INDIANAPOLIS — He fishes, goes to wine festivals, even kisses his girlfriend in full view at a Boston Celtics game.
He’s Bill Belichick.
The New England Patriots coach, whose dour demeanor matches his gray hoodie and whose quotes make clichés seem original, actually has a colorful side rarely seen by football junkies. For some reason — and Belichick has a reason for everything — he’s loosened up this Super Bowl week with a season’s worth of smiles, jokes and fashionable attire.
“He’s a good dude,” tight end Aaron Hernandez said. “You just have to catch him on the right day.”
There have been several of those this week, as the Pats prepare to play the New York Giants in Sunday’s NFL title game, enough to show that Belichick is more than a one-dimensional gridiron “genius” but perhaps not enough to prove his public makeover will last until next season.
Matt Light, who has played left tackle for the Patriots since 2001, has watched Belichick coach about 1,000 practices. He’s heard him rip players of all stature — from stars to practice squadders. And he’s seen him offer encouragement with a pat on the back.
Light also noticed that Belichick has relaxed with age; he turns 60 in April, and has spent 37 of those years in various capacities on NFL coaching staffs.
“I think he’s had a little more fun with some of the things that surround the game of football,” Light said. “Whether it’s just his old age softening him a little bit, he seems to be having a little bit more fun with it.
“But I think at the heart of everything he does, he just wants to win football games. Football is football and everything else is kind of secondary to that. His main focus is the game. I’m not sure you need to have a whole lot of humor when you’re that focused on what you do, but it’s kind of nice to see it every now and then.”
For six straight days during Super Bowl week, Belichick regaled reporters with humor and historical reminiscences, careful all the while not to reveal any game plans or speak of the Giants with anything but admiration.
“Trust me, at times Bill can be difficult to deal with,” nose tackle Vince Wilfork said, “but I think he sees a difference in this team. I think he knows that he has a pretty tough football team, a smart football team and a team that’s never going to let him down. We have one more game to go. Hopefully, we won’t let him down.”
However it turns out, it will mark the start of Belichick’s offseason. At some point, he’s likely to return to Nantucket,, where he relaxes on his boat “V Rings” and fishes for “Nantucket Blues,” drops by the island’s summer wine festival and maybe strolls into Rocky Fox’s “Chicken Box.”
Belichick popped in there with some friends a few summers ago to hear a Bruce Springsteen cover band, said Fox, one of three owners of the nearly 50-year-old nightclub that he calls “a five-star dive bar.”
“He was low-key, kept to himself with his friends, just enjoyed the music and was very hospitable,” Fox said. “When they left he said, ‘See you guys later.’ He was the coolest guy in the building, just chilling out.”
He chilled at a Celtics playoff game few years ago, too. Sitting beside girlfriend Linda Holliday, a former Mrs. Arkansas contestant, the two turned to each other in their courtside seats and kissed. He waved when he was introduced, getting a loud ovation from the crowd.
“I don’t know if it’s a lady in his life or what the deal is, but he definitely smiles a little more than he used to,” wide receiver Wes Welker said.
Is he putting on a front for the national audience? Is he loosening up because he’s confident he’ll win his fourth Super Bowl with the Patriots? Or is he polishing his image for a post-football job, perhaps as a TV commentator?
“Bill may be wanting to market himself more and this may be a long-term change. Time will tell,” said Bob Williams, chief executive officer of Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing in Chicago, a company that matches celebrities with advertisers and endorsement opportunities.
Belichick, slipping into his old style of answering a question that wasn’t asked, brushed aside one from a reporter who wanted to know if he might retire if the Patriots win on Sunday.
“Right now, I’m really thinking, ‘What’s the best thing I can do to help our football team on Sunday against the Giants?’ I want to really try to do a good job in the job that I have,” he said.
More important, he really likes the job and all that comes with it: drafting, trading, practicing, coaching games, teaching rookies and working with veterans.
“I enjoy the competition on a weekly basis,” Belichick said, “not just on Sundays, but the preparation leading up into the game. I enjoy all of it. It beats working.”
His players know him as a demanding taskmaster, wielding a sharp needle when he needs to get a point across.
Heath Evans spent four years as a running back with the Patriots until 2008. He was an articulate, honest, go-to guy for reporters seeking quotes in a locker room of players cautious not to upset Belichick by saying too much.
“I remember one day at a meeting he said, ‘Hey, Heath, no more state of the union addresses, OK?’ ” Evans recalled. “Light was behind me and started laughing and pounding on my shoulders.”
But Evans also remembers Belichick coming up to him at practice, patting him on the back and saying quietly, “Nice play.”
That kind of encouragement, Evans said, lifts a player’s spirits just when he thinks Belichick may have lost confidence in him.
Of course, players have seen a lot more of Belichick’s personality than the public.
On Thursday, he showed up for his media session wearing a lilac shirt. The hoodies have been out of sight all week.
Why, a reporter asked, was he finally showing a more relaxed side?
“That’s different than the way it normally is?” Belichick asked as the room erupted in laughter.
“I’ll leave that to you,” he said, “to the experts.”