by Tim Warren
This is how Ernie Adams does his job: He works like hell, much harder and longer than anybody else. He'll put in 100-hour workweeks for six straight months and the rest of the year cut back only a little. And, truthfully, he'd be very happy if nobody outside of his employer ever knows what he does.
Recognition? He doesn't need it. One of his childhood heroes, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, once wrote a book called Run to Daylight. Adams' book would be called Run to the Shadows.
Adams (SESP75) is quite possibly the best football coach you've never heard of — a "great football nerd," as the late author David Halberstam once said of him. As an assistant with the New England Patriots, Adams has been a key part of four Super Bowl teams, with three of them winning the championship. He is Coach Bill Belichick's most trusted assistant and is generally regarded as an innovator in scouting, able to ferret out weaknesses in even the most imposing opponents.
And yet, today's Ernie Adams is little different from the freshman who walked onto the campus of Northwestern in fall 1971: reserved yet self-confident, with an almost superhuman knowledge of football and an extraordinary capacity for hard work. He became a legendary student assistant for the football team, one who could spook you with his knowledge of a play that so-and-so ran fifteen years earlier.
"He had an incredible football mind," says Randy Dean (McC77, KSM90), Northwestern's quarterback in the mid- to late 1970s, who was drafted by the New York Giants in 1977 and reunited with Adams when he joined the team in 1979. "He was one of the premier resources for anything in film. And even then he had a real passion for the game."
It is felt by many that Adams ranks among the leading Northwestern coaching notables since the 1950s, including Ara Parseghian, Alex Agase, Joel Collier (SESP54), Rick Venturi (SESP68, GSESP69) and Mike Stock (SESP61).
The Patriots' success has earned Belichick accolades as a genius, one of the National Football League's great coaches.
And Ernie Adams? The few stories written about him invariably have such headlines as "Who Is This Guy?" He may be a longtime friend and associate of Belichick's — the two prep schoolmates have worked together with NFL teams in New York, Cleveland and New England — but Adams rarely talks to the press, which is typical for all Patriots assistants, and he long ago perfected the delicate balancing act of being both a giant in his field and also nearly invisible.
So when Adams agreed to sit for interviews for an article in Northwestern magazine — "I really appreciate how the school helped give me my start," he says simply — it was a rare chance to get to know this most elusive man. Not that it was easy: Once the regular season started, he'd be working from 7 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, till January. No time for interviews then, but somehow a window of three hours was found in late August before the Patriots' last preseason game, against the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J.
"Hi, I'm Ernie Adams," says the man walking across the lobby of a chain hotel in East Rutherford, across the highway from Giants Stadium. He is about 6 feet tall, of medium build, with dark-rimmed glasses and brown hair, and he wears nondescript sweats.
Football coaches generally speak loudly, talk of their sport in warlike terms and seem to be one step from grabbing you by the arm to make a point. But Adams looks bookish and serious, willfully bland, like the guy who oversees your stock portfolio — entirely appropriate since he has twice taken hiatuses from coaching for ventures into the financial world.
Once settled into his hotel room for the interview, Adams quickly addresses the question of why he seeks anonymity. "The truth is, I've always preferred to fly under the radar," he says matter-of-factly. "I just don't need a lot of notice. I love what I do, and that's enough. And there's a lot of stuff about being in the spotlight that I just don't want." He gives a quick laugh. "Let someone else worry about the media and the second-guessing and all the pressure."
And so it goes for two hours. It is quickly evident why Belichick and so many others have appreciated Adams' counsel. "Nine times out of 10, Ernie has the answer," Belichick says, and during the interview Adams' answers are concise and to the point, with no effort to impress with his knowledge. And this is one very smart guy, not only in football but also in many other matters.
Talking about the Patriots' reputation for preparation and thoroughness, Adams, in illustrating a point, chooses not to quote Lombardi or another football legend but the great U.S. World War II general George C. Marshall. "He used to say, 'Did you think that through?' I think that is a great approach, and I wonder sometimes if it was taken when we invaded Iraq."
