Commentary

Bill Belichick displays human touch

Notoriously reticent Patriots coach opens up about Aaron Hernandez

Updated: July 24, 2013, 11:50 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Many wondered what approach New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick would take in his highly anticipated Wednesday news conference, the first time he would publicly address a murder charge against Aaron Hernandez.

Maybe he would stonewall questions, as he often has when it comes to players no longer with the club. "I'll only talk about the players that are here." Or maybe he would read a carefully crafted statement, written with help from lawyers, and decline questions based on legal circumstances.

In these settings, he's known mostly for not revealing information, as well as any part of his non-coaching self. Few would have been surprised if that's the way it went down.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsTension and anticipation hung in the air as Bill Belichick arrived for Wednesday's press conference.

Yet Belichick delivered something altogether different -- a mix of the human touch in which he expressed personal hurt and disappointment, empathy for those affected by the tragedy, perspective on a life lost and also a respectful defense of the process in which he's vetted players over the past 14 years.

In all, Belichick spoke for about 22 minutes, the first seven consisting of opening remarks before fielding questions from the overflowing media crowd (approximately 100 in attendance) for the next 15. He was as open as we've seen him in his New England tenure, even though there were questions he didn't answer because of legal considerations.

Shortly before it began around 1:50 p.m. ET, there was a palpable tension and anticipation in the room. By the end, there was some laughter induced by Belichick's sense of humor.

This was different, for sure, with an added twist that Hernandez was about 10 miles down the road in Attleboro District Court for a probable cause hearing at about the same time.

Belichick arrived for the news conference wearing shorts and a blue Patriots pullover jacket, almost as if he had just come off the practice field, where he's most comfortable. He handed his white visor to an assistant before approaching the podium, with papers in hand. He would look down at times while reciting his opening remarks, which began with an explanation as to why the team was holding a news conference two days before its first practice, which is outside the norm.

"I'm going to address the situation involving Aaron Hernandez today. I felt that it was important enough to do that prior to the start of [training] camp," he began. "It's a sad day; really a sad day on so many levels."

It was an immediate tone-setter, followed up by words such as "shocked," "disappointed" and "hurt," as well as Belichick's endorsing the idea that the club has a responsibility to be a "pillar in the community."

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This wasn't the Belichick we're used to seeing on a daily basis in news conferences, as he shared his personal whereabouts when Hernandez's name was first connected to the investigation (Belichick was out of the country), revealed that the Patriots didn't have knowledge of Hernandez's possible involvement in a double homicide in Boston in 2012 and said the club was doing everything possible to discover if any of his players had visited Hernandez's apartment in Franklin.

It came across as sincere, in part because Belichick didn't budge when talking about the team's player-evaluation system. It would have scored public relations points to say the club is going to change the way it vets players in light of Hernandez's murder charge, even if that wasn't the intention. He didn't.

Instead, he said the "fundamentals of the process" in which the team scouts and evaluates players on an ongoing basis won't change; there just might be some tweaks or modifications to it. It was a delicate mix of holding himself accountable, but at the same time defending a winning program he's spent countless hours building over the past 14 years.

"I'm proud of the hundreds of players that have come through this program, but I'm personally disappointed and hurt in a situation like this," he said. "We'll learn from this terrible situation.

"I'm primarily responsible for the people that we bring into the football operation. Obviously, this process is far from perfect, but it's the one that we've used from 2000 until today. Unfortunately, this most recent situation, with the charges involved, is not a good one on that record. ... Personally, I'm challenged by decisions that affect the team on a daily basis, and I'm not perfect on that either, but I always try to do what I think is best for the football team."

Belichick added some extra emphasis on those final words -- best for the football team -- which is one of his catchphrases when it comes to tough decisions he makes as the leader of the club.

He said that he would address Hernandez's murder charge once and that's all, so don't expect the same openness the next time he is scheduled to meet with reporters, Friday at 8:40 a.m. ET. He also relayed that players have been advised not to answer any Hernandez-based questions.

"It's time for the New England Patriots to move forward," Belichick declared. "Moving forward consists of what it's always been here: to build a winning football team, be a strong pillar in the community, be a team that our fans can be proud of. That's what we're here for."

Then he added: "My comments are certainly not in proportion to the unfortunate and sad situation that we have here."

That highlights the balance Belichick mostly struck on Wednesday in a news conference in which he surprised with his approach.

It was Belichick with the human touch.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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