The Patriots might be playing the Rams this Sunday.
But they are populated by GOATs.
Between now and Sunday you’ll see, hear and watch plenty about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who just may be the greatest to do what they do in the game’s history, quarterbacking and coaching themselves into a rarefied place occupied by only the best of the best, the elite of the elite.
Though it’s hard to compare Brady’s greatness with others in other sports, it’s actually quite fun to do that with Belichick, and that’s what we’ve tried to determine here: where does Belichick rank among the greatest who have ever had a whistle around their neck, a rolled-up program in their hands or a lineup card in their back pocket?
There are a number of names worthy of inclusion, starting with Geno Auriemma (1,045-137 with the UConn women’s basketball team, 11 NCAA titles), Bob Hurley Sr. (1,184-125 in 45 years at St. Anthony High School), Eddie Robinson (408-165-15 in 57 years coaching football at Grambling), Pat Summitt (1,098-208 in 39 years at Tennessee, 8 NCAA titles) and John J. McGraw (2,763-1,948 and three World Series wins), among many others.
We whittled our list to 10 for final consideration and here they are, in alphabetical order (winning percentages include playoff records):
Red Auerbach, pro basketball
(Washington Capitols, Tri-Cities Hawks, Celtics)
1,037-547 (.653). 9 championships
Serby: All this genius did was trade for Bill Russell, win 938 regular-season games and nine NBA titles in 10 years — including eight in a row — and antagonize foes by smoking a victory cigar at his leisure. They were the fast-breaking Patriots of the sport, the Team of Teams from 1956-66.
Vaccaro: It’s easy to forget that Auerbach didn’t simply hand the ball to Russell and Cousy and sit back quietly: the great Celtics team all but invented the fast break, and ball-hawking defense, and that stemmed from the imagination of their coach. They were also a beacon of social progress in a slow-to-change NBA, incorporating African-Americans as key elements of their championship core, a lasting tribute to Auerbach’s vision.
Bill Belichick, pro football
291-134 (.685). Five championships
Vaccaro: It’s almost impossible to fathom what the Patriots have become, a team that defies modern limitations and hearkens to a time when dynasties — Yankees, Celtics, Canadiens — were not only possible, but real. What he has created in Foxborough will neither be duplicated nor replicated anywhere. When he goes, he takes the last of all true dynasties with him.
Serby: Because of Spygate, the Lombardi Trophy never will be renamed the Belichick Trophy. But the hoodied one is “on to Canton” because winning five Super Bowl championships — soon to be six, possibly — in a salary-capped era when free agency and the NFL draft conspire against the achieving and maintaining of a dynasty earns him a spot.
Scotty Bowman, hockey
(Blues, Canadiens, Sabres, Penguins, Red Wings)
1,467-703-314-10 (.653), 9 championships
Serby: Was hoping Larry Brooks could help me, but he apparently changed his number. But research tells me that Bowman won nine Stanley Cups with three different teams (Montreal, St. Louis and Buffalo). Won 223 postseason games. Known as a brilliant tactician who relished playing mind games. I love this quote from ex-Canadien Steve Shutt: “You hated him 364 days a year, and on the 365th day you collected your Stanley Cup rings.”
Vaccaro: Neither Serby nor I will be able to write poetry about Bowman as a tactician or a strategist (Brooksie is loving this). We will fall back on overwhelming amounts of history: more wins (1,244) than any coach in NHL history, and more Stanley Cup titles than any NHL coach ever and he left while still at the top of his game, leading the 2002 Red Wings to 117 points and a Cup.
Bear Bryant, college football
(Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Alabama)
323-85-17 (.780), six championships
Vaccaro: It was Bum Phillips who gave the greatest compliment one coach ever offered another: “Bryant can take his’n and beat your’n, and then he can turn around and take your’n and bear his’n.” He won as a young kid at Kentucky and Texas A&M, and as an old man at Alabama, he did it with offensive teams and defensive teams, under one-platoon rules and limitless substitution, with galactic stars like Namath and anonymous grinders.
Serby: The hound’s tooth hat. The Junction Boys. The tower overlooking the field. He was a master psychologist and motivator and it was his-way-or-the-highway. He benched Joe Namath and suspended Ken Stabler. You tend to listen to 6-foot-4 figures who, as a young man, once accepted a dare to wrestle a bear. He would win six national championships, win 78 percent of his games and take 29 teams to bowl games. Roll Tide.
Phil Jackson, pro basketball
1,384-589 (.702), 11 championships
Serby: The Zen Master had a way of connecting with everyone from Michael Jordan to Dennis Rodman. Don’t tell that to Jeff Van Gundy, who mocked him as Big Chief Triangle, and he did have the benefit of Shaq and Kobe with the Lakers, but coaching superstar egos is no day at the beach, and Jackson did win a record total 11 NBA championships with two different franchises.
Vaccaro: When Jackson was a Knick he gladly went along with the notion he was their resident hippie. But the entire time he studied Red Holzman, and while it’s the triangle he’s most associated with, it was the lessons of teamwork and ego management he absorbed from Holzman’s work with those colorful Knicks teams that helped ignite the Jordan-Pippen Bulls and Shaq-Kobe Lakers to their championship destinies.
