New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was a man of influence in the NFL before the 2011 lockout, but his ability to broker peace between management and labor in that particular dispute set Kraft on a new level. Before he could do that, however, Kraft had to clean up the mess from Spygate, the 2007 scandal that cost his team a first-round draft pick and $250,000. Head coach Bill Belichick lost $500,000 and a sizable chunk of his professional reputation.
In "Coaching Confidential," an interesting new book by Gary Myers of the New York Daily News, we get a sense of Kraft's thought process when Spygate was brought to him. When Kraft questioned his coach about the actual advantages gained by the use of illegal videotaping methods, Belichick had to tell the truth.
"How much did this help us on a scale of 1 to 100?" Kraft said.
"One," Belichick replied.
"Then you're a real schmuck," Kraft said.
Kraft was lucky that he didn't have a suspended coach on his hands, and one could say that Belichick was lucky that he wasn't looking for a job after the scandal broke. Of course, the Patriots went undefeated in the 2007 regular season, losing their first game of the campaign in a close Super Bowl defeat at the hands of the New York Giants, but it was the fact that his coach went so far out from the NFL's ethical code that stuck in Kraft's craw.
Still, as Kraft told Myers, firing Belichick was never a serious consideration.
"Your wife gets very sick. You dump her? Or your kid makes a bad mistake. It's your kid," Kraft said. "It's your family. How can you get people to dig deep and go through the wall for you if they know you're not going to be there for them when they need you? You make your decisions, you think it out, you get good people, and then you stay the course. And then the wind comes and the lightning comes and you stay the course."
That bad weather eventually came and went. The Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl since the end of the 2004 NFL season, but they've been more than competitive ever since. They've won at least 10 games every season since 2002, and anyone who questioned Belichick's coaching and personnel acumen was shut up once and for all when the Pats went 11-5 in 2008 with Matt Cassel replacing an injured Tom Brady. Anyone who's seen Cassel in Kansas City knows what an accomplishment that is.
And as it turns out, Kraft had his eye on Belichick from the time he bought the team in 1994. After his tenure as Cleveland's head coach ended in 1995, Belichick spent one year as Bill Parcells' assistant head coach in Foxboro. However, the enmity between Kraft and Parcells forced a change after that season, and Kraft hired Pete Carroll to replace Parcells in time for the 1997 season. Parcells and Belichick moved to the New York Jets.
"We had our budget full when Belichick got fired," Kraft said. "Parcells said, 'Look, this is a guy I think we should have in the system. You talk to him and see if you agree.' I liked him from the minute I met him. That's when I realized I would eventually hire him as a coach."
Kraft and his wife Myra [she passed away last year], and Belichick and his wife, Debby, went to dinner after Parcells left the Patriots, and Kraft explained why he had to make a clean break from the Parcells era. "I probably should have hired him," Kraft said. "But in the important decisions in life, I go with my instinct. I don't think Belichick would have been right in '96. I told him when I didn't hire him that I thought he had to work on how he handled the media, how he handled things. But the real problem I had with him was he was so tight with Parcells. I thought Parcells had stuck it to us. Belichick wanted to stay with us. He didn't want to go."
Kraft hired Belichick in 2000 and watched his new coach put together the first dynasty of the salary cap era, as the Pats won three Super Bowls between 2001 and 2004. But it wasn't always easy, or pretty, and it's always interesting to see the inner workings of decisions that are more complex than they appear.
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