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James T. KeaneJanuary 12, 2024
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, center, stands in front of team owner Robert Kraft, left, and Jon Bon Jovi, right, prior to an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

A former editor in chief of America, Joseph O’Hare, S.J., used to entertain the troops with an aphorism about fame. Father O’Hare, who died in 2020, was also president of Fordham University for 19 years and a well-known figure in New York City. He called his theory of fame “The Four Lives of Joe O’Hare.”

It begins, he said, with people saying “Who is Joe O’Hare?” Then one day they say “Get me Joe O’Hare!” A few years later, they say “Get me the next Joe O’Hare!” Then, soon enough, you hear it again: “Who is Joe O’Hare?”

That what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality also affects the National Football League, where the conquering hero of one era is often enough the pensioned-off scapegoat of the next. Football fans saw a version of this transition earlier this week when the New England Patriots parted ways with their legendary head coach, Bill Belichick.

The conquering hero of one era is often enough the pensioned-off scapegoat of the next.

Yes, that Belichick. He of the six Super Bowl rings and 302 regular season victories; he of the sleeveless hoodies and the I’ll-give-you-something-to-cry-about dadface; he who has coached the New England Patriots for 24 years, who is famous for his desire to win and infamous for doing anything to do so. He’s been shown the door, and the Pats’ front office is now shouting: “Get me the next Bill Belichick!”

Belichick is not the only big-time coach cleaning out his office this week, however. After 14 years with the Seattle Seahawks, Pete Carroll is also turning in his clipboard; and the University of Alabama’s Nick Saban is retiring after 17 years there and a lifetime in other coaching jobs. That’s a lot of generational wisdom leaving pro football (well, Alabama is technically an amateur squad, right, haha) all at once.

The continuity a long-lasting coach provides is more important these days in the N.F.L. now that players are more likely to switch teams. While football players don’t move around as much as baseball players—and nowhere near as often as basketball players—free agency and non-guaranteed contracts have made them far more mobile (for better and for worse) than previous generations of players. As a result, the coach on the sideline (who is never in a helmet) is often the most consistently recognizable face of the team.

Think of it this way: You know what Tom Brady looks like. But if you live anywhere outside of New England, would you know who Teddy Bruschi was if he passed you on the street? Wes Welker? Willie McGinest? But somehow everyone recognizes that Belichick scowl.

You know what Tom Brady looks like. But if you live anywhere outside of New England, would you know Teddy Bruschi if he passed you on the street?

I was just a kid when Jerry Jones fired Tom Landry, but like all holy men and women Dallas Cowboys fans, I remember it like it was yesterday. Landry had been the Cowboys’ head coach for their entire existence when Jones bought the team in 1989, and he had taken the team to five Super Bowls and 20 consecutive winning seasons before things went bad in the late 1980s. Like Belichick, his was an unforgettable face, in part because of his trademark fedora—but also because he was coach of the Cowboys for 29 years.

Ditto for Don Shula, who coached the Miami Dolphins for 33 years, or Vince Lombardi, the former Green Bay Packers coaching legend whose face and name are known to millions. These coaches are more famous than anyone who played for them, even athletes in the Hall of Fame.

Catholics understand this instinctively: Pope Francis is the head coach. He has more than 100 cardinal assistant coaches, a vast array of scouts, a somewhat aging veteran offensive line and a seemingly endless pipeline of recruits. Still, when push comes to shove, The New York Times (and America Media, who are we kidding) titles the story “POPE DECREES X” or “POPE FRANCIS CHANGES Y.” The pope stands for the organization by synecdoche and by tradition.

If you actually work for the church, though, you realize that no organization can exist off the energy, genius or inspiration of one leader. It’s not all that different from football: The grunts out on the field make the big plays and win the games. I love Pope Francis, but I know that the Holy Spirit works through the billion-plus other members of Team Catholic Church on Any Given Sunday.

So maybe we are putting too much on the mojo of the head coach in giving credit for running a successful football program. I mean, Belichick did have Tom Brady. And Landry did have Dandy Don Meredith and Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett and Randy White and Ed “Too Tall” Jones. Just because the players are more expendable—the average N.F.L. career lasts 3.3 years—doesn’t mean they can’t be the real genius behind the play-calling and strategy.

An example: Tony Romo had a decent, sometimes-excellent career as a quarterback with the Cowboys. But he never went to a Super Bowl, and he’ll never make the Hall of Fame. After he retired, Romo entered the announcing booth—and proved to be such a football genius people thought the N.F.L. might be feeding him the plays in advance. “Tony Romo Is Practicing Witchcraft in the CBS Broadcast Booth,” argued one sports website. 

How does Romo do it? He can read a defense. He can evaluate the relative abilities, health and matchups of receivers, and do the same for a quarterback. He can get into the mind of a defensive coordinator and suss out his weaknesses and worries. Just like a great head coach. Except one that got slammed to the turf a dozen times a game and had to retire at 37 with a ruined back.

Not all N.F.L. players have what it takes, of course; an opponent of 1970s legend and Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw once famously quipped that Bradshaw was “so dumb, he couldn’t spell ‘cat’ if you spotted him a C and an A.” And there’s more to coaching than gametime smarts, of course: A good coach also motivates the team, keeps relationships even-keeled and attracts players and other coaches to the organization. But it’s worth remembering that it is not always about the head coach, in football or anywhere else.

If someday Pope Francis hangs up the white cassock, we’ll survive with the next head coach. Though a papal sleeveless hoodie would be something…

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