FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — They’re old college buddies. Not in the traditional sense — they didn’t go to school together, share the same dorm room or rush the same fraternity — but college is where their friendship blossomed.
It was even some college kid who more or less brought them together.
Steve Belichick was attending Rutgers University on a lacrosse scholarship, but wanted to play football, too, as a long snapper. Shortly after he got his shot, his father started dropping by the campus to talk to his son’s new coach.
There was a connection there. And in a way, Steve’s new football coach, Greg Schiano, and his father, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, really were frat brothers.
They had even crossed paths before, back in the late 1990s. Schiano, now the head coach of the Buccaneers, spent a year as the Chicago Bears’ defensive backs coach when Belichick was the defensive coordinator of the New York Jets.
“Yeah, I had known Bill,’’ Schiano said. “But it really wasn’t until after his son came to Rutgers and started playing football there that he and I started to talk more and really got to know each other.”
Those coach-to-father talks quickly revealed that Schiano and Belichick, who will face off tonight when the Bucs battle the Patriots in a preseason game at Gillette Stadium, shared not only a vocation and expertise for defensive strategy, but a philosophy.
Both are no-nonsense disciplinarians who believe structure and order are pillars of success. Both prefer a one-voice approach that limits access to assistant coaches by reporters. And both are relatively tight-lipped, particularly about the status of injured players, though Schiano has shown a greater willingness to be personable and engaging with the media than Belichick.
Beyond that, the 61-year-old Belichick and 47-year-old Schiano share a mutual respect for one another as coaches and for what the other has achieved during his tenure on the sidelines.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Greg,’’ Belichick said this week, when the teams held combined practices in Foxborough. “I think he did a great job when he was at Chicago, when he was at (the University of) Miami and during his whole career at Rutgers.
“He brought that program up and made it one of the top programs in the country. He took a program that wasn’t used to being at that level to national prominence on a consistent basis.’’
Belichick’s regard for what Schiano did during 11 years as the head coach of the Scarlet Knights is evident in his roster. He currently has nine Rutgers players on it, one more than Schiano has on the Bucs roster.
Schiano’s level of respect for Belichick, meanwhile, goes far beyond the fact Belichick has taken the Patriots to five Super Bowls, winning three, and is a three-time Associated Press Coach of the Year.
“The achievements are what make people look at him and say, ‘What’s he doing that’s different from everybody else?’’’ Schiano said of Belichick. “But once you start to unpeel that, you see what’s different. He has a very unique ability, because of his expertise with the game, of simplifying things for the players and preparing the players. And at the end of the day, that’s what’s it’s all about. That’s what coaching is.
“That and his expertise in personnel. He’s very, very sharp in that. So, you take his ability to teach, his ability to simplify things and his ability to identify personnel matchups, that’s why he’s so successful. And that’s why I try to use what he does as a template for what I want to do.’’
But only as a template. Schiano has his own ideas of how to attack a defense, how to build a staff and, ultimately, how to win football games. Much of what he has gleaned from Belichick, then, is structural in nature.
“You have to coach in your own personality and your own beliefs,’’ Schiano said. “Bill and I have a lot of similar beliefs when it comes to football, yet schematically there are a lot of differences.
“Now, I do happen to agree with a lot of the things (he) does, so it’s great to be able to have a guy who’s been through it, experienced a lot of things, and be able to bounce things off of him. That’s a huge asset for me.’’
Most of the exchanges take place during the offseason and center around players more than schemes and systems.
“You know, ‘What do you think of this guy? What do you think of that guy?’’’ Schiano said.
That said, they don’t always talk shop. Neither would get into specifics, but said their relationship now transcends the football field and has grown to include family members beyond Belichick’s son.
“Let’s just say that in the last seven or eight years, I’ve had the opportunity to really get to know him,’’ Schiano said.
Belichick played an integral role in Schiano’s getting the Bucs coaching job. When Tampa Bay started looking for a replacement for Raheem Morris two years ago, one of the first calls the Bucs made while researching Schiano was to Belichick, who did pretty much what you’d expect an old college buddy to do.
Pointing out the NFL readiness of Schiano-coached Rutgers players such as cornerback Devin McCourty and citing what he considered to be Schiano’s elite organizational skills, Belichick gave Schiano a ringing endorsement.
Belichick has since described his recommendation a little differently. He doesn’t disagree that it was favorable, but wants it known that, above all, it was “honest.’’
“What somebody else is looking for, they have to decide that,’’ Belichick said. “All I can do is be honest and I was. But I do think the world of Greg. I think he’s an excellent coach, absolutely.”
And a good friend.