Five takeaways from HBO's documentary ‘Belichick and Saban: The Art of Coaching'


HBO's behind-the-scenes feature on the relationship between Bill Belichick and Nick Saban debuted for a national audience on Tuesday night and was called "The Art of Coaching." Fitting given that the conversation between Belichick and Saban that began the piece was almost impressionist in nature. 

The audio was intentionally interrupted time and again by a narrator -- "Are you still playing, like, some 3-4 stuff? But mostly out of a lot of sink but with different guys dropping. . ." Saban started to ask Belichick before being muffled -- offering a glimpse into what it might be like to sit in on a football discussion between two of the most successful coaches in the sport's history.

Running more than an hour, leaning on new interviews as well as stock footage compiled by NFL Films over decades, HBO provided plenty in the way of detail on how Belichick and Saban's paths crossed (Navy, of course), their philosophies on coaching, how they impacted each other's careers, and how they were influenced by their fathers. 

.embed-container { position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; height: 0; overflow: hidden; max-width: 100%; } .embed-container iframe, .embed-container object, .embed-container embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; }

Here we'll highlight five of what we deemed the most fascinating moments from the special. 


We heard about how Belichick and Saban might be distant cousins. ("There aren't that many Croatians around so somewhere down the line we're probably related, distantly," Belichick said smiling.) We heard about Terry Saban's sarcastic streak ("Terry walks in," Belichick said, "and says, 'Oh look at this! Bill Belichick and Nick Saban! The two great football coaches!... I feel so blessed to be in your presence!' That was a very humbling moment for us.") But before all that we heard Belichick's quick assessment of the 2018 season for the Patriots. 

After Saban complimented Belichick for how his defense played en route to winning Super Bowl LIII, Belichick offered an honest review. "Last third of the season we played good," he said. "We were [expletive] for two-thirds of the year. But then it kind of came together."

The Patriots have about a third of the 2019 season left . . . if they end up playing 18 or 19 games. Three regular-season games remain, and depending on how those go, they'll play either three or four postseason games at most. Can this year's team improve late the way last year's did? Belichick would surely rather lament a bad stretch of the season to Saban next offseason after winning another Lombardi Trophy.


Both Belichick and Saban had tales of what it required to access the kind of information that is now available with the push of the button. Saban cut film and taped it back together to get games organized by offense, defense and special teams. Belichick used ice picks with the Colts in 1975 to help organize index cards that had diagrams of opponent plays. Ice picks.

"It was tedious," Belichick said. "But you learned the game."

Of course, now teams -- like the Patriots -- have the ability to upload video of games to their laptops before the team plane has taken off for home. Times have changed.

"Now it's like rushing to do the most important work, the breakdown stuff, so we can get to the other stuff. It always drives me crazy too. We get on the place after a loss. I walk on the plane after a loss. A lot of times the coaches will be there with their computers and everything. I'm like, 'You know, fellas, the reason we got beat is because we can't tackle and we can't force the run. All the rest of this is a bunch of garbage. This isn't about a computer, getting into some space world technology. We can't tackle."



At one point in the piece, Belichick might've dispelled a commonly-held assumption about one reason why he's been as successful as he's been. He was an economics major at Wesleyan University, and so if he spots a market inefficiency when it comes to team-building, many (myself included) have referenced his Wesleyan background as the place he likely sharpened his understanding of supply and demand. 

"I'd struggle to say that that's really helped me," Belichick said. "I'd say the biggest thing I learned in college wasn't the material. It was how to solve problems and how to think. How to come up with your own idea and solution to the problem. That's really what our job is, my job is. There are problems every day. What are my options? Are there any variables, or do I just have these options? Pick the best one and figure out how to implement it."


When Saban left the Browns in the mid-1990s to become the head coach at Michigan State, HBO pointed out that he didn't take assistants from Belichick's program in Cleveland. That led into an interesting back-and-forth between the two coaches about why they don't look kindly on staffs being raided when one assistant gets a head gig elsewhere. 

Coincidentally, that could be how one might describe what happened to the Patriots this past offseason. Former Patriots defensive play-caller Brian Flores took the head-coaching job in Miami, where former Patriots receivers coach Chad O'Shea became the offensive coordinator, former Patriots corners coach Josh Boyer became the pass-game coordinator/corners coach, and where former Patriots assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schupinski landed. 

"We've always had sort of a mutual respect for how we take each other's people," Saban told Belichick. "It's one thing that I always try to emphasize to the guys. What I have a tough time with is we've had however many guys who've worked here who are at Georgia, Tennessee, whoever, wherever. When they get those jobs, and in most cases, you helped them, then they have a hard time understanding why they can't take your people. I want to help you get a job so you can try to take what I've tried to build here and destroy the continuity of what I have. The assistants don't understand why that's not a good thing." 

"I'm happy for the people who've worked hard for me to get opportunities," Belichick said. "I want to see them build their own program. When they try to tear down our program. That's kind of where the line, I feel gets crossed." 


You had to know this was coming in some way shape or form.

"I hate social media," Belichick said. "We get rid of it whenever we can, [meaning] do things that you don't bring your phone. You just have a conversation with the other person in the eye instead of texting back and forth. 

"But it's the way of the world. [College coaches] deal with it more than we do. It still comes back to fundamental relationships and communication. There's no cell phones out there on the field. You better know what your teammate is doing, you better know what you're doing or you're going to get beat."

While both coaches work with young athletes, Saban's opinion of social media seemed to be derived on the fact that anyone and everyone is now an opinion-maker.

"I think because of social media," Saban said, "they're getting a lot of their positive self-gratification by the communication they have without looking someone in the eye, without developing the relationship with them. I think that's a critical part that they all need to develop and you need to have to have a team. 

"No question. Who cares how many likes you get from 2,000 people you don't even know," Belichick said. "There's 53 guys in the locker room. Those are the 53 that matter. And I don't know if that always gets through or not but we keep pounding away, we keep trying."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Contact Us