Upon the conclusion of filming a two hour and 45 minute conversation between Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick last June 15 inside the New York Giants home locker room at MetLife Stadium, NFL Films coordinating producer Ken Rodgers knew he had witnessed something extraordinary between two legendary NFL coaches. The problem was whether it would come across on film.
“There was a feeling in the room, an unspoken knowledge that we were witnessing something that would never happen again, a moment in history being recorded, an official record of something so many people are interested about,” said Rodgers, an Emmy Award-winning producer of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” and the director of two ESPN “30 for 30” documentaries, “The Four Falls of Buffalo” (2015) and “Elway to Marino” (2013). “There was a palpable sense that they were working out their relationship themselves as the conversation went on. We worried as soon as the interview was over: How do we show what we were all feeling?”
The conversation between Belichick and Parcells, sometimes tense and always fascinating, is at the center of the next 30 for 30 offering for ESPN Films. Directed by Rodgers and filled with terrific behind-the-scenes NFL Films footage, “The Two Bills” is a sensational 90-minute exploration of the highs and lows of the relationship between mentor (Parcells) and mentee (Belichick). Rodgers said he believes it is their first on-camera interview together since 1991 and all of the subjects you would want explored get the treatment, from the pair’s Super Bowl success with the Giants, to the fractured relationship following Belichick resigning from the head coaching job of the Jets in 2000 to him ultimately landing the New England coaching job. Asked early in the film if he considered Parcells an enemy, Bellichick pauses and says, “competitor.” The film airs Feb. 1 at 9:00 p.m. ET. The running time is 77 minutes and will be a 90-minute presentation with limited commercials.
The production crew met each coach the day of filming on the outskirts of MetLife Stadium and the doc begins with cameras inside each car as the Parcells and Belichick head to MetLife Stadium. The doc features interviews with Lawrence Taylor, Scott Pioli, Ty Law, Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis and Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who is particularly candid about both men. Rodgers said the film would not have happened without Kraft’s greenlit.
“The relationship [between Kraft and Parcells] is in a good place today and allows some candor to come out now,” Rodgers said. “Those of us who push for candor in situations around current teams are probably fooling ourselves to think it will be told now. It really does take time to talk about it.”
Rogers said he first met Belichick in 2001 but began working in earnest with him in 2004. He said he had continually conversations with Belichick over the years about what aspects of his story still needed to be captured to have a library of his career and the Parcells relationship was always out there to be told. There’s some great footage in the doc of Parcells (then an NBC Sports NFL analyst) calling Belichick’s first game as the coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1991. Naturally, there is plenty of footage of Parcells yelling at Belichick on the sidelines over the years.
“I think if Belichick did anything other than be a coach, which is hard to imagine, I think it would be some sort of historian,” Rodgers said. “When he is asked about something that interests him whether it is Naval history or something about the Naval Academy or a coaching tree, like if you asked him about Paul Brown, you cannot shut him up in a good way.”
Belichick’s appreciation for history is what Rodgers played on when he pitched Belichick on wearing a microphone for the entire 2009 NFL season. The result of that was “A Football Life,” which aired in two parts on The NFL Network in 2011. (Rodgers first met Parcells in 2009 when he served as a co-producer on “A Football Life” documentary about Parcells.) Rodgers eventually pitched Belichick to do a piece on his relationship with Parcells, which surprisingly did not take much coaxing. Rodgers said Belichick immediately wanted to do it—what was hard was the scheduling. Rogers says it took three years to find a time when they were both available on the same day. Rodgers credited Maryann Wimberly, the head of talent relations for NFL Films, and ESPN senior coordinating producer Seth Markman, for helping to convince Parcells to do the film. Both have known Parcells for many years. “They [Belichick and Parcells] were not opposed to doing it but they are also not the type to clear their schedules to do it,” Rodgers said. “That wasn’t out of animosity. They could just take or leave a film like this.”
As a longtime NFL Films staffer, Rodgers had a major advantage having worked with both on longform projects, but he had no idea whether Parcells and Belichick has spoken beforehand so he prepared himself to coax them into talking about things.
