Unlike some places that pride themselves on their high school teams or their college teams or their professional teams, the state of Ohio is a place that believes deeply in football at every level, arguably more than any state.
You can probably thank Hall of Famer Paul Brown for most of that. A former Massillon High School Tiger who became the school’s coach and lost a total of just 10 games in 11 seasons, Brown moved on to Ohio State, brought home the school’s first national championship, then after World War II he started the Cleveland Browns and won National Football League championships in 1950, ’54 and ’55. Later, during the reign of Art Modell as owner of the Browns, issues developed and Paul Brown moved on, to start the Cincinnati Bengals.
Compare that to any other part of the country and you’ll come up short. Paul Brown brought the highest possible interest to Ohio in high school, college and professional football, with the effect of marinating young athletes into the game at an early age.
One of the many beneficiaries of that football immersion was former University of Hawaii coach Bob Wagner, the first UH coach to bring the Rainbow Warriors to a conference championship and major victories over longstanding rival BYU. Wagner came out of that remarkable hotbed of football achievement and success with a deep insight on people who coach the game. It helps explain why, on Super Bowl week, Wagner has a learned sense of respect and casual friendship with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, probably the most disliked coach in professional football by fans who follow that level of the game.
More on Belichick in a bit, but it helps to understand his perspective when you recall Wagner played at Wittenberg College for a coach named Bill Edwards.
Wittenberg, you should know, has a vigorous and expansive football tradition that supersedes that of most any school in the land. It’s not Notre Dame or Alabama, but through all levels of college football, Wittenberg teams have attained the fifth-highest winning percentage in the land and that gets us back to Edwards, a Hall of Fame coach who won two national championships at the school. Edwards coached the NFL Detroit Lions a for a year, then was an assistant for the Cleveland Browns, named for Paul Brown.
Edwards began his college career at Ohio State, where he roomed with Brown, a relationship that benefited both of them in years to come. Edwards transferred to Wittenberg and eventually went into coaching at Western Reserve (later re-named Case Western), where he rose to head coach and became a mentor for a player named Steve Belichick, who would name his son Bill, after Edwards, Bill Belichick’s godfather.
It was at Wittenberg, where Edwards became a Hall of Fame coach with two national championships and a 168-45-8 record, the last of the those squads having coincided with the senior season for Wagner.
“He recruited (Steve) Belichick, that’s how I heard it,” Wagner, the former Kamehameha-Hawaii athletic director, said last week, “and I guess they saw the game in the same way.”
Edwards was able to bridge the gap from being a drill sergeant to a compassionate friend. He coached three unbeaten teams at Wittenberg and was referred to in a Sports Illustrated story as “a combination of Genghis Khan and Santa Claus” for his tough but understanding approach to his players.
Steve Belichick learned those character traits and introduced them to his son Bill, who was born in Nashville when his father coached for Edwards at Vanderbilt. Belichick eventually played center for Wesleyan, in Connecticut, when his dad coached at the US Naval Academy.
Belichick, he would agree, was not a great football player. Even at Division III level, he was somewhat undersized, but he got along by perfecting technique and found ways to insert himself in front of defenders, slowing them up for a time and making himself useful on the offensive line.
But there is no lengthy folklore of great players being great coaches, in any sport. There are a few, but the greats of the game? The Lombardi’s, the Walsh’s, the Saban’s? All examples of players who understood the game better than they were able to play it.
Wagner was like that at Wittenberg for Edwards.
“They wanted me to play (left) tackle, right away,” Wagner said. “I wondered if they knew what they were doing, but they were good teachers, good communicators and we made it work, somehow.”
Wagner deflects praise, but Edwards had implemented a pro-style offense and Wagner played a critical position on a team that went 28-7 (14-5 in conference) in his time there. He saw the bigger view of the game, understood how the offense and defense worked together for success and became a good coach at a difficult place to win games on an island in the Pacific Ocean.
And on Super Bowl week, he has a special feeling about Belichick and the New England Patriots. Coaches understand coaches in ways most fans do not. In the times he met with Belichick, Wagner found him to be open, outgoing and friendly, and the odd thing about that was that the first time they met, Belichick was coaching the Cleveland Browns, not an especially happy time.
“We know what he’s like in press conferences,” Wagner said, “he’s not engaging, he’s certainly never going to give the other team any bulletin board material — none at all, and that’s a given.
“But beyond that, from a coaching perspective? Everybody talks about (41 year-old quarterback Tom) Brady, but to me, Belichick is the GOAT (greatest of all time).
“I would not take anything away from Brady,” Wagner said, “but I wonder, do we really think it would be much different if it was (Aaron) Rodgers, or some of those other top guys at the position? I think Belichick and his approach, makes those guys better.”
You can’t blame Wagner, he comes from a coaching tree that started with Paul Brown, extended to Bill Edwards and then sprouted coaching limbs that include Steve and Bill Belichick and Bob Wagner himself, to name a few.
Wagner felt the Ohio connection when he was an assistant on the staff of Don James at Washington after James made the jump from Kent State in Ohio, having coached Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert and future coaches Gary Pinkel and Nick Saban.
It is one big coaching family that has never leaned on a specific approach that covers all situations. These have always been versatile coaches, bending their game plans to their opponents.
“It’s not done everywhere,” Wagner said. “You have those coaches who say, ‘This is what we do,’ and they do it in all situations against all different kinds of approaches.
“Don James coached the way I was coached. The idea each week was, ‘What’s it going to take? What do we need to do?’”
If that sounds like a Belichick approach, it is. It was also the Paul Brown, Bill Edwards and Bob Wagner approach.
Super Bowl predictions? Coaches seldom do that, but Wagner suggests things like turnovers will make an impact, as always. But beyond that?
“Can the Rams get the Patriots off the field?” Wagner said. “Watch for that. (Belichick) controlled the clock against the Chiefs with the run game and that kept Patrick Mahomes on the sidelines at the same time it was gradually wearing down the (Chiefs) defense.
“He might not be able to run against the Rams, but the short passing game? Slants, screens and all the rest? I’m not sure anyone does that better than Belichick. If he controls the clock, watch out.”
To get to the Super Bowl, the Patriots and the oldest quarterback in the league, arguably the best to ever play the game, beat one of the young quarterbacks who clearly had the best season of any player at his position.
Good luck against the GOAT.
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