HOUSTON – Deep in the woods of the Sequoia National Forest in central California, there is a tree named the General Grant Tree.
Sequoia trees are among the tallest and oldest in the nation. The General Grant stands tall among the tallest. It even has a nickname, “the nation’s Christmas tree”. It is in a grove of giant sequoias that are staggering to look at, a collection of national treasures in the shadow of Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48.
It seems only proper that the Department of the Interior should look for another giant sequoia and name it the Bill Belichick Tree.
There are lots of proverbial “coaching trees” out there. They spawn all over the place. Some of them are very old, some very young. Belichick is part of a coaching tree himself, a branch of the Bill Parcells tree. You as a head coach strive to win Super Bowls, but to get a coaching tree named for you is perhaps tantamount to winning titles and being selected for the Hall of Fame. To differentiate, a “coaching tree” is clearly defined as lots of great to very good coaches who trace their roots back to an immortal head coach, not two or three guys who coached for Joe Nobody ten years ago.
Belichick has seen several of his disciples on the other side of the field in this NFL postseason. The Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons have many coaches and front office people who trace their roots to Belichick. Most of them cut their coaching teeth with Belichick, and while none of them have spawned their own coaching tree, the fact that they are all out there speaks volumes for Belichick and his teaching of coaches as well as players.
The Texans featured a head coach (Bill O’Brien), an offensive coordinator (George Godsey, who has since been relieved of his duties at that position), a defensive coordinator (Romeo Crennel, who is also a branch of the Parcells tree as is Belichick), and a linebackers coach (Mike Vrabel). O’Brien did some time as head coach of Penn State before coming to Houston, while Crennel had head coaching jobs in Cleveland and Kansas City with mixed results.
Fast forward to Atlanta. The Falcons have two guys in the front office who have strong ties to Belichick, going back to his days as Cleveland head coach. General Manager Thomas Dimitroff and his assistant Scott Pioli, began their careers in Cleveland under Belichick, then followed him to Foxborough for long stints in the Patriot organization before moving on.
Dimitroff and Pioli were with Belichick in the early 1990s in Cleveland. They were part of a group called “slappies”. Other members of that group included Alabama head coach Nick Saban, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, former Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz, and former Jet head coach Eric Mangini. They worked long hours, were paid very little money, and did all of the crummy behind the scene support jobs. In other words, they learned the business from the bottom up.
But every one of those “slappies” appreciated Belichick and what he taught them. Despite Cleveland only having one playoff season (1994) and having to leave town the following year, those men have nothing but good memories of their years in Cleveland. Ferentz probably said it best when he said “People wondered how we could put up with all that, but no, how fortunate we were to have had that experience!”
Dimitroff came to Foxborough in 2003 as the director of college scouting. He left in 2008 to become the general manager of the Falcons. In nine seasons he now finally has a conference champion. While he was at Cleveland in 1993, he worked under both Belichick and Pioli. Pioli came to Foxborough in 2000 with Belichick, left in 2009 to become the general manager at Kansas City, then came to Atlanta in 2014 to work under Dimitroff as assistant GM. So in reality, Pioli has worked over, alongside, and now under Dimitroff during his career.
Pioli was widely hailed as one of the best young administrative minds in the NFL during his time in New England. He and Belichick worked together to build the Patriot dynasty that it has now become. Belichick retained final say, but Pioli had lots of input during his nine years in Foxborough. The feeling that he would get a GM job someday seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Pioli summed up his career beginnings with Belichick during the NFL Network A Football Life segment on Cleveland ’95. He mentioned that Belichick was going to offer him a job, with parameters, job description and hours not clearly defined, at a salary of about $15,000. Pioli was asked if he still wanted the job and he said yes, eagerly. Pioli said thanks and Belichick answered with “Thank me by doing a good job!”
That Pioli did. Despite his lasting only three seasons in Kansas City before being dismissed after the 2012 season, Pioli did win executive of the year in 2010. Both Crennel and Charlie Weis, former Patriot offensive coordinator, worked with Pioli in Kansas City. Pioli’s best work remains in New England, but in his current role as subordinate to Dimitroff, the football world will get to see how well these two “slappies” have built a championship team.
Belichick won’t have a lot of sentiment next Sunday, of course. He’ll say nice things about them this week if asked. The task at hand is to beat the Falcons, not to sit back and fawn all over former subordinates and how well they are doing. Coaching trees are mostly for fans and observers to look at as if it were a painting in a museum. Belichick won’t be pleased if Dimitroff and Pioli wound up building a team that denied he and Brady a fifth Super Bowl win, especially if for some reason this winds up being the last real shot for both of them to get a fifth. That’s not likely, but not impossible.
For those of us who do sit back and admire, it really says something that so many men who owe their coaching and admin careers to Belichick are opponents over these last three weeks. Belichick admittedly loves to teach, and that love extends above the player level as well.
So if you ever get to see that grove of tall sequoia trees way out west, and if you do find the General Grant, go look for another one and name it after the head slappie himself. Chances are you’ll find it near the one named for Parcells.
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