Belichick, Football, and Military History


One Thing after Another strives to remain topical, and the following post is a shameless attempt to capitalize on interest in the Super Bowl. According to the following article from the Wall Street Journal, Bill Belichick is a diligent student of history, especially military history.

One Thing after Another would like to think that Belichick has learned something valuable from reading military history. For example, it might provide him with some insight into leadership. At the same time, it might give him an uncanny ability to dismantle opposing football teams. For sure, the study of military history has helped coaches develop creative playmaking and play-calling. Clark Shaughnessy (1892-1970), who coached a variety of football teams but earned fame mainly with Stanford University and the Chicago Bears, is most well-known for replacing the dominant single-wing offensive formation with a resurrection of the old T formation in the 1940s. Innovations associated with Shaughnessy’s T still survive today. For instance, under the T, the quarterback took the snap from under center (instead of having the ball hiked five yards back directly to either the halfback or tailback as was the case with the single-wing). In the T, having the quarterback handing the ball off to a tailback or halfback allowed him to hit holes in the line of scrimmage more quickly and at greater speed. But what also appealed to Shaughnessy was that the T provided opportunities for more options and more deception. Getting the ball under center, the quarterback could do anything with it. He could run it. He could throw to a receiver. He could hand the ball off to a back. He could throw to a back. This last option was something that Shaughnessy really liked. One of the three backs in the T could become a man in motion before the ball was hiked and thus turn into a receiver. Even if the back who acted as the man in motion did not receive the ball, he could draw defenders away from where the play’s center of gravity was going to be. Where did Shaughnessy supposedly get these ideas? A number of historians have claimed that he was heavily influenced by his reading of Heinz Guderian’s Achtung–Panzer! (1937).  Moreover, parallels have been drawn between Shaughnessy’s use of the man in motion and Erich von Manstein’s famous “sickle cut” (Sichelschnitt) plan that laid France low in 1940. Army Group B’s foray into the Low Countries distracted the Allies who sent their most mobile forces northward to counter it. With the Anglo-French line thinned out by this diversion (and deprived of a mobile reserve), Army Group A shot through the Ardennes, cut the Allied line in half, and drove to the coast.

Did Belichick use his knowledge of military history to fake out the Ravens with that formation where an eligible receiver lined up as an offensive lineman, while another offensive player lined up in the slot but declared himself ineligible? No, of course not. Evidence suggests that Belichick borrowed the formation from the Detroit Lions after watching them on tape (and, of course, improving on their play):

However, the creativity and deception associated with this play–hallmarks of Shaughnessy’s coaching as well–could well be inspired by a thorough familiarity with military history.

Undoubtedly, one can draw a number of analogies between war and football. Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), the Prussian general who was one of the greatest thinkers about armed conflict the West ever produced, asserted in On War that “war is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale.” He refined this definition by claiming that “war is . . . an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”  If boxing or mixed martial arts resemble a duel, football is a duel “on an extensive scale” which employs force to compel the enemy to do our will. In short, football resembles war in a fundamental way. That resemblance has prompted many comparisons. Historians have claimed that football was an outgrowth of the Civil War:

Others commentators have argued that a symbiotic relationship exists between war and football. Each feeds interest in the other, and each becomes a surrogate for the other:

In 2010, the National Interest claimed that Americans’ attitudes toward football shaped their attitudes toward war and not in a healthy way:

This short opinion piece from US News and World Report sought to refute the notion that Americans like football because they are a warlike people:

One Thing after Another does not presume to reach conclusions here about the profundities of the relationship between war and football. However, it would like to point out (yet again) the degree to which the practice of history, which allows one to make useful analogies between the past and the present, can give one an advantage in the most unlikely of areas.

Loftus Helps Guide the NYU Bobcats on the Court

Loftus Coaching

When History major Cassie Loftus ’08 attended Saint Anselm College, she played for the women’s basketball squad, becoming team captain during her junior and senior years. After leaving Saint Anselm College, Loftus served as an assistant coach at both Springfield College and Williams College. She is now the assistant coach for the New York University women’s basketball team. One Thing after Another recently asked Loftus to share what she was up to.

