Sports Nut

How to Talk to Bill Belichick

Do: Ask about the kicking game. Don’t: Ask him if he cares to elaborate on that.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick talks to the media during a press conference to address the underinflation of footballs used in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 22, 2015, in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

At a press conference on Friday, a reporter asked New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick how his team looked heading into Sunday’s AFC title game. Belichick’s response, in full: “We’ll see.” Later, someone asked if protecting the football is “even more of a point of emphasis” for his team at playoff time. “Yeah, sure,” Belichick growled, shaking his head from side to side. “I don’t know how anything could be more important than ball security in any game, so let’s just start with that.”

This terse coach-speak fits the popular image of Belichick as a gruff stonewaller, resistant to all efforts to unearth his inner thoughts. But there’s little truth to the widespread belief that Belichick hates gabbing with reporters. If you ask the right question, the supposedly laconic Patriots mastermind will talk and talk and talk some more, going on at such great length that he’ll feel compelled to apologize for giving such a thorough answer.

To understand which topics incite the coaching legend’s logorrheic tendencies, we created a script to crawl’s storehouse of Belichick transcripts. We found 969 events dating back to May 2007—press conferences, conference calls, etc.—in which Belichick took questions from the media. After sifting through that vast corpus of questions and answers, we uncovered the coach’s 100 longest soliloquies, all of which run past 500 words.

On the other end, we found 49 instances in which Belichick refused to dignify a reporter’s question with more than a single word. They are a joy to behold.

So, what is the secret to drawing out Bill Belichick? If you want the coach to open up, you should follow one of these six plans of attack.

1. Ask Him About Football History

In November 2014, a reporter asked for Belichick’s thoughts about an old-timey kicker: “What was it like for [former Boston Patriot] Gino Cappelletti kicking field goals back in the ’60s?” If Belichick could ask himself a question, this would surely be the one. The coach’s response—the second longest in our data set—went on for more than 1,000 words, and covered the following territory: the evolution of the long snapper position; the importance of the kicker-snapper-holder relationship; the precise time at which, during a practice, the snapper and kicker convene to practice their timing; the conditions of NFL fields circa the 1960s; and how Dallas’ Steve DeOssie revolutionized “the whole punting game.” He then concluded with an explanation of the birth of the spread punt formation: “That was really the result of the snapping situation, in my opinion.”

Belichick is also happy to gab about his place in history. In response to a query about passing legendary Steelers coach Chuck Noll on the all-time wins list, the coach said 644 words about his admiration for Noll, an answer that made reference to former Pittsburgh assistant coaches Rollie Dotsch, Bud Carson, George Perles, and Dick Hoak. He also once spent 850 words talking about former Patriots head coach Chuck Fairbanks, describing a conversation they’d had about “60 protection” vs. “80 protection.”

2. Ask Him About Football Minutiae

It’s not just the 60 protection that gets Belichick revved up. Back in October, after a raging one-day controversy over the league’s “illegal bat” rule, the coach offered an 819-word overview of how he teaches players the NFL rulebook. “I talk to the team on a regular basis on situational plays, which involve officiating, timing, utilization of timeouts and so forth and so on,” he said. “And of course once you get into the kicking game, you can multiply everything that happens on offense and defense exponentially”—I’m going to cut off the quote there, because he spent a very long time describing various scenarios that can happen in the kicking game.

3. Ask Him About the Kicking Game.

Belichick loves the kicking game. Can’t get enough of it. A former special teams coach, his eyes light up with any mention of old-timey kickers (e.g. Gino Cappelletti), or snappers, or punting techniques. We would not be surprised if, after he retires, Belichick wrote a series of children’s books about punters, or perhaps even anthropomorphic punts. “Tumbling balls tend to be shorter,” he said in 2009. “There are balls that tail. There’re balls that are tight.”

4. Quiz Him on Roster Management

Back in October, the Patriots had to replace offensive lineman Marcus Cannon, who injured his toe in a game against the Colts. Asked about how the Patriots decided to go about replacing Cannon, Belichick spoke for nearly 5½ minutes, explicating in great detail how the Patriots plan for roster emergencies. (You will not be surprised to learn that it’s particularly difficult to replace players “in the kicking game because now you’re talking about … that’s 66 players on special teams.”)

Belichick got even more excited when asked this November about a hypothetical expansion of NFL rosters, a query that elicited his third-longest press conference answer ever: 926 words. “I think one of the issues with the extra players, if you will—like going from 46 to some higher number on game day—it gets into the over-specialization,” Belichick said, conveniently steering the conversation toward the kicking game. “Do you have a long field goal kicker, a short field goal kicker, a kickoff guy, a field goal kicker, extra specialty-type players that therefore just require other extra specialty-type players?” This time, he didn’t mention Gino Cappelletti.

5. Stand There, Turn Your Tape Recorder On, and Don’t Say Anything

This one is a bit of a special case. Sometimes, on a few special days out of the year, Belichick is so enthused that he’ll talk without any prodding. His opening remarks on April 26, 2009, the weekend of the NFL draft, ran on for 776 words. “We had an interesting day today,” Belichick began, before launching into the process whereby the Patriots selected a whole slew of players, including future stars Sebastian Vollmer and Julian Edelman. (“A very good runner. We see him as a player who has some versatility, probably as a receiver, maybe a running back. We’ll see how that goes,” Belichick said, describing Edelman. It went very well.) “Sorry for the long-winded recap,” he concluded, “but I think that’s most of it.”

6. Accuse His Team of Perpetrating a Devious, Scientifically Confusing Conspiracy

A year ago, the Patriots stood accused of the crime of deflating footballs. On Jan. 24, 2015, Belichick defended his team’s honor in a wide-ranging 14-minute speech that began, “I want to take the time to share some information.” Belichick explained the team’s ball-preparation techniques in so much detail that you’d have thought someone asked him about Gino Cappelletti. (“I’ve handled dozens of footballs over the past week,” he said.) He also discussed how “air pressure is a function of the atmospheric conditions,” though he did acknowledge that he is not the “Mona Lisa Vito of the football world.” Although it’s possible to make certain inferences from that remark, as of publication time it is not clear how Belichick would respond to a direct question about the film My Cousin Vinny.

Just as there are ways to get Belichick to blab, there are topics you must avoid. Here are three things that you should not ask the Patriots coach if you want him to keep his lips moving.

1. Do Not Ask Him to Elaborate On That

“I know you talked in a conference call about utilizing players at this time of the year when the division is already wrapped up. Could you elaborate on that?” a reporter asked in December. “No,” Belichick said.

2. Do Not Ask Him About the Status of Injured Players

A partial transcript of Belichick’s press conference from Aug. 9, 2011:

Question: Where is Shaun [Ellis] in terms of his readiness?

Belichick: Day-to-day.

Question: Is it about the same as Albert Haynesworth?

Belichick: Well, no. They’re two different people. They are both day-to-day along with all of the other people that aren’t there. …

Question: Albert has had knee issues and Shaun has had hip issues. Do you care to illuminate us on if that’s what they’re dealing with?

Belichick: Day-to-day.

3. Do Not Ask About His Black Eye

Last week, Belichick showed up to his press availability looking like he’d just lost an amateur boxing match. “Coach, how is your eye feeling, and how did you hurt it?” a brave soul inquired. Belichick’s reply: “Great.”

Thanks to Lakshmi Varanasi for research assistance.