Coaching legend Mike Krzyzewski offers perspective as Bill Belichick turns 70

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Bill Belichick turns 70 on Saturday, with no end in sight to his transcendent coaching tenure in New England. It’s so hard today to figure out how big a deal that is, because modern life has changed what age means.

Most of the greatest coaches of all time, in all sports, have been gone long before 70. Red Auerbach coached his last Celtics game at 48, shocking as that might seem. Curly Lambeau was done at 55, Chuck Noll at 59, Tom Landry at 64, John Wooden at 64, Don Shula at 65, Scotty Bowman at 68. I don’t know what to make of Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, who seemed to be figureheads more than coaches as they held head-coach titles past age 80.

Belichick’s no figurehead. He’s the head coach, GM, controller of the coaching staff, prime culture-builder of a six-time Super Bowl champion, orchestrating the construction of a post-Brady franchise. If only there was a comparable person, someone in today’s player-power sports scene, who could understand what Belichick will face now, in his 48th year of coaching in the NFL, in his 28th year as a head coach.

There is.

“I can’t get into his head,” Mike Krzyzewski said from North Carolina the other day. “But watching him, it’s incredibly interesting. When somebody says, ‘You’ve been doing this the same way—it’s the same job,’ no, it’s not the same job. I’m adapting; it’s exciting. Like, I’m 75. That happened with USA Basketball later in my life, and I wanted to use what I learned. That’s what I see in Bill from afar. I really admire him and like him. Because really it’s not about him, it’s about them [the players]. There’s nobody who’s built a better culture in pro sports than him. Right?”

“Quite a statement,” I said. “You built a pretty good culture yourself.”

“Yeah,” Krzyzewski said, quietly scoffing. “But that’s collegiate. Pro football’s a big business, man. There can be a lot of selfishness. He’s been able to manage all that. Culture should not be assumed. It needs Miracle-Gro every year, and he’s been able to keep that culture going. There’s a Patriot Way. I totally admire that.”

One NFL coach among the 15 winningest ever has coached a game past the age of 70. That’s Chicago’s George Halas, who retired at 72. He was a pedestrian 21-18-3 in his seventies, never making the postseason.

Halas looked 80 when he retired. Belichick looks 55 today. He once said you wouldn’t catch him coaching in his seventies like Marv Levy, but in this age-is-just-a-number world today, grandiose statements like that look almost naïve in retrospect. If a man can be president at 79, a man should be able to coach a football game against the Jets at 70.

Belichick loves football history, and his collection of books about football, now on loan to the U.S. Naval Academy, is the biggest in the world. With 321 NFL victories (including postseason games), he needs four wins to pass Halas for second place all-time and 27 to eclipse Don Shula’s NFL record of 347 wins. I’ve not heard anyone say he’s still in coaching to pass Shula. It would certainly be a point of pride for him, but I’m sure he doesn’t think when he wakes up in the morning, “One day closer to being the winningest coach ever.”

Krzyzewski, who coached his last game two weeks ago, won 139 games in his seventies. Part of the reason, he said, was because he expanded authority for his coaching staff. This year, for instance, he gave recruiting authority almost entirely to the coach who would replace him, Jon Scheyer. That kept Krzyzewski fresh and allowed him more time to prepare for games than in any season he remembered.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick and retired Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. (USA TODAY Sports)

“As I got older,” Krzyzewski said, “I allowed more input of expression of teaching from my staff, from the people around me. I was able to see and feel their hunger. I allowed them more opportunity but the person who got more was me. Because I got more of them. … Their ownership of what you’re doing is deepened. The best way to get ownership is to use someone’s ideas or give them the ability, the responsibility. Like in talking to my team and how you, before a game, set up a scout. As I got older, I allowed more and more, more and more. I learned more. It’s a different music, a little bit different music that occurs.

“I’ve always felt Bill had a curiosity about the game. It wasn’t what he already knew. It was what he was still going to learn and how he was going to use what he knew in the ever-changing environment that he’s in. He’s very adaptive. He’s probably learned to use the talents of the people around him even better. Like, the former Detroit Lions head coach …”

Matt Patricia?

“Yeah. And how he’s using him. It’s different than his past, right?”

Likely yes. Belichick will probably deploy two recently fired head coaches—Patricia and Joe Judge—to have major offensive coaching roles. Belichick’s theory is, if you’re a good coach, you should be able to coach anything. We’ll see if he’s right; the future of second-year quarterback Mac Jones hangs in the balance. The Patriots are 17-17 post-Brady, and in a division with two formidable teams, Buffalo and Miami, Belichick’s future success will depend on the jobs coaches in new positions can do, and how good Jones can be over the long haul.

Krzyzewski sounded certain the freshness could be good for the staff and good for the team—but the brain drain on the coaching staff is a major question mark for the Patriots. I have my doubts the offensive shuffle will work three years after Brady and one year after departed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, but that’s why they play the games.

Belichick will coach mostly against men at least a generation younger than he is—average age of the three other AFC East coaches: 43—and the age gap didn’t faze Krzyzewski as he got into his seventies. “I never had to beat them,” Krzyzewski said. “I had to beat their teams. I had 18- to 23-year-olds trying to beat their 20- to 24-year-olds. I’m not saying I’m better. But I’ve never lost my edge in competition. I anally prepare. I never felt age in coaching. Ever. Ever. The other thing is, by being with these guys, you stay young. You gotta be able to relate to them. I’m proud of the fact that in five different decades, we made the Final Four.

“Bill trusts his work. He’s doing what he loves to do. He doesn’t get out of character. I’m here. I’m working. I’m prepared. I never get out of character. I love that about him.”

One other challenge for Belichick, of course, is proving he can win consistently without Brady. In 18 of his 27 coaching seasons, Brady was his partner in greatness, and New England got to nine Super Bowls. In nine non-Brady seasons, Belichick teams have gone 73-79, including just one playoff win. (That includes a 3-1 mark in Brady’s four-game suspension to start 2016.) He certainly knows that. So the challenge for him is not just maintaining his edge in his seventies, it’s rebuilding a franchise to compete against one premier rival (Buffalo), one rising one (Miami) and one total question mark (the Jets).

New England Patriots v Philadelphia Eagles
Belichick and Patriots quarterback Mac Jones. (Getty Images)

I asked a man who worked with Belichick every day for 18 of the last 21 years what he expects of Belichick’s future coaching life.

“If he’s there 10 years from now, it wouldn’t surprise me to see that,” said McDaniels, who left this year to take the Raiders head-coaching job.

“He still attacks the job the same now that I saw him attack it when I first started in 2001. Doesn’t matter what part of the year it is. The big thing that Bill has going for him and has always done is he loves all the facets of the football season, whether it’s scouting, preparation for a game, roster evaluation, team-building, developmental parts of the year for the young players. All of those things get weighted the same for him,” McDaniels said.

Of the storylines on the horizon in the NFL, Belichick in the twilight is an underrated one. It starts Saturday, on his 70th birthday.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column