“I had to make it clear that, 'I know there are things you are not going to want to talk about but we have to talk about them like the Jets stuff,'" Rodgers said. "They would give me s--t like, 'Yep, that can be 20 seconds.' Those sort of answers. To me, the way they relate to their players and other coaches, that sort of ribbing or ball-busting, is sort of the way they said yes to the film. If you wanted to say no, you would simply say no or not do the film. They are not the types who will ever say, 'Sure, I want to talk about the Jets.'"
Rodgers said he experimented with the size of the table the two coaches sat behind and where the camera would go to create intimacy. He used the "Interrotron” technique invented by acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris, which provides the effect that the characters are talking directly to the audience.
What Rodgers discovered in the course of filming was how compelling it was to have a visual of either Belichick or Parcells reacting while the other coach was speaking. Rodgers went back and researched how the sex comedies of the 1950s were able to get around the motion picture code that prohibited showing a man and women in bed together. There is a lot of split screen in “The Two Bills,” and Rodgers said it was inspired by the 1958 British romantic comedy film “Indiscreet,” directed by Stanley Donen and starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.
“It almost felt like we were done once we got the interview done,” Rodgers said. “Maybe only people in sports media would get this but the 'get' was sort of the high point. Seeing them in the same room is more powerful than telling their stories in many ways.”
Rogers said they could have taken the film anywhere but NFL Films thought the scope of the film (and the potential eyeballs) was worth going to ESPN’s 30 for 30. Plus, he had the history of directing films for them.
What did Parcells or Belichick think of the film? Let Rodgers know if you find out.
“I haven’t spoken to either one of them since filming,” Rodgers said. “Neither one of them as far as I know have seen them film. I know for sure Coach Bellichick has not seen it and I doubt he will. He’s busy right now."
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories)
1. As Sports Illustrated first reported on Friday, ESPN SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill is leaving the 6:00 p.m. SC6 edition of SportsCenter to join the staff of The Undefeated, the ESPN microsite that fuses sports, race and culture, as well as other additional assignments. She will depart after the Feb. 2 show. Hill has three years remaining on her ESPN deal. She said in no uncertain terms (including in a long post here that she asked for the switch. Michael Smith will continue on the show as the solo anchor and the show will be called SportsCenter. The show debuted Feb. 6, 2017.
As this column wrote in October when it predicted Hill’s tenure as the co-host of the 6 p.m. ET edition of SportsCenter would end, Hill's departure from the show will not be a shock to those in Bristol. ESPN management clearly has limits to the speech it will allow from front-facing talent on social media, particularly those representing the SportsCenter brand, and Hill likely did not feel her show had management’s unwavering support given the events of 2017. As I wrote then, the SportsCenter that Hill and co-host Smith envisioned—one that included the elements that made their chemistry honest and unique on the ESPN2 show His and Hers and their co-hosted podcasts—had slowly been chopped away by the addition of segments you see on traditional SportsCenter shows. Multiple people told me in October that there was an effort to bring in ESPN talent as guests with opinions contrary to the hosts. That also came with a change in the executive branch on those overseeing SportsCenter.
On Friday I asked longtime ESPN exec Norby Williamson, who became the lead executive on all SportsCenter content in September as part of a management shakeup in ESPN's content group, when he became aware Hill wanted off SportsCenter. He said Hill initiated leaving the show before the Christmas holidays. Williamson said he met with Hill and Smith a number of times over the past six weeks. He said unequivocally it was her decision to leave the show.
“Jemele initiated this conversation. She started asking about options and other things and I asked her what was motivating her,” Williamson said. “Anchoring is a different discipline and we continued to have tweaks with the show and evolve the show. Ultimately, we came to this path. We have known her for forever and she means a great deal to the place.”
Asked directly by SI how he would respond to the assertion that the reason Hill wanted off SportsCenter were the changes that Williamson had instituted on the show that made it distant from the initial charter of the show, Williamson said, “I think there is probably an element of truth in that. “That can happen anytime you start something from a certain point or certain direction and then you evolve certain products. … As you tweak different things, people come to realization that this is not exactly for me.”
Per Douglas Pucci of Programming insider and Awful Announcing, the SC6 version of SportsCenter averaged 516.000 total viewers and 305,000 for adults 18-49 from Jan. 22-24, 2018, the last available ratings week. The prior week—Jan. 15-19—it averaged 481,000 total viewers and 274,000 adults 18-49. Robert Seidman of TV Sports Ratings tracked the show’s numbers after the Super Bowl earlier this year from its launch to a couple of weeks and that graph shows the decline in viewership.
