Legendary coaches: Patriots’ Belichick, Bears’ Halas have much more in common than 324 wins
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Andy Reid is on the other end of the telephone, sharing thoughts on Bill Belichick. His perspective is one few can provide.
“We probably downplay how you have to operate as a head coach in this league, especially us older ones. We don’t talk much about it,” he says.
“To be able to digest all that and be as productive as he is, and have the relationships he has with the players, is a phenomenal thing. We’re lucky to have him in this league, doing what he’s doing at this present time. You never take that for granted as guys get older.”
Reid, the 64-year-old Kansas City Chiefs coach, has carved out time to acknowledge the magnitude of what his close friend Belichick, 70, is on the cusp of accomplishing.
If Belichick’s New England Patriots beat the Chicago Bears on Monday night (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), Belichick will move past legendary Bears coach George Halas into sole possession of second place on the NFL’s all-time head-coaching wins list (regular season and postseason combined).
Entering Monday night, it’s Miami Dolphins legend Don Shula on top at 347, then Halas and Belichick at 324.
BELICHICK AND HALAS might be tied in victories, but they have commonalities beyond the win column.
Belichick’s ties to Halas came through his father, Steve, the longtime college football coach who knew some of the assistants on Halas’ staff in the 1950s and 1960s. Steve Belichick had also coached quarterback Bill Wade at Vanderbilt before Wade went on to play for Halas’ Bears, helping lead them to the 1963 NFL championship.
The Belichicks were based in Annapolis, Maryland, so when the Bears visited the Baltimore Colts, further connections were made.
“We would go to the locker room after the game. They were always very gracious and generous, let me hang around and stuff like that,” Belichick recalled. “I have a ton of respect for Coach Halas and the McCaskey family and what he did for professional football.”
Halas’ eldest child, Virginia, married Edward McCaskey in 1943 and became principal owner of the Bears upon Halas’ death in 1983.
Reid, fifth all time in wins at 257, carries a lot of respect for Halas too.
“He was one of the forefathers. He helped set the pace for what we have today,” he said of Halas, the late player, coach, owner and Hall of Famer nicknamed “Papa Bear.”
“That’s the part I respect the most. He did it for so many years and had the energy to do it, still raising a family and doing all the things you need to do as a dad, coach, owner, general manager, president. And he played the game on top of that. I have the utmost respect for the things he did, and particularly the foundation he helped lay for all of us today.”
When Belichick shared his recollections of Halas following the Patriots’ 38-15 victory over the Browns last Sunday in Cleveland, given the location, he included former Browns and Bengals coach Paul Brown (15th in all-time wins).
“I probably shouldn’t make that list. They were my idols,” Belichick said.
“What [Halas] did for professional football, and Paul Brown and others like that who paved the way for us as coaches and paved the way for the National Football League to grow into what it is today, they laid a lot of the building blocks.”
HALAS’ LEGACY WITH the Bears is still evident during each of their games. The left sleeve of the team’s uniform includes the initials “GSH” — for George Stanley Halas — a reflection of his status as founder of the franchise in 1920 when they were initially known as the Decatur Staleys.
In all, he won six NFL championships and coached the Bears for 40 seasons, although they weren’t consecutive. He stepped away three times: 1930-32, 1942-45 (to serve in the military during World War II) and 1956-57.
Ed Stone was the Bears beat reporter at the Chicago’s American — the afternoon newspaper of the Chicago Tribune — and covered the start of the 1963 season that delivered Halas’ final title.
“He was a very tough coach. He was very meticulous in everything he did in his preparation for the team,” Stone, now 89, told ESPN.
“He was not an outspoken man. At his personal appearances, he was often reluctant to speak. Our newspaper had a Bears event every so often, and he would usually send an assistant coach instead of himself. But he could be very different personally than he was as a coach; I would say he was a much nicer, gentler person off the field than he was on it.”
Sounds similar to the coach currently stalking the sideline in New England who, like Halas, has won six championships as a head coach.
“He’s got a great personality, which people don’t see,” Reid said of Belichick, who is in his 48th consecutive season coaching in the NFL. “Good sense of humor. Very witty. I think everyone knows he’s very intelligent, but he’s well-rounded in that area, it’s not just football.
“He does a tremendous amount for people, whether it’s ex-players or helping out with the different people he knows, giving them things they need in their profession to be successful. He’s a giving person that way. I love the guy for what he is.”
HERE’S ANOTHER STRIKING similarity: As coach of the Bears, Halas was fiercely protective of any information that could compromise competitive advantage — from injuries to transactions.
