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:
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.