How Two of The Best Coaches in Their Businesses Met and Now Benefit From One Another
By Kevin Heitz
If our moms were correct — and they always are, right? — we are often judged by who we associate with. For Dave Pietramala, that’s not a bad thing.
Hardly a day goes by that the 10-year Johns Hopkins lacrosse coach doesn’t reach out via text, phone call or e-mail to bounce thoughts and ideas off his friend. And that friend just happens to be New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Instead of “guilt by association,” with these two it’s more like “success by association” as they have forged a friendship that spans their personal and professional lives. * * *
When Johns Hopkins had a coaching vacancy to fill in 2000, there was only one candidate on the school’s list — a certain former Blue Jay most consider to be the greatest defensive player in the history of college lacrosse.
Pietramala was hired on June 8, less than five months after Belichick was named coach of the Patriots. Since then, the duo has racked up wins, records and accolades like its going out of style.
Pietramala won 106 games during his first nine seasons at Johns Hopkins, while Belichick won 116 during his first nine years in New England. And until the football season starts, the Blue Jays’ coach can boast that he is beating his buddy in the win column with 118 (as of May 6).
A two-time National Coach of the Year, Pietramala has never missed an NCAA tournament as coach of the Blue Jays, and he led Hopkins to national championships in 2005 and 2007. Belichick, named AP Coach of the Year three times, is the only coach in NFL history to win three Super Bowls during a four-year span.
In the end, it took more than one Malcolm Gladwell-like connector for this “odd couple” to come together a few years into their current jobs.
Former Patriots tight ends coach Pete Mangurian worked with Pietramala at Cornell before working with Belichick in New England. But perhaps more importantly, one of Belichick’s daughter’s friends worked for Pietramala as a student trainer and that may have been the true tipping point that brought them together.
“Really, I met him through her,” Belichick recalls.
“The first time I ever spoke with him, we spoke on the phone, and our conversation lasted almost an hour,” Pietramala said. “All I wanted to do was talk to him about his world, about the NFL, and about the draft, the season and preparations — how they do things. Interestingly enough for me, all he wanted to hear about was what we were doing — and lacrosse, our season, the challenges we were facing, games we played.
“I got off the phone, and I could not have been more taken aback at what a regular guy he was.”
That regular guy soon became a regular comrade of sorts.
They met in person in 2006. During one of their phone conversations before the initial face-to-face, Belichick asked Pietramala whether he was going to be at the lacrosse Final Four, and understood when the Hopkins coach was unable to go with his team sitting at home after a 9-5 season.
“So what about the All-American banquet?” Belichick asked. “You know, I’m the keynote speaker. Why don’t we catch up and maybe grab something to eat?”
When Pietramala saw Belichick at the banquet, the future Canton, Ohio, resident was obviously busy … “he had everybody wanting his time.” But afterward, they hopped in Pietramala’s truck and headed to a hotel restaurant — and it was as if they had been friends for years. They talked for hours, to the point that some of the dining room servers tried to shoo the pair away to close up shop for the night.
“They were about to throw us out,” Pietramala said. “The host came over and said: ‘No, you’re fine, coach. You guys are fine.’ So I said to coach, ‘Thanks for being here because if I was alone, they would have thrown me out.’
“We sat for almost three hours, just talking. There was never a pause. It was about lacrosse, it was about football … and ever since then, we stay in touch.”
Ask Bill Belichick why he loves lacrosse so much, and the answer is classically simple and straightforward: “Well, I grew up in Annapolis.”
“I played it from early elementary school on,” he said, “and I watched the great Navy teams in the ’60s. I just grew up with it.”
Like Minnesotans and hockey, or Texans and football, many Marylanders simply grow up with lacrosse sticks in their hands. Belichick was no different — except, of course, that his father, Steve, had a position as a coach at the Naval Academy, which did give young Belichick extra access to both football and lacrosse at an early age.
Steve Belichick, who played fullback for the Detroit Lions in 1941, was a scout and assistant coach at Navy for 33 years — and could be seen running the field house stairs well into his 80s. He died in 2005 at age 86, the night before his son coached the Patriots to a 24-17 win against the Saints with a heavy heart. In fact, Steve passed away just hours after watching Navy beat Temple, 38-17, in Annapolis that afternoon.
Growing up, Belichick played football and lacrosse at Annapolis High School, and is a member of the school’s Hall Of Fame — his first, but certainly not his last (he was inducted into Wesleyan University Athletics Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural class in 2008).
Belichick has admitted he “bleeds Navy blue and gold,” and he’s now a diehard Blue Jays fan, thanks to his friendship with Pietramala. But at the end of the day, he is simply a huge fan of lacrosse.
From those early days hanging around the Naval Academy athletic fields with his coaching dad to being considered one of the best NFL coaches in the game today, Belichick has never been far from a lacrosse field.
When he was an assistant coach with the Lions, he coached lacrosse at Detroit Country Day. When he was with the Broncos, he played for the Denver Lacrosse Club. And he has coached numerous youth teams when his children were younger — and has been a fan on the sideline for hundreds of faceoffs.
Pietramala is by no means the only lacrosse coach with whom Belichick has built a relationship.
Growing up in Annapolis, he was a rival on the lacrosse field with Delaware coach Bob Shillinglaw, who played at Severna Park. He has come to know Rutgers coach Jim Stagnitta during the past few years, because Belichick’s son just wrapped up his career with the Scarlet Knights.
The list goes on and on — and includes Notre Dame’s Kevin Corrigan, Hofstra’s Seth Tierney, Princeton’s Bill Tierney and, of course, former Navy coach Richie Meade (who resigned May 9).
