Lessons learned: Pupil starts better than Belichick

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Cleveland Browns fans loathed Bill Belichick.

Nick Caserio grew up a Browns fan in suburban Cleveland. And while I'm not calling Caserio a liar, let me just say I completely understand why he would choose to be diplomatic when asked what his impressions were of Belichick back then.

Caserio now works for Belichick as the New England Patriots director of player personnel.

"I was a Browns fan growing up," Caserio said this week on a conference call. "I wouldn’t really say that I had formed an impression of Bill. I know that they went -- I can't think of whenever that year was -- they went 11-5 and ended up making the playoffs. Obviously some things happened, whether it was the following year when the organization kind of ...

"I mean, I wouldn't be able to comment on anything directly as far as my impression of Bill. I just knew that the team was successful and they won games and they went to the playoffs. So that's probably about the extent of it from my perspective."

Actually, Belichick went 37-45 with the Browns and won a single playoff game.

But I put Caserio on the spot. It was a dastardly move from a Baldwin-Wallace College grad. Caserio went to Cleveland crosstown rival John Carroll University, where he was a teammate of Josh McDaniels, the former Patriots offensive coordinator.

McDaniels and Caserio were at John Carroll during Belichick's tenure in Cleveland. When the Browns hired Belichick in 1991, he was 38 years old, the youngest coach in the NFL.

McDaniels is the 34-year-old rookie head coach of the surprising Denver Broncos. He will match wits with his mentor on Sunday afternoon, when the Patriots visit Invesco Field at Mile High for a noteworthy AFC game.

The Broncos overcame substantial offseason turbulence to start the season 4-0. Their offense has choked out only 79 points, but their defense has allowed a league-low 26.

In McDaniels' eight years as a Patriots assistant, perhaps Belichick imparted a lesson or two about how to establish credibility quickly in a locker room occupied with players from your generation and, in some cases, older.

In finding anecdotes to drive home a point, Belichick could find plenty of material to draw from. There were some wonderful examples to follow, but there were plenty of mistakes to avoid repeating.

"Anytime you go into a new situation," Belichick said on a conference call this week, "everybody has to establish [and] gain the respect of the other people that are on the new team."

Belichick declined to give specifics about what sort of philosophical guidance he imparted to McDaniels. But Belichick said once it became apparent to him McDaniels was destined to be an NFL head coach -- after calling the plays for a team that darn near ran the table in 2007 -- they often discussed the responsibilities that go with being a head coach.

"We both asked questions, exchanged information and talked very freely about it," Belichick said. "There were a lot of things that came up when we talked for hours and hours about that stuff, going both ways, so it was good."

McDaniels, preferring to speak in generalities, is similarly guarded when asked how Belichick has mentored him.

"Bill's helped me out in many different ways in terms of my knowledge about the game, in terms of my understanding of some of the things you need to do as an organization to be successful," McDaniels said. "He’s helped me out in personal areas of my life.

"I've had a lot of conversations with him, some of which I'll definitely keep to myself in private. But, he's been the biggest influence on my success and I will always be indebted to him."

One would have to assume McDaniels asked Belichick about Cleveland and the pressure of accepting that first head-coaching gig at an age when many men still are trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

McDaniels and Caserio, both considered among the league's brightest football minds, certainly were mature and savvy enough to develop an outsider's opinion of Belichick's methods in Cleveland.

Is it unfathomable to picture Caserio and McDaniels shooting each other quizzical glances while watching the Browns on a TV in the college dining hall?

In his 2007 book "The GM,'' former Browns executive Ernie Accorsi recounted a conversation he had with Belichick right after he took the Patriots job. Belichick told him "I really screwed up that thing up in Cleveland, Ernie.''

Belichick's moves were a public relations catastrophe. He made unpopular personnel moves such as benching beloved quarterback Bernie Kosar and felt he owed no one outside the organization an explanation. Belichick honked off his players. Receiver Reggie Langhorne demanded to be traded.

It was almost as though "How to Make Enemies and Alienate People" was Belichick's operations manual.

Somebody might want to check with the Denver public library to see if McDaniels borrowed that book after he was hired.

When word got out McDaniels had pursued a trade for Patriots backup quarterback Matt Cassel, the city practically revolted. Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler was so insulted he forced his way off the team. Star receiver Brandon Marshall tried to do the same.

But McDaniels, with four players on his roster his age or older, managed to gain his team's trust despite the turmoil.

"Age is never a big thing for me, whether it was the head coach of Cleveland or any of those assistant jobs," said Belichick, who was only 23 his first season on Ted Marchibroda's 1975 Baltimore Colts staff. "It was more about doing the job.

"The players feel like, as a coach, you can help them, and you know what you're talking about, and you can tell them things that'll make them better and help prepare them because they want to prepare. They want do well, and they want to improve.

"If you can show them you can do that, then they respect you. If you don't -- I’m not saying they're disrespectful -- but they don't listen carefully. They're not as attentive because I don't think they feel like they are getting information or the assistance that they're looking for and what they've been used to getting in the past."