Pop Warner, Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi…Bill Belichick

bill belichick ap

“There will never be but one Rockne, here or at Notre Dame or anywhere else,” Ronald Reagan’s George Gipp informs in Knute Rockne, All American. “He gives us something that they can’t teach in schools, something clean and strong inside. Not just courage, but a right way of living that none of us will ever forget.”

Maybe if Bill Belichick had died in a plane crash, people would speak of him the way Reagan did of Rockne. Instead, as he coaches his sixth team in fourteen years to the Super Bowl, whiners decry his winning.

The Two Minutes Hate demands that everybody avow that inflating a football’s pressure to a hard 11 psi instead of a rock hard 13 psi allows an inferior team to defeat a superior team by 38 points. Beam me up, Scotty.

Knute Rockne bet on the team he coached, hired biased referees to help Notre Dame, played professional football as he competed as an undergraduate, fielded non-students—such as the famous player played by the future president—to take to the gridiron on weekends as they stayed away from classrooms on weekdays, and regularly broke the rules in the implementation of his famous shift.

Pop Warner employed a hunchback hidden-ball trick, sewed scale- and color-specific football-shaped patches on the sweaters of his players to confuse opponents, leaked fake injury reports to the press, and at least once replaced a sidelined player with an assistant coach. He paid college players and fielded athletes with only the most tangential associations with the schools he coached. Like Rockne, he gambled on games.

Even the man who gave his name to the trophy Belichick chases a week from Sunday regarded rules as hurdles to overcome rather than insurmountable barriers. A read of David Maraniss’s When Pride Still Mattered imparts that Vince Lombardi provided favoritism to on-the-cusp-of-eligibility athletes in his high school classroom who also played on his football field; he served as an assistant at West Point during the infamous national scandal that saw 37 cheating football-playing cadets expelled; and as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, he capitalized on a surreptitiously-obtained Detroit Lions defensive game plan only to end up losing the 1962 Thanksgiving contest. If “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” still leaves doubt about Lombardi’s ends-justify-the-means ethics, then knowledge that he took the line from UCLA’s Red Sanders should help to fully persuade.

The people shocked, shocked at Belichick’s gamesmanship know less about the history of football than they do about the rulebook. The first intercollegiate game arriving in the aftermath of the Civil War allowed young men who missed out on combat to participate in a rough but rarely deadly version of it. The uniformed marching bands, martial terminology, and field generals all clued in anyone paying attention that the sport played as mock warfare in which, as the saying goes, all’s fair. Football founding father Walter Camp, a Yalie smart enough to make the rules so he didn’t have to break the rules, contended: “Football IS war on a mimic scale it will continue just as long as the nation is virile enough to fight.”

Football’s earliest promulgated rules, numbering 61, remained silent on punching opponents in the face—let alone ball inflation requirements. In the 1990s, the late NCAA rules guru David Nelson counted over 700 rules. Football boasts so many rules because so many break them. As in our legalistic society, more gridiron laws doesn’t translate into better behavior. Unlike relatively static games such as baseball and soccer–in which the sport played a century ago remains the sport played today–football sees its rules change rapidly because innovators such as Warner, Rockne, Lombardi, and Belichick always remain a step ahead of them. The game a young Pop Warner coached faintly resembles the one Bill Belichick coaches. Even the ball Warner’s teams used in his last coaching stint at Temple measured two inches fatter around the middle than the one Tom Brady and Russell Wilson will throw on February 1. Before rulebreakers altered game balls, rulemakers did.

Football’s not golf. Whereas the mere accusation that Vijay Singh’s scorecard provided an ill-gotten one-stroke advantage still dogs him three decades later, football coaches—Warner, Rockne, Lombardi, Belichick—who game the system find themselves on the game’s Mount Rushmore.

Don’t hate the player—or, in this case, the coach. Hate the game.

Pop Warner’s name remains a synonym for youth football. Hollywood made a sinner into a saint in Knute Rockne, All American. The most coveted trophy in the sport bears Vince Lombardi’s name.

Bill Belichick belongs in their company in more ways than one.

Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013), edits Breitbart Sports.