Adams may be consumed with football, but he is also extremely well read, especially in history. When Adams was interviewed by Halberstam for his 2005 book on Belichick, The Education of a Coach, Adams struck a deal with the author of The Best and the Brightest: For every three questions he fielded, he could ask Halberstam one about Vietnam. "It was a fabulous experience," Adams recalls. "I had read most of David's books, and there was no way I was not going to pick his brain as well.
"He would call usually about 10 in the morning," Adams goes on, breaking from his New England accent into an uncanny imitation of Halberstam's dramatic, booming delivery: "Ernie, this is Dav-id Hal-ber-stam. I have some more ques-tions for you." Adams resumes his normal speaking voice. "David used to say, 'What I want are the stories, because the stories make the book.'"
The Education of a Coach was an insightful look at Belichick's coaching influences, but it also introduced Adams to the general public and even to his contemporaries in the NFL. Until the book came out, Adams was relatively unknown in coaching circles.
Halberstam's portrait of Adams was irresistible: a guy who knew even as a kid that he wanted to coach, who had owned hundreds of football books by his teens and whose near-photographic memory and incisive analysis had become legendary before he left the Northwestern campus in 1975.
Halberstam indeed got plenty of stories for the book, and some of the best involved Adams. There was the time he boldly wrote to Agase, then Northwestern's head coach, in 1971 to seek a job as a student assistant on the football coaching staff (before he had even arrived on campus as a freshman). Adams enclosed a long treatise on the drop-back quarterback in the T formation. Agase gave it to Jay Robertson (WCAS62, KSM72), a center on Northwestern's teams in the early 1960s and an assistant coach for the Wildcats in the 1970s, for his review. Robertson, who later served as an assistant coach with the Indianapolis Colts and the Giants, was so impressed with the piece he thought it had been written by a distinguished college or professional coach.
At Northwestern, after gaining the confidence of first Agase and then his successor, John Pont, Adams scouted upcoming opponents and during practice ran Northwestern's offensive scout team against the starting defense. Under his direction, offensive reserves ran the plays of the team the Wildcats would be playing next. With both tasks Adams exhibited his trademarks: long, long hours on the job and a precocious understanding of the game.
More than 30 years later, Dean recalls that Adams was astonishingly good. "He was clearly knowledgeable on strategy, tactics and techniques," says Dean, who now works as a consultant in strategic planning for small businesses in Milwaukee. "He wasn't demanding, but he was firm. He was not a rah-rah type, but you knew it was important to run plays correctly because the varsity needed to be able to defend against those plays."
Robertson, who first showed Adams the ropes of scouting and remains a close friend, notes that Adams also had to have considerable people skills, since many players on the scout team were unhappy in that role and required motivation: "A lot of those players were older than Ernie, and many of them initially felt he hadn't proved anything." But even then, Adams knew how to teach.
Robertson recalls one time Adams had been scouting another opponent while Northwestern was playing Purdue University. The Boilermakers hurt Northwestern in several critical situations with one particular play, in which the halfback came out of the backfield and caught a pass after the tight end had cleared out the area in front of him. Adams knew why Purdue had been successful with the play and why Northwestern had not been able to stop it. Robertson takes it from there.
"Well, he confessed to me long after he graduated that after that game, he made sure the scout team continued to run that play, even if it wasn't in the offensive scheme of the upcoming opponent," Robertson says with an appreciative chuckle. "None of the other coaches told him to do it, and he never told them."
That sort of initiative — and being given the responsibilities he had — would have been unthinkable for any assistant coach on most other major-college staffs. "Alex Agase was a wonderful coach," Adams says, "and he accepted me completely once he got the idea I knew something. Big-school programs, they would have something like 20 student assistants. Alex gave me a chance. If I had gone to, say, Alabama, I never would have had the opportunity."