If you used Jan. 15-19, 2018 as an arbitrary point, SC6 is down 15 percent from Jan. 16-20, 2017 (566,000 viewers and 329,000 adults 18-49), which is right before Hill and Smith took over. I asked Pucci what the January 2016 equivalent was for the 6 p.m. ET SportsCenter. He said the average viewership for the Week of Jan. 18-22, 2016 was 676,000 viewers and 383,000 adults 18-49. So from 2016 to 2017 using the same equivalent data points, the 6:00 p.m. the SportsCenter 6 p.m. ET dropped 16 percent. That’s basically the same percentage drop (1.2 percent more) Hill and Smith had.
Williamson said the time slot has been a challenge for ESPN since before PTI launched in 2001. As this column and others who cover the sports media space have said for years, the 6:00 p.m. SportsCenter is never again going to consistently over-index on viewers no matter what talent sits in whatever chair. Sports consumer viewing habits have changed for that day part and PTI is trending down. ESPN management needs to figure out alternative places to bring new people into the SportsCenter brand at that day part.
As for Hill’s role heading forward, Williamson said she will appear on news and commentary shows across ESPN. “I would expect that you see here fairly often and consistently on a news and information show and audio platform,” he said.
2. As the guests on Episode 158 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast, Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football and the network’s Thursday Night Football series and Drew Esocoff, the director of NBC’s Sunday Night Football and the network’s Thursday Night Football series, discussed how they plan to prepare for the Super Bowl along with a multitude of other topics. Those included what worries them the most about the broadcast; how Super Bowl preparation is different than other postseason games; how the Patriots and Eagles impact what they will do; what kind of contingencies they have for a power outage or a terrorist attack; whether they are aware of prop bets that involve the broadcast; how they feel about the prospect of this being the last Super Bowl broadcast for Al Michaels; how young people can get to these type of positions in sports broadcasting; how they prepare for a blowout victory; how Gaudelli determines the right amount of replays; how they view the Super Bowl ratings in relation to what they do; the behind the scene mistakes that only they would about that have made it to air in past Super Bowls; the time they arrive for the game; the number of cameras at a Super Bowl and how many of these extra cameras are used during the game; why the Kentucky Derby is the hardest broadcast to do for sports television; and much more.
2a. In a press conference last week, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon said he was starting a new professional football league with an old name—the XFL. The league is scheduled to begin play in 2020 with eight teams. Here’s Michael McCann on the advantages and disadvantages of a single-entity sports league, should the league get off the ground.
2b. Via Sports Media Watch: A look back at the XFL’s week to week ratings.
3. ESPN formally announced last week that play by play broadcaster Matt Vasgersian and Fox Sports MLB postseason analyst Alex Rodriguez will join Jessica Mendoza to form ESPN’s new Sunday Night Baseball broadcast booth with Buster Olney. Vasgersian will continue with MLB Network and Rodriguez will continue with Fox in a unique job-sharing arrangement. (Beth Mowins was part of an agreement with CBS and ESPN this year.) Vasgersian and Rodriguez are represented by the same talent agency and it would be no surprise if the talent agency used the pair coming together as an advantage play. Rodriguez called three games with Fox last year (two with Kevin Burkhardt and one with Joe Buck) and has been objectively a great addition to Fox’s studio broadcasting group. Sports television executives rarely consider so-called on-field character issues (such as PED use) in hiring unless their league partners strenuously object.
It’s a legitimate question to ask how much Rodriguez is using television to rehab his image and get some space between his multiple incidents of lying to reporters over the years, including to reporters at ESPN. Said Rodriguez on a conference call last week: “First of all, I’ve changed. So it starts with you, right? ... I changed and once I served my suspension and I had the whole year to sit down and reflect. I wanted to in many years turn the lens inward and try to figure out a better way because I knew that I needed some type of paradigm shift. And the suspension was long enough, unfortunately or fortunately, to allow me to think about changes and putting that change in motion. I did not know at 40 coming back after suspension, after two hip surgeries, after two knee surgeries, if I was good enough to make the team or healthy enough to make the team. But I certainly wanted to hang out enough to prove to myself and others around me that I was incredibly grateful and thankful to have an opportunity to put the pinstripes back on and to be one of 750 of the lucky people that get to wear a Major League Baseball uniform. I knew I could control that part. I didn’t think or I didn’t know I could hit 33 home runs and help us get back to the postseason. But the first part I’m probably even more proud of.
