November 02, 2007
Two Superb Skippers Bringing Home Titles
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
Behind every great team is a great person in charge.
UCLA had John Wooden. The Pack had Vince Lombardi. You can break the Yankees up into the eras of Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Billy Martin and Joe Torre. And everyone in this region knows about someone named Red.
These days, the New England sports landscape is beautifully adorned with two leaders who are both at the top of their profession. The similarities between the men are growing by leaps and bounds. In Terry Francona and Bill Belichick, this area has two men who are largely responsible for delivering five world championships to this area since Y2K, and with more likely on the way.
They aren't carbon copies of each other. The men are at opposite ends of the emotional scale, with Francona being high strung and Belichick more laid back. Belichick is basically physically fit while Francona battles serious health issues. Francona is a former major league player, Belichick never played in the NFL. Francona went to college out west (Arizona), while Belichick stayed close to home (Wesleyan).
But both men know each other, have spoken to each other often, and respect each other a great deal. Belichick is not given to be gabby at press conferences, but on the occasion where the subject of the Red Sox comes up, Belichick will often toss props the way of Francona. Francona has had Belichick visit the Sox both in Boston and in Fort Myers.
Francona and Belichick are both right now at the zenith of their respective sports. They are both a terrific expose on how to run a team in their respective sport. TBoth have both found the right winning formula which works great for them.
That said, here are five major areas which provide interesting comparison and discussion.
Chip off the old blockFrancona often goes by the nickname "Tito". His father, John Francona, was a major leaguer from 1956 to 1970, spending most of his career with Cleveland. John always went by the nickname Tito. It was his father's nickname that was passed along to the Sox skipper, and it is rare when you have a father and a son who share the same nickname.
The elder Francona hit .272 for his career, had a career .343 OBP, and hit for moderate power. According to Baseball Reference.com, the hitters most similar to Francona are Kevin Bass, Bruce Bochte and Jeffrey Leonard, all of them solid hitters in the 1970s and 1980s. The younger Francona played only ten seasons in the bigs, nearly had the same career average as his father (.274), and despite lower power numbers than his dad, his most similar hitter over his career was Jim Holt, the big utility infielder who made the final out for Oakland against Boston in the 1975 ALCS.
Belichick, meanwhile, had his celebrated father to lean on for upbringing and advice. The late Steve Belichick made his mark as an assistant coach at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Bill hung out with his dad a lot as a youth and learned from his dad about how to break down film. Steve shaped his son for what would become his life's work.
And of course, you see the elder Belichick in most all the victory films. The last image Patriot Nation saw of Steve was him getting drenched with a Gatorade bucket while standing next to his son at the winning moment at Super Bowl XXXIX. You had to wonder how dad didn't drop dead of a heart attack. About 8 months later, he did. His son found out, coached a game, then went down to Annapolis to say his final goodbye. His being able to pay his respects to his dad while barely missing a beat back at Foxborough was not lost on the Patriot players and the organization. There was a toughness that Steve instilled in Bill, and it came through loud and clear during perhaps the darkest moment of his life.
You stink, coach! Get lost! You should never coach again!Don't bring up the name Terry Francona in Philadelphia. Ditto for Bill Belichick in Cleveland.
Francona had a lousy Phillies team under his stewardship from 1997 to 2000. In four years, his teams finished third twice and fifth twice. In what is perhaps the worst town in America in terms of fan tolerance (Santa Claus was once booed at an Eagles game), Francona was made the scapegoat.
Quite simply, he was an idiot before Johnny Damon made being one fashionable. He was idiot when idiot wasn't cool. People in Philly literally thought that Francona was stupid, and couldn't wait to run him out of town.
One man didn't think so: his stud pitcher back then, Curt Schilling. It is believed that when Theo Epstein courted Schilling on Thanksgiving of 2003, a condition of Schilling coming to Boston was that Epstein get Francona as his manager. You could say that this right here saves a lot of words to try and explain what Francona was really like as a manager, and how ignorant the Philly fans all were (are?).
Dumping Bernie Kosar, an Ohio legend at quarterback (how come he wound up at Miami instead of Ohio State, pray tell?) in favor of Vinny Testaverde got Belichick off on the wrong foot with the Dawg Pound. Tell that to Patriot Nation, especially those who watched Cleveland knock off New England in the AFC Divisional Playoff in 1994, 20-13. Testaverde was the winning quarterback. Belichick was the winning coach. (Sssssh, Bill Parcells was the losing coach.)
But nobody in Cleveland really cared or paid attention. Belichick had Cleveland on the up and up, until...
Word broke during the following season that the Browns would leave Cleveland at the end of the year and would move to Baltimore for the 1996 season. Art Modell could not get the stadium deal he wanted, so he moved the team to rickety old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, leaving rickety old Cleveland Stadium, and one of the most rabid fan bases in America, behind.
Because of this, the 1995 Browns went into the tank. And Belichick has taken the fall for that. He was fired at season's end. It was thought that Belichick would never get a head coaching job again. Belichick was a complete and total pariah in Cleveland. Modell would get lynched if he walked in downtown Cleveland also, but Belichick took a lot of heat for something that was not at all his fault.
