Nepotism is as much a part of the NFL as is the league’s ubiquitous shield. And the franchise that has dominated the NFL for much of the past two decades has a clear and obvious nepotism situation playing out in plain sight.
Steve Belichick, the 32-year-old son of legendary Patriots coach Bill Belichick, has emerged as one of the team’s most important assistant coaches in recent years, prompting some to wonder whether Steve Belichick and not Josh McDaniels will become the eventual in-house heir to Bill. Henry McKenna of USA Today recently took a close look at the younger Belichick, including the obvious questions raised when a son of a coach is perceived to receive unfair advantages in an industry that is commonly criticized for lacking diversity.
It’s a tricky and sensitive subject, as evidenced by the fact that the usually tight-lipped Bill Belichick actually provided a statement to McKenna via email for the story.
“There are many father/son coaching combinations in the NFL and any challenges are far outweighed by the rewards of working together on a daily basis,” Bill Belichick said regarding whether he’s hard on Steve in order to ensure that his success has no relation to their close family relationship.
Nepotism has taken root in the NFL for three primary reasons. First, many teams operated as family-owned businesses. For owners who intend to groom one or more of their children to eventually take the reins, there’s an element of hypocrisy that creeps into the prospect of telling coaches that they can’t hire their own kids. Second, many coaches had little or no involvement in the upbringing of their children, because the coaches were constantly working. Once the children become adults, coaches make up for those cats-in-the-cradle days, with fathers and sons pressed together for many, many hours while grinding away at the many demands of running an NFL team. Third, there’s real value in giving NFL jobs to those who grew up in and around NFL teams.
Earlier this year, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan explained the benefit of being around the game as a boy. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, Kyle benefited from the fact that his father, Mike, spent Kyle’s formative years in the NFL as a coach. The experience resulted in Kyle being even better suited to becoming a head coach in his own right.
As to Steve Belichick (or any other child of an NFL coach), he’ll eventually have to prove that he has the chops and the work ethic to stand on his own. Already, Steve Belichick is doing that.
“He’s a guy that works 20 hours of the day and 350 days of the year,” first-year Giants coach and former Patriots assistant Joe Judge told McKenna.
“I think it’s tougher for Steve in a lot of ways, because he’s always got to prove that he’s earned it,” Judge added. “Over time, if you can’t demonstrate that you belong in that building, you’re the sore thumb sticking out. And he’s showed time and time again that he’s prepared, he’s very good with the players, he’s got the great, global view of the game, he does a good job schematically. You have to demonstrate value in front of everyone all the time. That’s the thing about that building — and our profession in general — there’s no hiding.”
Judge provided a specific example regarding the abilities Steve Belichick has developed.
“Maybe you’ll be watching tape or doing something in a staff meeting, and he’ll just lean over and whisper something to you, and it’s so insightful, and you kind of have to think, ‘Man, how come I didn’t see that earlier?’” Judge said. “He doesn’t want any credit. Steve’s one of the best guys personnel-wise in understanding how to use guys’ strengths. He’ll stick his head in your office, and maybe he’ll notice what a certain guy is doing and say, ‘Have you thought about using so-and-so on kickoff?’ And he’ll cite [that player’s] skill set on defense and show how it might work on special teams.”
None of this will change the perception that Steve Belichick’s opportunities arise more from his name than his nature. And that perception surely will fuel Steve Belichick as he continues to thrive, perhaps to the point where, after winning a Super Bowl or two as a head coach, Steve won’t be known as Bill’s son but Bill will be known as Steve’s dad.