it helps us find different paths in other dimensions. Get your hair colored one week, and your eyes fixed the next. It might be hard to be just like everyone else in your clothing choices, and find the winning innovative edge in your coaching choices.
    I’m not a fan of the sport much, but I do enjoy watching the watchers.

  7. Sartorially, Belichick’s choice isn’t that divergent. Sure, on Sundays he dresses like your average cannabis-crazed fratboy, but the hoodie he favors isn’t any less functional than the typical golf shirt or windbreaker seemingly favored by all other NFL coaches. Like Bobby Knight’s break away from the suit-and-tie mold of college basketball coaches, Belichick’s hard-won success has given him a certain amount of “fuck you” latitude in his clothing choices. His sartorial expressions are merely a byproduct of considerable success. Maybe if Norv Turner would win some games, he could wear those biker shorts I hear he favors to a game !

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