Will Bill Belichick be like Eddie Sutton and chase a milestone in the twilight

Will Bill Belichick be like Eddie Sutton and chase a milestone in the twilight

Eddie Sutton came out of forced retirement to chase his 800th victory; is Bill Belichick, 14 wins behind Don Shula, ready to give up on the all-time NFL record?

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Feb 10, 2024, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Feb 10, 2024, 6:00am CST

(This story first appeared in Berry Tramel’s newsletter. Subscribe here.)

Bill Belichick went job-hunting last month. Twenty-four years as head coach of the New England Patriots, six Super Bowl titles, more pro-football victories of any head coach this side of Don Shula. Seems like quite a résumé.

But the job market opened and closed, with all eight vacancies filled, without Belichick getting hired.

The Falcons, Panthers, Raiders, Seahawks, Chargers, Titans and  Commanders hired someone else, and the Patriots replaced Belichick with his protégé, Jerod Mayo.

Atlanta was the last best chance for Belichick in this coaching cycle; the Falcons twice interviewed Belichick, before hiring Raheem Morris, who is 21-38 as an NFL head coach, counting an interim gig with the Falcons in 2020 to go with his three Tampa Bay seasons back in 2009-11.

So you wonder if this is it for Belichick, who at 71 (he’ll be 72 in April) is long past the preferred age for NFL hires. Let’s see, the ages of the new hires go in this order: Seattle’s Mike Macdonald, 36; Mayo, 37; Tennessee’s Brian Callahan, 39; Carolina’s Dave Canales, 42; Las Vegas’ Antonio Pierce, 45; Morris, 47; Washington’s Dan Quinn, 53; and Los Angeles’ (Chargers) Jim Harbaugh, 60.

Average age: 45. Median age: 42/45.

NFL coaching is becoming a young-man’s profession. Andy Reid, 65, is the NFL’s oldest head coach. The two oldest coaches in 2023, Belichick and Pete Carroll, 72, are both historical big winners but both basically were fired after this season.

Belichick clearly would like to coach again. But will he get the chance? And will Belichick make like Eddie Sutton and chase a milestone?

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that OSU was not Sutton’s final stop on a career that started in 1959 at Tulsa Central High School and took him to College of Southern Idaho, Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky and OSU. A drunk-driving crash cost Sutton his Cowboy job in February 2006, after 16 seasons, but in December 2007, Sutton reappeared as interim coach at the University of San Francisco.

The reason was obvious. Sutton retired from OSU with 798 career Division I victories. Two shy of the hallowed 800 mark. At the time, only Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp and Jim Phelan had more victories.

But Sutton continually had been bypassed by the Basketball Hall of Fame, due in part to a recruiting scandal at Kentucky, and the finish to his OSU career didn’t help. Perhaps 800 victories would set the bar so high that the Hall of Fame selectors couldn’t turn him down.

On December 26, 2007, San Francisco hired Sutton as interim coach, to replace Jessie Evans, who reportedly was forced out. Victory No. 800 finally came on February 2, 2008, an 85-82 win at Pepperdine. The Dons finished 6-13 under Sutton, and his career ended with 804 victories.

“It’s very important,” Sutton admitted about 800 wins. “From a selfish standpoint, it is something I’m excited about. It was a goal I had for myself. I don’t think nationally, anybody’s going to look at it and say, ‘Now you won 800 versus 798.’ There’s just not that much difference.”

Back to Belichick. He has 333 career NFL wins. That’s just 14 behind Shula’s record. Shula’s 347 victories seemed insurmountable, but Belichick has crept up (heck, so has Andy Reid, who is just 64 wins behind Shula and has Patrick Mahomes as his quarterback for as long as Reid wants to stay the Kansas City coach).

Is Belichick’s obvious interest in continuing to coach because he’s addicted to the sideline, or does he want Shula’s record?

The answer probably is both. Belichick is an ultra-competitive coach who seems lost without a whistle. But Belichick also is one of the game’s great historians.

I think Belichick would be great on television, because of his knowledge of football history. While other analysts can tell you why a quarterback threw what pass against a certain zone defense, Belichick can tell you why that certain zone defense was invented in the first place. A video went viral earlier this year when Belichick was asked why coaches reserve a roster spot for deep-snapper specialists instead of teaching a position player how to do it. Belichick talked 10 minutes about the evolution of the deep snap and why it’s so valuable now.

A guy who knows that much football history has to be in awe of approaching Shula’s all-time wins record. Especially since they were combatants. On September 14, 1992, Shula’s Dolphins beat Belichick’s Browns 27-23. On October 10, 1993, Shula’s Dolphins again beat Belichick’s Browns, 24-14.

Becoming the all-time victory leader is Belichick’s last chance to beat the great Shula, who died in 2020 at age 90.

Chasing victories is easier in college basketball than in the NFL. There were/are 300-something Division I jobs in college hoops, depending on what year you’re talking about. There are 32 NFL jobs, and they don’t pass them out easily.

Could Belichick land one next off-season? Perhaps, though not likely. Could Belichick be called in on an interim basis, to ride out the season of a fired coach? Maybe, though that wouldn’t get him 14 wins.

Is there something untoward about chasing history? Maybe. But I think the NFL is better with Bill Belichick in it. I thought college basketball was better with Eddie Sutton in it.

Belichick doesn’t need to pass Shula to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Belichick is a first-ballot automatic, the first year he’s eligible. 

Sutton didn’t need 800 wins to reach the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame selectors made him wait 12 years after victory No. 800 before he was voted in. The announcement came on April 4, 2020. Sutton died seven weeks later, at age 84.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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