First of all, a personal note: as someone who's been watching the Patriots religiously since age 11 (the not-so-glorious, mercifully short-lived Rod Rust era), I probably can't lay much of a claim to objectivity when reviewing this book. But, I'm going to try it anyway, so you may want to consider the source.
Now, that having been said, David Halberstam's The Education of a Coach is one monstrously enjoyable and interesting read. Centering around current New England Patriots coach and three-time Super Bowl champ Bill Belichick, it's not so much a biography as an examination of what's propelled one man to the top of the notoriously difficult profession of football coaching. Halberstam hasn't set himself an easy task, as The Education of a Coach is a book about a football coach that clearly aims for a much larger audience than fans of the sport--hardcore football freaks will occasionally have to put up with explanations of relatively basic concepts like blitzing--but it's still worth reading for all the insight that Halberstam brings to his subject. He's not so much examining the nuts and bolts of football, as there are plenty of books you can already turn to for that; nor is Halberstam aiming to provide a complete summation of Belichik's life in the sport, as several years of his career (notably his tenure with the Jets) are more or less glossed over. Rather, what Halberstam is going for is a view of the qualities that allowed Bill Belichick--who never played professional football and had a mediocre stint as coach of the Cleveland Browns before taking the Patriots' head job--to succeed where so many other smart and dedicated men had failed.
One of the best qualities of Halberstam's sportswriting is his ability put everything he writes about into some sort of larger context, and The Education of a Coach is no exception. By now, everyone who's paid attention knows that Belichick's father Steve had a profound influence on his son's career path, so the book starts in Steve's formative years, allowing the reader to get an idea of the experiences and ideals he passed along to Bill. There are sketches of some of the other key players in Belichick's coaching life as well--longtime assistant Ernie Adams, Giants mentor Ray Perkins, and of course Bill Parcells and Tom Brady most notably--but again, all of the biographical details feed into the larger purpose of illuminating the harsh realities of modern-day pro football and the staggering demands placed on its coaches. Football, especially now, and especially at the professional level, is a game of contrasts: the influx of black athletes starting about fifty years ago and intensifying since has made the sport faster, tougher, and harder-hitting, but at the same time it's acquired a level of sophistication that would've been inconceivable back in the days when football was little more than a glorified brawl. Pro football is now in an age where 300 pounds isn't even considered heavy at some positions, where a quarterback like Michael Vick can be the fastest guy on the field *and* toss the ball 50 yards with a flick, and where coaches sleep in their offices as a matter of course. In other words, the job of a coach has become professional in every sense, with those who climb to the top of the ladder pretty much obligated to devote their lives to little else.
What Halberstam especially tries to hammer home is the way Belichick, against the backdrop of football's geometric growth in terms of complexity and precision, managed to create a team that could function as a cohesive unit, especially given all the pressures in the direction of mounting individualism, namely big-money contracts and incredibly saturating TV exposure. Now, Halberstam does overstate his case somewhat in trying to posit Belichick as a uniquely successful proponent of the team concept--the last three NBA championships have been won by the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs, who are also known for their unselfish ethic--but his lengthy illustrations of Belichick's successes (and failures) as a coach still go a long way toward illuminating what goes on behind the scenes in pro sports. In the later chapters, Halberstam finally gets to the philosophy that enabled Belichick to turn the Patriots into a dynasty in an era where the NFL does everything it can to discourage extended dominance. Not only does Halberstam address some of the team's more effective in-game strategies (the kind that made the Patriots seemingly the only team able to regularly stop Peyton Manning, this year's game notwithstanding), but he describes in depth the New England organization's emphasis on getting the kind of players who coud be relied upon to carry out those strategies. Granted, many of the most important contributors to the team's current run--Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Adam Vinatieri, and Troy Brown among them--were carryovers from previous regimes, but what's most notable to Halberstam is how these players were made to mesh with new additions, many of them castoffs from other organizations, to create an efficient, businesslike group that valued the end result (namely winning) above all else.
What enabled Belichick to become such a stunningly singular success in such a challenging field, Halberstam discovers, is the rare combination of a mind ideally suited to coaching, a background ideally suited to developing that mind, and an obsessive work ethic ideally suited to making the most of his intelligence and training. Belichick followed a career path many of us normal people would consider insane-despite a degree from Wesleyan that clearly provided him with plenty of options, Belichick spent his first few years after college on the bottom rungs of the professional football ladder, working long hours at unpublicized jobs for little (if any) pay. But as Halberstam makes clear, even at that early point Belichick demonstrated the incredible memory, adaptability and attention to detail that eventually put him on the top of the NFL's coaching heap. Belichick has earned a reputation as the most analytical of coaches; Halberstam shows a similar gift for analysis by putting into perspective just what such a description implies and what's necessary to achieve it in the first place.