“He grew up here when Navy was lacrosse,” said Meade, who when asked about “Coach Belichick” instantly thinks of Belichick’s father, Steve.
Belichick was in the Navy locker room in 2004, speaking to the Midshipmen as they prepared to play in the Final Four.
“He did a great job,” Meade said. “After he talked to the team, I turned to (then-assistant coach) John Tillman and said, ‘He said exactly what we would say, but he just said it better than us.’ “
Johns Hopkins’ campus is home to many things, but it is not where you expect to find a future Hall of Fame NFL coach. Yet, on rare occasions, you just might find Belichick there, maybe sporting a Hopkins hoodie instead of his classic New England rags.
Goalie Jesse Schwartzman was a key member of the Blue Jays’ 2007 national championship squad. But aside from hoisting the national championship trophy, one of Schwartzman’s greatest memories from that title season will no doubt be the day in April, as his team prepared to face Duke, when he took shots from none other than Bill Belichick.
“His shot was a little awkward,” Schwartzman told Mike Keegan of Inside Lacrosse, adding that the Super Bowl-winning coach played off the goal as if it was no big deal. Classic Belichick.
The power of a three-time Super Bowl-winning coach addressing a group of young lacrosse players, goofing around with them on the field and watching the games from the sideline can’t be understated. Unless, of course, you’re Belichick, who said simply, “It’s nice to stay close to the sport.”
Even during the NFL season, Belichick will always find time to talk about the other sport he loves. As his Patriots prepared to play the Ravens in September 2009, a good portion of a media conference call was spent discussing the differences between football and lacrosse.
“The difference between lacrosse and football is that at the end of each play, we get to go back in the huddle and get re-organized,” he said. “In lacrosse, the game never stops. … The game is a free-flowing game, so the decisions and the parameters you set up for your players to deal with are very interesting and in some ways, they’re a lot more complex than a game like football.”
The sports may be different, but similarities abound when comparing the coaching styles of Pietramala and Belichick — and it is those similarities that have helped forge their friendship and allowed the two teachers to learn from one another.
“We have a good appreciation for each other and what we’re going through,” Belichick said. “The ups and downs as a team — no matter what sport it’s in, you still go through the same things. We talk about a lot of those things.”
From their first phone calls to that three-hour dinner at the hotel restaurant in Philadelphia, Pietramala has always appreciated Belichick’s ability to listen and learn from others.
“Here’s this Hall of Fame coach with Super Bowl titles, and I was thinking: ‘Wow, this man wants to know what’s going on with us. He wants to know how we approach things philosophically,’ ” Pietramala said. “He’s always looking to learn and to improve. … He’s always looking for something to make himself and his team better.”
“He’s been great,” Belichick said of Pietramala. “I really have a lot of respect for what he does. Just being down there during the games with him, and in the locker room … watching the way he handles and prepares a team, I’ve learned a lot from that.
“He enjoys the practices, the film sessions, the meetings just as much as the game itself. That’s why he does such a great job with his team.”
This is a two-way friendship if ever there was one. They chat after most games, and can text with the best of them. Whenever he’s in the area, Belichick makes an effort to make it to Baltimore for some coachspeak with Pietramala.
The Blue Jays’ coaches have been up to Foxboro to watch the Patriots practice and even sit in on coaches meetings, an experience Pietramala called “unbelievable.” Each coach has addressed the other’s squad — and both were honored to be given the chance to reach across sports’ borders.
“Talk about exciting, to address those kinds of men,” Pietramala said. “The fact that he thinks enough of me to let me into their world, so it’s been really great.”
Talk to both of them and it’s clear that in the end their forged friendship is about much more than just coaching — and Pietramala has gotten to see the real Belichick, not the one portrayed (and maybe encouraged by the coach himself) by the media.
“He’s a man that a lot of people have a lot of opinions on,” Pietramala said. “He’s a very calculated guy. He doesn’t do anything by accident, and you cannot judge that book by its cover at all. There is so much more depth to him, not just as a coach, but as a man. … There’s so much more to Coach than people who don’t know him have any clue.
“He’s been a very loyal friend, and very supportive of Hopkins and of me. When times aren’t easy, he’s there to tell me to hang in there. You find out who your friends really are when things aren’t going well.
“What started out as two coaches has evolved into a really nice friendship. It’s been very enjoyable on both a personal and professional front.”
As Pietramala’s squad prepared for the final push of its 2011 national title run, there’s one Hopkins fan in New England rooting for the Blue Jays.
“They’re definitely improving, but they still have a long way to go,” Belichick said. “I think there’s probably five or six teams right now that could all challenge for the title. … We’ll see how it goes.”
There’s no doubt a few texts and calls have made their way from Baltimore to Foxboro during recent weeks, as Pietramala tried to keep his team focused on the task at hand — and got advice from somebody who knows a little about closing a postseason strong (one miracle N.Y. Giants catch aside).
“The challenge of keeping these guys grounded is exactly that, it’s a challenge,” Pietramala said of his team that rode a seven-game winning streak into the NCAA tournament. “The key isn’t to stay focused on winning. The key is to stay focused on improving. If we continue to improve, the rest will take care of itself. We have to focus on our daily behavior — how we act, how we practice, how hard we work. If we do those things the right way, the winning takes care of itself.”
So, if Hopkins continues its hot streak all the way to the Final Four, can Baltimoreans expect to see the Patriots coach among the thousands of lacrosse fans at M&T Bank Stadium on Memorial Day Weekend?
“Uh, yeah,” Belichick said. “You can count on that.”
Issue 161: May 2011