After graduating with a degree in education, Adams secured his first job, with the Patriots, by studying their playbook and films so thoroughly over a two-week span that "it was as if he had photographed it and memorized it," Halberstam wrote.
Adams spent three years with the Patriots during his first stint in New England, where he pioneered much of the film-watching techniques now common in the NFL. "Let's say you wanted to put in a film on a team's goal-line defense," he says. "Someone would say, 'Here are all the goal-line plays.' Well, that was a very labor-intensive process with you physically taking the film from one play and splicing it in. We were the only ones doing it. Now it's standard and with digital a whole lot easier."
In 1979 he joined the Giants, reuniting with Belichick, who had been a prep-school teammate at Andover Academy in Massachusetts. Adams spent six years with the team, the first three as quarterback and receivers coach and the last three as pro personnel scout. He decided the latter job wasn't to his liking, despite the Giants' rise as one of the best teams in the league. So he went to work on Wall Street as a municipal bond trader for six years.
"I had a real interest in investments," Adams says, "so I took the job with the bond firm. I liked it — every day was competitive, and it was a different part of the world. But it became a combination of enjoying it and missing football at the same time, so when I had a chance to go with Bill in 1991 when he was named coach of the Cleveland Browns, I jumped at it."
Adams spent five years with the Browns, coaching the tight ends and running backs, but when Belichick was fired in 1996, Adams took another break from the NFL, opening his own investment business.
Belichick says he wasn't surprised that Adams, despite his love for the game, could leave it twice. "Those of us who know Ernie best understand that he is extremely well-rounded," the coach says. "He is one of the most educated, well-read and well-traveled people I have ever met. He is extremely knowledgeable in a number of areas, so his decision to pursue another field was perfectly reasonable to me. That said, I'm glad he decided to come back to football."
That decision came in 2000, when Belichick was named coach of the Patriots. A year later the team won its first Super Bowl, with Adams operating as a sort of ambassador without portfolio — basically, doing whatever his old friend needed him to do.
As the Patriots' success spawned intense interest in their methods, naturally people noted the influence this nondescript fellow had with the coach. That's when the who-the-hell-is-Ernie-Adams stories started appearing. Some Patriots players confessed they not only did not know what he did but also could not tell you his last name.
Today, Adams is called the Patriots' director of football research (he notes, with wry humor, that on his tax forms he puts his profession as "research"), but his roles are far greater than the title indicates. In addition to the many hours of breaking down film, he is up in the press box on game days, communicating frequently with Belichick as the game progresses. Once the season ends, he helps the Patriots prepare for the college draft, in which the team has done extremely well because of its meticulous scouting.
More than that, he is, as Halberstam wrote, "one of the very few men that Bill Belichick liked to test his own view of a game against, trusting completely Adams' truly original mind and his encyclopedic knowledge of the game. … They had been through a great deal together, playing next to each other on an unbeaten Andover team and then coaching together in New York, Cleveland and New England."
Adams notes: "In a minute, we can get a lot communicated. We don't have to talk a lot."
Adams says he'll continue with the Patriots as long as he can — "I get to live in my hometown [Brookline, Mass.], and we've played in four Super Bowls in seven years" — but otherwise is realistic about his NFL career.
He mentions the reasons he grew to love football in the first place: "It's competitive, and it's intriguing. You've got to master the strategy and the tactics, and you constantly have to adapt how you play the game. For all the times you're putting in 100-hour weeks, if you don't find it interesting, you can't keep it going. At some point, I may just get tired of driving home at midnight."
He pauses a moment and looks out his hotel window thoughtfully, then continues: "There are books out there on the New England Patriots' master plan. The truth is, there is no master plan. You just show up every day and try to get a little better. And get players who will not put their ego above the team."
He says this calmly, very much a man at peace. Maybe for Ernie Adams, this mystery has been solved.
Tim Warren is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md.
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