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Legacy of Bill Belichick's father lives on at the Naval Academy

Bill BelichickFootballNFLNew England PatriotsUnited States Naval AcademyGreen Bay Packers

The story has been told many times over the past three decades, as Bill Belichick went from being an up-and-coming defensive coordinator in the NFL to an unsuccessful first-time head coach with the Cleveland Browns to eventually becoming one of the most accomplished coaches in league history.

No matter where and how Belichick's story unfolds, it always begins in Annapolis.

It also begins with his father, Steve, a college football coach who moved the family there from North Carolina to work at the Naval Academy in 1956. He spent 33years as an assistant coach and scout for the Midshipmen, then worked as an instructor in the physical education department. After he retired, the elder Belichick was a regular visitor to the press box at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium until his death in 2005 at age 86.

If the now-60-year-old Bill Belichick is widely respected for what he has done in his 13 seasons with the New England Patriots, who will play the Ravens in Sunday night's AFC championship game in Foxborough, Mass., Steve Belichick is still revered by those he touched at a place where he found what might be called relatively anonymous bliss.

"Evidently he found his niche, he liked it and he perfected it," former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf said last week. "He wasn't always working with the premier athletes in the nation on the football field, but he was working with guys with an exceptional ability to comprehend what he was talking about. … I can't tell you the respect I have for that man."

Said Bob Kuberski, a former NFL lineman who came to Navy as Belichick's coaching career was ending, "He really only did it in anonymity because of the stage he coached on."

There was always something a little mysterious about Steve Belichick, even at Navy. Kuberski recalled seeing him working with the kickers and punters during most practices. Kuberski wasn't quite sure who he was during his first two years, when he hardly played. Others were never certain whether Belichick was a full-time coach or primarily a scout who had one major assignment each season — devising the game plan to beat Army.

George Welsh, who coached Navy for nine years before going to Virginia in 1982, said that he thought the idea of scouting Army nearly every week was "a waste of time" and hired Belichick as his linebackers coach. But Belichick continued to spend his Saturday afternoons scouting Navy's upcoming opponents.

"Before you had all this video and all that, he would go to the games and come back with a very thorough scouting report," Welsh recalled Wednesday. "When I was on duty there in 1960 and 1961 and helping out the football team, he scouted Army eight of nine or nine out of 10. That's how important it was. But that didn't make much sense to me."

Wolf first met Belichick when he went to Annapolis to scout Kuberski, whom he later drafted for the Green Bay Packers.

"My first reaction was, 'Holy smoke! This guy has forgotten more than I know," Wolf recalled. "The game of football was very important to him, the structure of the game. How you did certain things … just the simple skill of snapping, how he developed players in that regard."

Wolf said Steve Belichick could have coached "on any level" but seemed to have a special affinity for the Naval Academy. He had gone there to join the staff of head coach Eddie Erdelatz and would coach under six others, finishing with Elliot Uzelac in 1989. He taught physical education for a number of years but still helped by working with special teams in practice.

"Steve Belichick was the institutional memory of football here," said longtime Navy track and cross country coach Al Cantello, who first met Belichick when he came to the academy in 1963 and worked directly across the hall from him at Halsey Field House for more than a decade. "Head coaches would come and go, and Steve would be kind of the senior guy in terms of breaking the new coach in."

One of his closest friends was J.O. "Bo" Coppedge, who was on Erdelatz's staff the year Belichick came to Navy from North Carolina and, after leaving coaching to become a submarine commander, returned to become the school's athletic director from 1968 to 1988.

"They were joined at the hip," Cantello recalled. "When Coppedge became the first civilian athletic director, he leaned on Belichick's expertise big-time. I wouldn't be surprised if Belichick had a big hand in selecting the [football] coaches here."

Coppedge, who died last month, was not alone in using Belichick as a sounding board. Scores of college coaches, as well NFL coaches and general managers, seemed to find their way to Annapolis to take a little of Belichick's insight back with them to their teams.

After Wolf retired and moved to Maryland, he would spend many of his Saturday afternoons in the Navy press box sitting next to Belichick, talking football.

"He emphasized the most critical areas," Wolf said. "He could tell you who was a player and who wasn't a player."

When Belichick died, the memorial service at the academy chapel included many prominent former players, NFL coaches and executives.

"It was like Toots Shor's," Cantello said, referring to the old New York City restaurant where famous sports stars in the 1950s and 1960s gathered.

Belichick's widow, Jeannette, is still living in Annapolis, but was not available to comment.

Wolf's friendship with Belichick continued right up until Belichick's death. Wolf said he was supposed to have lunch with Belichick a few days after he died. The details of the game were not the only things Belichick imparted.

Shortly after he moved to Annapolis in 2001, Wolf received a long list from the old coach.

"Places to go eat, places to get my hair cut, bank, he even sent me the address of where to get my license changed," Wolf said. "I would say there were 25 places for me to check out. It was very thorough and very helpful."

The personality Welsh sees the younger Belichick display with his monosyllabic answers is much different from what he remembers from his former assistant and trusted aide.

"Very gregarious and very likable," Welsh recalled.

Others have said over the years that the younger Belichick is much like his father. Kuberski, who credits the elder Belichick for helping him get noticed by NFL scouts and coaches, including his son, believes that the Patriots coach would love the anonymity that his father once had.

Though he doesn't know the Patriots' coach, Wolf said: "There's an old saying, 'The [apple] doesn't fall to far from the tree,' and that would apply here. … [Steve] was just like his son, exceptional attention to detail, devotion to detail. There was no shortcut. There was one way to do it, and that's the way it was done."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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    Bill BelichickFootballNFLNew England PatriotsUnited States Naval AcademyGreen Bay Packers
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