For a while on Super Bowl Sunday, you felt like you could actually justify owning a television set — even one of those monsters with a screen the size of a dinner table and a sound system that will make the foundation of your house tremble. This game was actually that good — better than the ads, for a change. Super Bowl LXII’s matchup between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants proved to be an epic of old-fashioned, hard-nosed NFL action. Or what the legendary Texas football coach Darrell Royal once called “some snot-knocking in the okra.”
If you don’t understand that phrase, or have never heard of Coach Royal, that would be a shame. There was a time, you see, when football coaches — many of them, anyway — were engaging men who could laugh at their (and our) obsession with the game.
You had men like Michigan State’s coach, Duffy Dougherty — who once said, “The alumni are with you, win or tie.”
John McKay coached both perennial college powerhouse USC and those habitual NFL losers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When asked in Tampa about the “execution of his offense,” McKay said he thought it was “a good idea.” And when a reporter wondered if it was wise to let his star USC running back carry the ball 40 times per game, McKay quipped, “Why not? He doesn’t belong to a union — and besides, it’s not that heavy.”
Then there was “Bum” Phillips, who coached for the NFL’s Houston Oilers and then took the job with the New Orleans Saints when that amounted to a death sentence. “I’ve always said that there are two kinds of coaches,” Phillips once observed. “Them that’s fired and them that’s about to get fired.”
The great ones knew how to put a bad loss, or even a bad season, in perspective. “We didn’t tackle well today, but we made up for it by not blocking,” McKay said after one tough defeat. And the incomparable Royal put it this way after his Texas team lost a big one, “They cut us up like boarding house pie. And that’s real small pieces.”
Then, there is Bill Belichick.
Before his team had even officially lost to the Giants on Sunday, Belichick had left the field. True, there was only one second left, and the inevitable kneel-down was coming. And it’s also true that Belichick had given Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin a quick hug and handshake when everyone thought the game was over — before the refs put that lone second back on the clock, requiring one last Giants’ snap. Still, the game wasn’t over: 11 Patriot players had to go back on the field to await the final nail in their perfect season’s coffin. And Bill Belichick had taken a powder. So much for teamwork.
Given an opportunity to exhibit a little wit and generosity of spirit at the press conference after his team’s crushing Super Bowl loss, Belichick — as usual — came on surly and petulant. But, then, this is his style — win or lose. He explained the astonishing upset of his Patriot team with these words: “I mean … look, they played well. They made some plays. We made some plays. In the end, they made a couple more than we did.”
Not only was he not even trying. He made sure everyone knew he wasn’t trying. It’s one thing to lack wit and grace. It’s quite another to feel contempt for them.
The world of sports is full of examples of apt words in defeat. After a fight in which he’d been cut up badly by Gene Tunney, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey answered his wife’s question, “Oh, Jack, what happened?” by saying, immortally, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Ronald Reagan used the same phrase with Nancy after he’d been shot by John Hinckley. And why not? The line is irresistible.
Belichick, as some sports fans have pointed out, is football’s Richard Nixon: intelligent, focused, driven, humorless, and borderline paranoid. Maybe not even “borderline.” He is enormously successful at his craft, but seems to gain no particular joy from the success. He does what he does out of compulsion and is the antithesis of the “happy warrior.”
With Belichick, as with Nixon, we see the urge to cheat even when there isn’t any need. Without Watergate, Nixon could still have beaten George McGovern by four touchdowns without ever leaving the White House. And Belichick felt the need to film the Jets’ defensive signals so that his staff could identify them later. The Patriots, with all-world talents Randy Moss and Tom Brady, could have spotted the Jets Ohio and Florida and still won by 300 electoral votes.