A brief site note: as anybody could tell you, and as I fully recognize, “Residual Prolixity” is somewhat of an odd name for a football blog. The phrase actually comes from the acknowledgments section of Bruce Schneier’s Beyond Fear, though I see from a Google Books search he also used it in the previous Secrets and Lies as well. This sense of leftover words was actually why I started ResPro in the first place-to fit posts that for some reason or another I didn’t feel fit as well on the site where I was doing my primary blogging at the time, and where I still do my non-sports blogging (primarily link-posting, and no I’m not linking to it-There’s No Politics In Football). As I realized that I wanted to do more football blogging, I knew I needed a separate home and had already started using this place a little, so I decided to excise the non-football content that was here and import the football posts I’d put up on the other blog.
Relevantly for this post, this includes the book reviews. On the other site, I got to the point where I’d do a post listing all the books I’d read in a month, giving maybe three sentences on each and not necessarily even that much. If you compare one of my older book reviews, like The Blind Side, it’s a little embarrassing to compare it to something with a little more detail like my recent review for The Billion Dollar Game. The “review” I dislike the most is that for Halberstam’s The Education of a Coach-while I find both at least somewhat tiresome, Halberstam and Belichick both deserve a more thoughtful treatment than that, and the key role of Ernie Adams in Halberstam’s research for the book in particular made me want to revisit it (see also the ESPN piece on Adams if you haven’t read it, and HT to Northwestern alum Darren Rovell for the first link).
Now, having re-read the book, I stand by the judgment of my initial review-it’s a well done journalistic biography. I’m not big into Belichickiana, but I don’t believe there are any deep insights here-given its semi-authorized status, that’s a little disappointing, but this was Halberstam’s first (and only) book about football. Also, as with many other journalistic biographies, the author’s critical faculties are by default set to the “Off” position. Still, there were a couple things I picked up on the re-read that are probably worth mentioning:
One of the great questions is whether football games are won or lost. That’s a particularly acute question for Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots’ first Super Bowl win when they upset the Rams. The “consensus” (endorsed by Jaws) cited by Halberstam is that Belichick put together a brilliant gameplan to shut down the Rams’ offense. The flipside of that is that Rams coach Mike Martz’s absolute hubris and unwillingness to adapt to the objective conditions of the Patriots’ defense. A nice analogy could have been made to Halberstam’s own The Best and the Brightest, about the Vietnam-era policymakers’ own similar unwillingness to abandon their own failed ideas about how things should be working and react to how things were working.
There’s a sort of Malcolm Gladwell Outliers sense of Belichick’s success. Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” was something Belichick hit early, simply because his father was a scout who let his son watch games and tape and attend team meetings with him.
Another problem with this genre of biography is it’s too easy to read the subject’s traits as having been formed by past experiences even if there’s not necessarily any connection. For example, Belichick was born in Nashville while his father was an assistant coach at Vanderbilt. Despite enjoying a reasonable amount of success (for Vanderbilt), the coaching staff was fired, in part because the lead sports columnist didn’t think the coaching staff set the right image for a proper school such as Vanderbilt (including giving said columnist all the scoops instead of talking to both newspapers). Ergo, Belichick distrusts the media and sees them as being on the other side. Halberstam isn’t quite so explicit as that, but there doesn’t seem to be much point in the anecdote about Steve Belichick’s firing unless there’s a connection to the son’s makeup.
Belichick spent a year post-high school graduation at Phillips Andover to improve his college chances. Classmates there included not just the aforementioned Ernie Adams, who we know has been important to Belichick’s life, but also Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Lincoln Chaffee, journalist Buzz Bissinger, and I’m sure other offspring of the famous and the powerful. Have any of these people, or other Andover alumni, played a role in Belichick’s career? If they did, there’s been no sign of it. This was probably an important experience from Belichick’s life-going away, and a big change from Annapolis H.S.
One of the more celebrated moments of Belichick’s media fight has been his feud with ESPN after Tom Jackson declared after 2003’s opening 31-0 loss to the Bills that the locker room hated him. As it so happens, Belichick was a low level defensive assistant in Denver in the late 70’s when Jackson was a linebacker for the Broncos. I’m sure they at least knew who each other was back then, but what was their relationship like? Was there bad blood between them?
One of the things that Belichick exploited in his gameplan for SBXXV for the Giants was that Bills’ QB Jim Kelly had trouble reading defenses. Not something I’d heard before, and I thought it was interesting.
Halberstam completely buys into the myth about how Drew Henson came along and completely displaced Tom Brady at Michigan. It’s quite true that Henson was a VHT (very highly touted prospect), to use Phil Steele‘s lingo, but Halberstam writes that “some of the coaches” preferred Brady over Henson. It just so happens that Halberstam doesn’t disclose that the “some of the coaches” who preferred Brady over Henson happened to include the ones who decided which QB played. Compare Brady‘s numbers to Henson‘s. They overlapped for 2 years. In 1998, Brady threw 350 passes while Henson threw 47. 1999, Brady 341, Henson 90. As this Michigan guy points out, Brady started every game those two seasons, and everybody considered him the #1 quarterback. Henson had 1 game where he played a lot, and that was it. Halberstam also claims that Brady first started as a 3rd year sophomore and implies that he come out early because of Henson, but the career statistics make it clear that Brady had played in 1996 and 1997 and was therefore a junior eligibility-wise in 1998 and came out for the NFL Draft after having exhausted his college eligibility. The real Tom Brady at Michigan story is a pretty simple one: he was a two-year starter at Michigan and was drafted in the 6th round because NFL teams didn’t think he would be that good an NFL quarterback.
One final word of caution, Education lacks an index. I could see that in Billion Dollar Game, but Halberstam generally has pretensions to seriousness, deserved (Best and the Brightest) or not (War in a Time of Peace). He does at least include a list of some of the books he thought were most useful.
As to whether or not you should read Education, it is reasonably interesting and it’s a pretty quick read. It’s not a great book, but if you don’t know much about Belichick it’s reasonably informative. Plus, Halberstam is generally a good journalist, so it’s better written than most football books.
UPDATE (4/20/09 2156 CT): Made some minor revisions and fixed some typo-type stuff I would’ve fixed earlier if I bothered to actually read my posts before posting them. Yay, blogging.