‘A student of everything’: What a 26-year-old Bill Belichick learned as a Broncos assistant

  • Covered Broncos for nine years for Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News
  • Previously covered Steelers, Bills and Titans
  • Member of Pro Football Hall of Fame Board
    of Selectors since 1999

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In 1978, a 26-year-old aspiring football coach walked into a rather nondescript tan building on the city’s north side to start a job with the Denver Broncos.

Bill Belichick has called his one season in Denver a “tremendous experience” filled with lessons he still uses today, with eight Super Bowl wins on his résumé, six as the New England Patriots coach.

“I loved working for the Broncos in ’78,” Belichick said.

The Broncos will be in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) to face the now 68-year-old Belichick in a rescheduled game. Belichick’s six titles in the era of free agency and the salary cap, his .685 winning percentage, the 30-11 postseason record in New England, is unparalleled. And that solitary year in Denver had significant impact on his extensive body of work.

Back in 1978, then-Broncos coach Red Miller put Belichick in defensive coordinator Joe Collier’s care. Collier gave Belichick a variety of entry-level jobs, including arduous film breakdown long before digital video made sorting things like third downs and red zone plays just a couple of clicks away.

Belichick made it clear from his first day he was going to soak it all in: every piece of information, every moment, every conversation, with an ever-present notepad in hand and an unwavering eye on the future.

“He wasn’t about chatting people up. Some guys want to interact with the players, be a part of the players’ conversations and all of that,” said Broncos Ring of Fame cornerback Louis Wright, one of five Pro Bowl players the Broncos had on defense that season. “He was all ‘Just do your job’ about his job. And I loved that. He wasn’t just looking around at practice, talking to whoever was closest to him. Every time I saw Bill Belichick that year he was writing something down in a notebook I always saw in his hands. And I mean every time. He was always taking notes, writing, always writing. That man wasted no time.”

John Beake, who was the Broncos’ general manager from 1984 to 1998, shared a cramped office with Belichick, desks facing each other, with a window that faced not outside but the door of the locker room instead.

“We spent our days looking at each other, but I’ll tell you what, that office wasn’t big enough for his six Super Bowl trophies, let’s put it that way,” Beake said.

Belichick, told of Beake’s description of his former office space, laughed and said, “It’s actually eight, got a couple from the Giants too, but it was tight, it was tight. I learned an awful lot there.”

“He was a serious worker,” Beake said. “He did coaching things, he did film breakdown, he worked with the defense, special teams. And I’m not sure I ever went in at any hour when he wasn’t there. The building would be empty and he would be there. A serious young man who was a student of everything he was doing and I think everything centered around learning whatever he could from Joe Collier and those defensive coaches. I’d guess it paid off.”

“There’s no question,” Wright said. “I’m not sure anyone was ever really told specifically what he was doing, what his specific duties were, but he was always there, a serious man with a serious plan. And I’m going to say something, and people will say I’m biased, but Joe Collier is one of the greatest defensive minds football has ever known, and Bill knew that then and knows it now. I can watch the Patriots do some things on defense right now, especially in the red zone, on the goal line, and hear Joe Collier’s voice making that call in a meeting.”

Through the years, Belichick has often credited Collier with showing him coveted nuances in the 3-4 defense Belichick has used throughout his career. The Broncos’ Orange Crush defense, with Collier making the calls and players like Wright, Tom Jackson, Randy Gradishar, Barney Chavous, Rubin Carter and Billy Thompson on the field over four decades ago, bring back vivid memories for Belichick, who spoke of the 1978 season this month.

Belichick quickly rolled through the names of all 11 starters, as well as all of the defensive assistants, like Stan Jones, Richie McCabe and Bob Zeman. Collier said he entrusted Belichick with much of the defensive film breakdowns and that Belichick spent the most time on the field and in meetings with McCabe, who was the Broncos’ secondary coach.

“He was well-versed — he was really sharp when he got to us,” said Collier, who still resides in the Denver area. “Way ahead of another 20-something-year-old coach working to get into the business. And at the time, the thing I liked best was I could beat him at racquetball. I’m kidding, but you knew then he was going to win, be successful. You did. He just had that way, the way he approached things, dissected them, even then.”

Jim Saccomano, the Broncos’ longtime vice president of public relations for almost four decades, was Belichick’s roommate on some road trips. And Saccomano also remembers a quiet young coach who always appeared to have a plan.

“[Now] that building is a computer, cyber security company, and they’ve been kind enough to let me come in and look, but that office is still there,” Saccomano said. “But I would say all of our minds are going all the time. We’re all thinking about stuff, and sometimes when people look at us they can tell we’re thinking about stuff. I never had a moment when I didn’t think he was thinking about stuff. And now all these years later we can see, we all know, what he was thinking about.”

The Broncos finished 10-6 that season, with the league’s No. 2 scoring defense — just two-tenths of a point per game behind the Steelers’ fabled Steel Curtain defense — and they lost in the divisional round of the playoffs that year to a Pittsburgh team that went on to win Super Bowl XIII over the Dallas Cowboys.

Belichick moved on to the New York Giants in 1979, the start of his 11 years with that team, a run that included two Super Bowl wins as the Giants’ defensive coordinator.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back on it, having an appreciation for how Joe [Collier], and Richie [McCabe] and the rest of the coaches who put that [defensive] group together,” Belichick said, “how consistently they played, it wasn’t just game to game, honestly. It was play to play, and even in practice. They didn’t make a lot of mistakes. They were very disciplined, good fundamentals. … They took a lot of pride in their responsibility in their role.”

Asked if there are any specific coaching items he put in those notebooks he carried around that year that he still uses 42 years later, Belichick said:

“I learned so much about coaching the secondary from coach McCabe. I learned to see the game through the eyes of Joe Collier, and Joe, how he had me break it down for him, I could see how he looked at it as a defensive coach, it was valuable. … Joe was very skilled at analyzing offenses and what they did and how they did it. He could anticipate very well. He did an excellent job of setting that up.

“Another thing I thought Joe was ahead of the game on was red area defense, and he had some, at that time, I thought very unique and ahead-of-the-curve coaching points and adjustments in the red area that you didn’t see much — that really helped me understand that part of the game and how innovative and creative it was. … That was a great learning experience.”

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