Perception is a hard safe to crack, but Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick may well be on the verge of sneaking into Fort Knox.
The Super Bowl is the grandest of football stages and where the past is brought back to the present as media hordes search for stories to send back to Super Bowl starved fans around the country.
It is no surprise, then, when Belichick is asked about his days as the Browns head coach from 1991-1995, a job from which he was fired after compiling a 36-44 record in five seasons, he admits to mistakes. During that time, Belichick developed a reputation as being cold and callous, traits unrevealed during his short tenure in New England.
But here he is in the spotlight as a first-time Super Bowl head coach and while he fires off answers to press conference questions in his typical monotone voice, he seems at ease. He seems comfortable in this setting, a fact that shouldn't go unnoticed considering it was just about two years ago that he appeared to be at a polar opposite point in front of the media as he resigned his position as the Jets head coach during a rambling press conference.
He has smiled and joked in front of the national media standing behind the Super Bowl XXXVI podium this week. The charisma isn't exactly flowing out of him like Niagara Falls mind you, but he belongs at that podium. He has learned how to be a head coach and knows that it takes more than mastering what goes on between the white lines. He, like his 2001 Patriots, has come a long way.
So there he was on Thursday being asked a question that went something like this, "The perception is that you are not very personable …"
At which time Belichick interrupted with a wry smile and said, "Wait a minute. Who said that?" as if he was both insulted and ignorant to such claims that have followed him like a shadow since his days in Cleveland.
As the reporter pointed at the media members around him as if to blame them, he mumbled, "Well, I just did. Have you tried to change or does that bother you?"
If Belichick was still wearing Cleveland's ugly Brown, he may have lashed out at the daring reporter. But this is the new and improved version of Mr. Personality. Or, simply put, this is Belichick being Belichick rather than trying too hard to be the tough, but perhaps insecure head coach who needs to flex his muscles to tell the world who is in charge.
This Belichick paused and thought before maybe realizing the legitimacy of the question.
"I don't know," he said in reflection. "That's a good question."
The massive media corps chuckled and suddenly it was obvious that the perception is no longer reality even if it was at some other point in time.
Belichick had his fastball. Now it was time to deliver the change of pace that came with admitting the mistakes of the past.
"I feel like I am still who I am for better or for worse, whatever that is," he said. "I'm trying to coach a football team. I'm trying to get it ready to play and trying to prepare it to win. That's my job. Have I lightened up a little bit? I probably have. Looking back at some of the things I did in Cleveland, I might have been a little too rough on them at times.
"On the other hand, I think when you're trying to establish a program that wasn't at a very high level after the 1990 season (Cleveland) or even looking back at last year at a football team that wasn't good in New England, you have to show the way you want things done and sometimes that's not the way people are used to doing them. In the end my intent isn't to have conflict or be iron-fisted, but just to get the message through that I'm trying to get through and try to get everybody to understand what needs to be done at a team level for us to be successful. However that's interpreted, I'll leave that up to you to interpret and I guess you already have."
Today's Belichick is calm and confident and apparently more able to dodge the media darts being flung his way. A man known for secrecy has revealed a bit of himself this week and it's certainly helped clean up his reputation as a people person.
"Bill has not changed," friend and personnel chief Scott Pioli said. "Maybe how he does things has changed. I think he delegates a lot more and that may be because he feels more comfortable with some people around him. He is being more of the Bill that I know. He loves football. He's focused. His job is the second most important thing in his life behind his family. But he's backed off on some situations."
Belichick will forever be remembered for cutting Cleveland's favorite son, quarterback Bernie Kosar, and then citing "diminishing skills" as the reason. Regardless of the statement's accuracy (Kosar was never again an NFL starter), it came off as disrespectful and demeaning. Kosar was a native and experienced success with the Browns, but his career was on the downside and Belichick made the right call while handling it all wrong.
Fast forward to November 2001 and there is Belichick deciding to stick with Tom Brady over the ever-popular franchise saver, Drew Bledsoe. But in this instance, Belichick speaks about his respect for Bledsoe's accomplishments, his commitment, his attitude and his skills while pointing out that he feels the young gun gives the team a better chance to win.
It wasn't the first tough decision Belichick made as the Patriots coach. Those came soon after he signed on as the coach when he released Patriots greats Ben Coates and Bruce Armstrong. Next it was Chris Slade and Henry Thomas. He's left little doubt as to who is in charge, but he has handled the difficult decisions with some compassion. He has shown who's the boss without alienating the world in the process.
"I think one of the things I really respect about Bill is the fact that he knows there are tough decisions he has to make, has made and will continue to make that may not necessarily be popular," Pioli said. "One of things he said to me when I got in this business is that it isn't a popularity contest. I have a job to do, I am paid to do it and make decisions. I have to do those things regardless of whether or not they're popular.
"But Bill has done a far better job of revealing the way he really feels. I've never been around one player Bill has cut that he's felt good about cutting. I know he doesn't feel good. I think he's exposing that more. He's a compassionate person; he's a genuine person; he's a good person. In Cleveland he didn't expose that side of him for whatever reason."
There is little doubt he has changed for the better, both as a football coach and a communicator. While he may not be up for addressing the nation at some fireside chat (or the nation wouldn't be up), he is something he wasn't. He is comfortable in front of the camera and behind the microphone. He is not a head coach tagged as over his head and more fit to be only a coordinator. Not any more.
The Super Bowl stage is revealing that to the world. A win over the St. Louis Rams Sunday would be the finishing touch on a masterful coaching job and would place his 2001 artwork in rarified air.