"Look, I’d be sitting here lying to you if I said it wouldn’t be an absolute dream to get into the Hall of Fame. Of course I would want to get into the Hall of Fame. But I certainly don’t control that. But I think what I can control is my behavior, my actions, what kind of father I am, what kind of teammate I am to people like Matt and Jessica and Kevin Burkhardt and Joe Buck, whoever is my teammate. So I think it’s not an image. This is a long ride and it’s a slow burn. And nothing’s going to happen easy.”
ESPN’s Outside The Lines division has covered the use of performance-enhancing drugs in great detail, including Rodriguez’s usage, and stories surrounding that usage. It will be interesting to see how the journalism arm and the broadcasting arm intersect if Rodriguez is with ESPN around the time he is eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2022.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• Remarkable reporting from ESPN’s Paula Lavigne: Michigan State secrets extend far beyond Larry Nassar case.
• Via The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach: NCAA president Mark Emmert was personally and specifically alerted to problems with Michigan State’s response to sexual assault cases in 2010.
• Fascinating story from New York Times reporters Motoko Rich and Seth Berkman on the impact of North Korean women's hockey players taking some roster spots from South Koreans for the upcoming games.
• Via Chuck Culpepper of The Washington Post: Death of a quarterback: Washington State’s Tyler Hilinski is laid to rest.
• From The Athletic’s Katie Strang: Michigan State has botched the handling of Larry Nassar case at every turn.
• Via SI’s Lee Jenkins: Chris Paul and the secret tunnel from New Orleans to Houston.
• Alex Belth has a great oral history of the late sports magazine, Inside Sports.
• Via Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi: The oral history of the 1994 Olympic hockey tournament, the last Olympic men's tournament without NHL-ers.
• Former Portland Oregonian Sports columnist J.E. Vader on “I, Tonya.”
Non-sports pieces of note:
• The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer on Paul Manafort.
• Via the New York Times: Inside social media’s black market: Celebrities, athletes and politicians are buying millions of fake followers, while social media companies struggle to respond.
• From The Sydney Morning Herald: 'Someone has to do it': how Lale Sokolov survived Auschwitz.
• From CJR: A cover story controversy rattles Texas Monthly newsroom.
• From Eli Rosenberg Of The Washington Post: Their school deleted an article on a teacher's firing. So these teens published it themselves.
• Last Thursday’s front page of the Detroit Free Press:
Thursday's front page of the Detroit Free Press. pic.twitter.com/FN0X3Bo9fd
— Detroit Free Press (@freep) January 25, 2018
• By Tim Carman of The Washington Post: The story of the water-spitting man who’s been blacklisted by restaurants across D.C.
• Via Ronen Bergman of the New York Times: How Arafat Eluded Israel’s Assassination Machine.
• Via The Louisville Courier Journal: Reporter rushes to Kentucky school shooting—and learns the alleged gunman is her son.
• From The Guardian: ‘Never get high on your own supply’—why social media bosses don’t use social media:
• Alabama reporter Ben H. Raines may have found the Clotilda, the last American slave ship.
5. Independent NASCAR writer Jeff Gluck recently celebrated his one-year anniversary of covering NASCAR through Patreon donations.
5a. Deadspin reported on the management of DK Pittsburgh Sports and some troubling workplace allegations on the site’s founder and editor.
5b. In an attempt for insight into what ESPN management is looking for in the post-Gruden era, I spoke last week with Stephanie Druley, the network’s senior vice president of event and studio production. She confirmed ESPN has started its search for Gruden’s replacement, a process they hope to conclude by spring. She confirmed that Matt Hasselbeck, who called the Pro Bowl, is a definitive candidate for Gruden’s job. She also all but confirmed play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough will return for his third season. Here’s the piece.
5c. Big Ten Network host Dave Revsine explained his absence from the network in this post.