If you want to trace the moment when the New England Patriots slowly began to extend their outstretched middle finger to the remainder of the football world, you could do worse than flashing back to the 2001-02 season. That year, the Patriots defeated the Raiders thanks to an instant-replay review that was both entirely correct and completely fucked up; that year, Bill Belichick won his first Super Bowl, over the St. Louis Rams, and graduated from a mumbly pariah into a stoic (and oft-reviled) genius.
I bring this up, of course, because Belichick will coach in his seventh Super Bowl on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. He is one of the most venerated minds in football history and he will be coaching in the one of most-watched events in the world.
And once again, he will almost certainly do so while looking like an utter schlub.
Wearing whatever the hell he wanted on the sideline, others told me, elevated Belichick into a radical nonconformist in a sport that has long demanded conformity.
I recently spoke to several members of that 2001-02 Patriots team for a story about the 15th anniversary of the Tuck Rule game against the Raiders that propelled them into a dynasty. And several of them expressed the sentiment that this was the year Belichick found his coaching voice, the balance between becoming a player’s coach and a cutthroat leader who refused to tolerate dissent within his ranks. And, not coincidentally, one of them also told me that this was also the time when Belichick began purposefully dressing down and wearing those horrific hooded sweatshirts with the sleeves cut off.
Upon closer review, these two things didn’t coincide precisely—Belichick didn’t don his gray hoodie until 2003—but there is a reason they happened right around the same time. They had a symbiotic effect. Winning a Super Bowl, some observers, elevated Belichick into the ranks of elite coaches: “Now, all of sudden, he’s validated everything he’s taught and preached to the football team,” CBS broadcaster Phil Simms said.
And wearing whatever the hell he wanted on the sideline, others told me, elevated Belichick into a radical nonconformist in a sport that has long demanded conformity: “The whole sweatshirt thing caught on back then with Bill,” Patriots punter Ken Walter told me.
And, as science has shown, that refusal to dress up—the whole “sweatshirt thing”—likely only burnished Belichick’s credentials as an unpredictable genius. And it’s why, more than a decade later, the best coach in modern professional football is still the worst-dressed.