Mike Krzyzewski, college basketball
1,117-340 (.767), five championships
Vaccaro: Forget that he has won at Duke two different ways, with rosters filled with both four-year players and one-and-dones; he also won at Army, his alma mater, which has been a coaching graveyard for almost all of the 40 years since he migrated to the ACC. Oh, yes: he’s also added three Olympic gold medals, proof that he connects with the world’s best players on a level beyond where most every coach ever has ever reached.
Serby: Little did they know in Chapel Hill that such a clear and present danger would materialize down the road in Durham (sorry, Dean Smith). Coach K has turned out to be Bobby Knight without the chair throwing and bullying and anger management issues. Five NCAA titles, 12 Final Fours, a .764 tournament record, three Olympic golds, two World Cup golds, more wins than anyone, 38 seasons at Duke.
Vince Lombardi, pro football
105-35-6 (.740), Five championships
Serby: Was it Vaccaro who once said, “Columnizing isn’t everything, but it’s the only thing?” Maybe not, but Lombardi was the great Packers coach when pride still mattered. Whether the proud son of Fordham was a raging block of granite howling at his players or professing his love for them, he was a Hall of Fame motivator and leader and winner of the first two Super Bowls.
Vaccaro: For so many of us, he was every coaching ideal wrapped into one: tough, demanding, caring, successful; he won five championships in Green Bay and who knows how many more he would’ve won in Washington if he’d have lived and been able to coach the players George Allen would take to a Super Bowl. When a championship trophy is named after you, you know that you’ll live on this list forever.
Joe McCarthy, baseball
(Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox)
2,155-1,346 (.616), seven championships
Vaccaro: By the time his team won a fourth straight title in 1939 the battle cry had formed all over baseball: “Break up the Yankees!” Decades before Theo Epstein loosened two accursed franchises from long hexes, McCarthy came darn close to building winners in Chicago (where he won a 1932 pennant with the Cubs) and Red Sox (who fought the ‘49 Yankees length-for-length until the 154th and final game of the season).
Serby: Contrary to popular belief, I never did a Post Q&A with the man they called Master Joe. He was, however, the first manager to win pennants with teams in both the AL and NL, was 2,125-1,333 in the regular season and 30-13 in October, thanks in large part to seven World Series championships. As Casey Stengel would say, “You could look it up.” So I did.
Nick Saban, college football
Toledo, Michigan State, LSU, Alabama
236-67-1 (.789), Six championships
Serby: Saban learned at the feet of Belichick, and is now the Belichick of college football, a peerless recruiter and program builder. He relentlessly chases perfection, stiff-arms complacency at every turn and masterfully and effortlessly adapts to the changing times: Four BCS championships and two College Football championships. The NFL can stop calling. He’s worth the $8.3 million a year salary.
Vaccaro: His detractors will point to his ordinary stay in the NFL as testimony that he’s fallible (for the record, he was 15-17 in two years with the Dolphins), but he has won six NCAA titles (one at LSU, five at Alabama), all of them while playing out of the unforgiving cauldron of the SEC West, which is extraordinary. Even years he hasn’t won it all, like this one, his teams are always in the mix, a relentless consistency and a consistent excellence.
John Wooden, college basketball
Indiana State, UCLA
664-162 (.804), 10 championships
Vaccaro: My favorite element of Wooden was his patience: he arrived at UCLA in 1948 and didn’t build his first title team for 16 years, toiling in the shadows of Pete Newell at Cal. He always insisted he was just as good a coach then as he would be later, he simply had better players. And meant it. That modesty defined the man and all his successes.
Serby: Ah yes, the mild-mannered Wizard of Westwood. When you win 88 consecutive games and seven consecutive NCAA titles and 10 in 12 years, you can write a book about your Pyramid of Success. His teams were so disciplined and so together he didn’t always need Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton to win.
Serby: My finalists are Belichick and Krzyzewski. And I’m going with Belichick. Some will argue that he never would have made it to nine Super Bowls in 17 years without Tom Brady, and of course that’s true, but it isn’t as if the other Hall of Famers in the field didn’t coach superstars either. Belichick has seen brilliant assistant coaches come and go, and somehow managed to replace them.
His Patriots have more players who know how to win than the opponent. No one is able to ignore the noise better than New England, and if you can’t, you can’t play there. This is a football factory. It may not be fun much of the time, but winning is fun. The expectations every season are Super Bowl-or-bust. No team is better prepared. No team is better at situational football because of the pressurized practices.
And Belichick has done it all as the de facto general manager, as well. He has had just two top-10 picks in the draft. So much for parity. Read it and weep, Hoodie Haters. Just don’t expect Roger Goodell, Eric Mangini or Steve Gutman to be his Hall of Fame presenter.
Vaccaro: It was the great Red Smith who described the situation Vince Lombardi inherited in Green Bay in 1958 thusly: “The 1958 Packers overwhelmed one opponent, underwhelmed 10, and whelmed one.” Lombardi had waited for his shot so long he was convinced it would never come.
When it came, he pounced. The Packers finished 7-5 that first year, went to the NFL Championship game in the second, then won five of the next seven NFL titles including the first two Super Bowls. Possibly his greatest feat was his last one: taking a Redskins team that hadn’t had a winning record in 14 years to 7-5-2, with the promise of more to come.
Lombardi had everything but the gift of time. But every coach who came after him in every sport has his imprint on him: the preparation, the commitment, the impatience with losing. Without Lombardi there never would have been a Belichick, not entirely. Belichick may surpass Lombardi for titles this week. He has a way to go to match his legend.