ATLANTA – Randy Hilliard was 5-11 and maybe 165 pounds after a Thanksgiving feast. On Sept. 8, 1991, Bill Belichick turned him into a microscopic Lawrence Taylor on his way to his first victory as an NFL head coach.
How long ago was that?
Well, not long after the 39-year-old Belichick said, “It’s nice to get that first win,” this 26-year-old first-year NFL reporter drove to the airport, flew home, watched his VHS tape of the game and filed stories the next morning for that evening’s edition of the Canton Repository.
Good Lord, that sounds old.
Did we all sit around and marvel at how this genius coach thought outside the box when he took this tiny, second-year special teams player and blitzed him off the edge as a cornerback, producing two of what would end up being three sacks in a nine-year career?
I mean, c’mon. So what if the Cleveland Browns had just beaten a putrid New England team 20-0 at dinky old Foxboro Stadium in front of 35,377 disinterested Patriots fans wearing bags on their heads.
Did we think, “Ya know, I got a hunch this socially awkward young man will win another 290 games as a head coach, including a record five Super Bowls, coach in nine of them and be going for win No. 6 against the Los Angeles Rams on Feb. 3, 2019?”
Having lost his coaching debut to Jimmy Johnson and the Cowboys at home, Belichick was 0-1 when he coached his first game in New England. Ironically, his first playoff win would come three years later when he beat the Patriots and mentor Bill Parcells.
Did any of us find it funny that Belichick’s first game in Boston came against a Patriots team quarterbacked by a guy named Tommy?
Nope, because Tom Brady was 14. And there was no reason to get excited about a win over Tommy Hodson.
With hindsight as a guide, perhaps Belichick’s use of Hilliard on Sept. 8, 1991, was a ground-zero moment of the aggressively unconventional thinking that has made Belichick the best coach in NFL history. Or maybe it was just one lousy win in a 6-10 season.
Belichick’s father, Steve, spent a lot of time around the Browns back then. Belichick’s admiration for his dad, a former Navy assistant, was obvious from the start.
This past week, Belichick has talked a lot about his dad’s old boss and how he helped shape Belichick’s coaching philosophy. Wayne Hardin was head coach at the Naval Academy from 1959 to ’64. Belichick was a football sponge of 7 to 12 years old when he was soaking in all he could back then.
“Coach Hardin was going to look at things, and if it was something that he felt would help the team, and it was productive, then he would do it regardless of maybe what the conventional thoughts were at that time, and what was traditional,” Belichick said. “He was willing to run plays and train and do things that were, I would say, a little bit off the beaten path.
“Sometimes I would shake my head and then when you saw the results of it you understood what he was thinking in terms of this is a pretty good idea and not one that I would have thought of right off the bat.”
On Sept. 8, 1991, the Browns had four takeaways, including an interception by Hilliard, and held Hodson to 6 yards passing through three quarters.
“Overall, it was a good team effort today,” Belichick said. “Everybody contributed, and that’s the way we need to play to win.”
Ten years later, he was back in Foxboro Stadium on the other sideline for Week 2 of the NFL season. The Patriots fell to 0-2 and 5-13 overall under Belichick.
Did we think a dynasty was about to hatch that very next week?
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org