“Whenever there was a cutdown of personnel earlier in the season, when rosters had to be reduced, he was very secretive about that,” Stone said. “When you would ask him questions about it, he’d say, ‘That’s private information and you shouldn’t be doing anything that would interfere with the operation of the team.’
“He was very secretive about his practices, didn’t like anybody to know what they were planning.”
In his 23 seasons as Patriots coach, Belichick has often closely followed a Halas-type script. The Patriots are traditionally one of the last teams to announce the initial 53-man roster, not giving other clubs the information before it’s required. Ditto for the injury report and transactions such as elevating a practice-squad player to the game-day roster.
And as for Belichick’s news conferences, Halas would likely be proud, considering Stone’s recollections of what it was like covering the Bears.
“He was a very interesting guy with the press, in that he would be, in his mind, very cooperative. But the local writers understood they weren’t going to get much from him,” Stone said.
“When he would get out-of-town writers around him, I can remember them holding their pens above their pads of paper and not writing anything down because he wasn’t saying anything they could use. But he would occupy their time and entertain them for a period of time.”
ROSTER MANAGEMENT AND innovation proved to be a key to Belichick’s and Halas’ success, too.
Don Pierson started working at the Chicago Tribune in 1967, which was Halas’ final season as coach. Thus, his coverage of the Bears was mostly when Halas, who died in 1983, was focusing on his front-office and ownership duties. Through that experience and talking to Halas about his coaching career, Pierson sees a link between Halas and Belichick in terms of how their teams were run.
“Belichick is not the owner, he doesn’t have the title of general manager, but I’m sure pretty much what he says goes. Of course, Halas, that would be similar. Very autocratic,” he said, before sharing another connection in how they built their teams.
“[Halas] was able to control his roster probably better than anyone else in the league at that time to find the players he wanted. He would trade away players to Pittsburgh — they’d be on loan — and a couple years later they’d be back. That sort of thing.
“The other thing that characterized his coaching is that he hired very good assistants and allowed them to coach. He hired the guy [Clark Shaughnessy] who practically invented the T formation with men in motion. So very innovative in that regard.”
Belichick’s innovation is well documented, with examples including a heavy emphasis on “situational football,” defensive spacing and positional versatility, among other things. As is his knack for building an annually competitive roster — usually with a strong middle class of players at midrange salaries — despite restrictions from a salary cap designed to create leaguewide parity.
Jerod Mayo played for Belichick from 2008 to 2014 and is in his fourth season serving as an assistant coach on his staff. Acknowledging that any coach needs good players to win games, Mayo highlighted why he believes Belichick is about to surpass Halas.
“One thing about Coach is his willingness to evolve,” he said. “His willingness to take advice from different people. It doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum — young, old, Black, white. He takes all those things into consideration, and when you do that, you kind of minimize your blind spots. He has people around him who will tell him the truth.”
ON THE DAY he tied Halas on the all-time wins list, Belichick deflected credit to the players, from his days as a rising assistant coach with the New York Giants, beginning in 1979, to his first head-coaching job, with the Cleveland Browns (1991-95), to becoming the Patriots’ head coach in 2000. He also noted the work of assistant coaches on his staff.
By the following day, he was done addressing the milestone. When a radio host congratulated him and asked what it meant to him, Belichick said, “This game isn’t about me, it’s about our team. Time to move off that subject. We’ve talked enough about it.”
Reid, in his 31st consecutive season as an NFL coach, understands that mindset.
Asked how much he senses the achievement means to Belichick, he said, “I don’t know that, because he doesn’t talk about that. You start counting numbers, coaches don’t do that, especially ones that have been around long enough to have NFL scar tissue. You just take the next one and go for it.
“People talk, you hear those things. So he probably thinks about it, but probably not for very long, and gets on with trying to get the next win, which is extremely hard in this league.”
Stone surmises that’s precisely how Halas would have approached his record. Halas had a sizable edge by the time he retired in 1967, his 324 wins well ahead of Green Bay Packers legend Curly Lambeau’s 229. Halas’ record was broken by Shula in 1993, with Dolphins players carrying him off the field and Shula saying, “It was very emotional, and at the same time, I’m glad it’s over.”
The record wasn’t a hot topic between reporters and Halas.
“I never discussed it with him, and I don’t know if he was that concerned about it. My feeling is that he was probably just concerned about the next game they played,” Stone said of Halas.
“That [record] wasn’t part of his ego.”
For Belichick this week, that means he’s “on to Chicago.”
But those who walk in his coaching shoes and admire his place among the game’s coaching legends are happy to recognize what he’s on the cusp of accomplishing.
“It’s an amazing number,” Reid said. “It’s so well deserved, for the effort he puts in. He’s a relentless worker. I can see how it’s been done because he’s a heck of a football coach.”