Jay Leno's character is fake; these guys really do have bulging headsWhen Francona was brought in to interview with Epstein and Larry Lucchino in 2003, he was given a test.
Epstein ran Francona through every game of 2003, and asked him how he would do this and that. According to Epstein, Francona "aced the test". One might look at that with some skepticism, but after a few years reflection, you begin to see what Epstein was talking about.
Francona is most definitely the anti-Grady Little.
The statnerd approach to baseball is hard for many folks to comprehend, but it works. The Red Sox have proved that. Lucchino brought in Bill James as a consultant, and everything that James, the front office and the scouts dig up and quantify, Francona is able to meld all of that into an effective way to manage the team.
Francona spends long, long hours at the ballpark going over scouting reports, matchups, tendencies, and knows exactly who to play in which situation. If Belichick preaches situational football, Francona is a master at situational baseball. His handling of Games 3 and 4 of the World Series may be his finest work as a baseball manager. His handling of defense, double-switching, and balancing of Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell and David Ortiz was nothing short of brilliant.
Yes, managing also involves handling high maintenance players. But from a brainiac standpoint, no one stands taller than Tito.
Belichick, meanwhile, has become legendary with his football smarts. He has a defensive game plan in the Hall of Fame. Many experts call his game plan in Super Bowl XXXVI the finest of its kind in NFL history. He has been at the cutting edge of cerebral football, and other teams are just now starting to catch up.
He is a master at confusing opposing defenses, and equally a master at confusing an offense with a baffling defense. No players are more prepared to play football than Belichick's players are. As previously stated, Belichick's players practice many different situations, and when they come up in games, are always ready to execute just as the coach taught them.
He sums it all up in three succinct words: Do your job. That maxim doesn't apply only to football players.
"I don't want them to win!" versus "Any questions about the Chargers?"In completely different styles, both men are very adept at handling the media. Different methods, same effectiveness.
Francona will sit down and give you a friendly chat. He's affable, honest, self-deprecating, and usually polite. You can still tell that he hates doing it with a passion, but he will answer questions and usually leave you with a good feeling about what he just said.
Going further, one of Francona's strongest assets is his ability to deflect and absorb the constant criticism that goes along with being the manager of the Red Sox. Francona takes a ton of heat, especially when player relations comes up. Francona has had to deal with Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez, one being a diva and the other a free spirited doofus who just happens to know how to hit and hit well. His handling of these two gents speaks volumes about his ability to deal with this and keep it largely in house.
Belichick has become the master of non-speak. He will give a press conference, and spend twenty minutes saying basically nothing. He is to press conferences what Jerry Seinfeld was to situation comedy. A show about nothing.
Media types hate this, of course. Belichick has helped bring scorn towards some of the more veteran sportswriters in the area because these writers would go out of their way to run smack on the coach due to lack of information he would dispense at any conference. There is nothing worse than nothing to write about, especially with someone as high profile as Belichick. So sometimes, adverse situations have to be created. And Belichick simply stonefaces his way through everything, every move coldly calculated and choreographed.
It has a purpose. You the fan would not want any opposing coach or team to glean anything from a Belichick press conference. Why should you care about the intricacies of this week's game plan? Why should you know someone's injury situation? If your not knowing helps the Patriots and hurts the other team, why should you care? Belichick will do whatever it takes to win, and the less he divulges at press conferences, so much the better.
The best money guys on the planetFrancona has now won eight straight World Series games. His 22-9 postseason record is tops among all managers in history.
What was that, Philadelphia? You still think this guy stinks?
Stop and think for a second. The Red Sox have won eight straight World Series games. Now, think some more. The Red Sox have won two World Series in four years, both in four-game sweeps. George F. Will had a word to describe this: incredibillium.
Here's some more incredibillium: The last time the Red Sox were this prosperous was during World War I. They won a very Patriotic three titles in four years, in 1915, 1916 and 1918. Bill Carrigan was the manager of the first two, Ed Barrow led the 1918 gang.
Francona is the best Red Sox manager since Carrigan, simply put. Some ninety years later, Carrigan finally has a peer. I'll be blessed if I live to be ninety.
Belichick, meanwhile, had the best postseason record of any head coach in NFL history following Super Bowl XXXIX. The man he overtook answered to the surname Lombardi. Since then, Belichick has gone 3-2 in the playoffs, thanks to disappointing losses in Denver (2005) and Indianapolis (2006). But that does not diminish what Belichick has done since coming here in 2000.
Many football experts call the three Super Bowls in four years the most remarkable of any NFL dynasty in history. In this era of free agency, what the Patriots were able to do despite turnover was nothing short of remarkable. And like Francona, Belichick knows how to prepare his team for when the games count the most.
You might say there is one remaining difference between the two men. Belichick is recognized around the league as the finest, at least among those who don't bring up Spygate. Francona, meanwhile, still remains the most underappreciated and underrated manager in all of baseball. It is long overdue for Francona to receive the praise and the credit he so richly deserves. Francona's ability to do what he does in the job position he holds is quite literally unbelievable.
This is the Golden Era of Boston sports. And at the epicenter of it all are two geniuses named Francona and Belichick. As long as they stay, the longer the Golden Era will last.
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