Q: How and why did you decide to become a history major?

A: I started as a Journalism major and then changed to Political Science. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I love the study of politics. I’m fascinated with the people who participate in politics, and I enjoy the media buzz that surrounds them. But I also enjoyed the structure of History classes; there was discussion and a constant exchange of ideas that I didn’t necessarily get in math or sciences classes.

Q: Why did you transfer from Brandeis to St. A’s?

A: In my initial college search, I wanted to find a place where I could immerse myself in an athletic as well as an academic experience. While I appreciated the opportunity to be at such a great academic institution like Brandeis, I didn’t feel as though I could get the experience I was looking for. I do not believe I made a mistake, though. I learned a lot about humility, balance in life, and how to have the courage to be happy. I still have a great relationship with friends and coaches at Brandeis, but I just knew it wasn’t the best fit for me. I am so thankful for that one year because it helped me decipher so much about the collegiate experience I really wanted.

Q: When did you decide that you wanted to coach basketball? How did you go about placing yourself on a career path that led to coaching collegiate women’s basketball?

A: I didn’t realize I wanted to be a basketball coach until my junior year of college. I had always considered myself a student of the game because, believe it or not, I was undersized, a step slow, and had to really work hard to make an impact on my team. I was lucky to have some excellent coaches throughout my career and wanted to help shape others experiences the same way they helped me. Young women need positive role models who are strong in body, mind, and spirit, and I hope that every day I can be that for the young women who play for our program. There is no direct path into coaching, and it is pretty hard to get your foot in the door. Lucky for me, I had somebody take a chance who saw my potential and that I was willing to work hard to gain experience. My coach from Brandeis actually hooked me up with one of her coaching colleagues at Springfield College . . . and the rest is history!

Q: The great majority of our majors go into fields that have nothing to do with history. Yet many seem to find their study of history useful to their careers. Has that been the case with you? If so, how?

A: The history major at St. A’s prepared me to communicate well, think critically, and to view the world with a set of eyes that penetrate beneath the surface. As a college coach, there is much value in these skills. In practices, games, team meetings, and in recruiting I am required to hone these skills. NYU is a place that puts a great deal of emphasis on global awareness, and we have many international students. We also have eleven campuses across the globe with several more to come in the near future. I believe my background in history helps me understand that I have so much to learn about NYU’s student body and where they come from. I am intrigued by the diversity and can appreciate that there is so much to be learned from it!

Q: You grew up in Nashua, started your undergraduate studies at Brandeis University, finished at St. A’s, and went off to coach at Springfield College and thence to Williams College. After living and studying in a number of medium-sized towns, was Manhattan something of a shock?

A: There is no place like NYC! There is a vibrancy and beauty to all the chaos. Before I came, I had a very naïve perception of the Big Apple and saw it as a big traffic jam. There is a unique character to every neighborhood, subway line, and coffee shop. What a fool I was to think it was ALL yellow taxi’s and skyscrapers! In a city of 8 million people, there is an individual relationship each of us gets to have with the place. It is rich in history and in that way feels like an adult playground. I feel so lucky that every day I grab a coffee on Broadway and head in to work to coach college basketball. It took me a little while to get the hang of it, but I am crossing streets and hailing cabs with the best of them! The ultimate compliment is when people stop and ask me for directions because it appears as though I am a “real New Yorker!”

Q: Nashua, New Hampshire is the only town in the United States to be named “Best Place to Live in America” twice by Money magazine (1987 and 1997). Was Nashua (“land between two rivers” in the language of the Penacook people) really all that? Why?

A: Nashua is one hour from the ocean, one hour from the lakes and mountains, and one hour from Boston (YES I am a Red Sox fan, and NO amount of time in New York City will ever change that). Nashua is a diverse city because of its proximity to Boston. I grew up with kids who came from literally nothing and also with kids who seemed to have everything. There were families from all over the world. I went to a very large high school with 3,999 other students. We had more students than St. A’s! I love where I am from, despite all the jokes about cow tipping and the misconception that we are rural. Plus, it was only 15 minutes from Saint Anselm College so every game was a home game.

Loftus with Magic Johnson Final