PHOENIX -- With his mumbled, one-word answers and stern demeanor, Bill Belichick often seems as gray as the hooded sweatshirt he wears on the sideline, as prickly as the cactuses seen everywhere at the site of this year's Super Bowl.
So it was surprising -- shocking to some -- that the New England Patriots' coach would even crack a joke at a media session this week. Or curl his mouth into a smile upon hearing that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would be the halftime entertainment.
"I wish I could stand out there and listen to it," he said.
Belichick rocks? Who'd have guessed? And how about that quip at the expense of the Mexican TV reporter who came to Media Day in a wedding dress and suggested to him that she was more attractive than model Gisele Bundchen, Tom Brady's girlfriend.
"I wouldn't go that far," Belichick said.
Even the Boston Globe asked, "Who kidnapped Bill Belichick? Who invaded his body?"
Of course, he still won't acknowledge that the New England Patriots are on the verge of becoming the first NFL team to go 19-0. The "U" word, for "unbeaten," has not crossed his lips at any point during the first 18 victories, so why should he say it now?
The 55-year-old Belichick is on his way to becoming one of the most successful coaches in NFL history -- perhaps the most successful.
If the Patriots beat the New York Giants -- and they are favored by nearly two touchdowns -- they will have won their fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons, the most successful run in nearly 30 years in a league that legislates parity among its teams.
The only real comparisons are Vince Lombardi, who won five titles in seven seasons in Green Bay; Chuck Noll, who won four in six seasons with Pittsburgh in the 1970s; and Bill Walsh, who built a San Francisco team that won four Super Bowls between 1981-89.
But none of them operated with free agency and a salary cap that makes it nearly impossible for a successful team to keep all its stars.
Of the 53 current Patriots, only eight were on the roster six years ago when New England upset St. Louis 20-17 for its first title. Lombardi and Noll were able to keep rosters laden with Hall of Fame players intact throughout their runs, and Walsh's 49ers had the kind of depth that allowed them to back up one Hall of Fame quarterback, Joe Montana, with another, Steve Young.
Belichick, the son of a career assistant coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, may be closest to Walsh, who was known as "The Genius" for his offensive innovations that are still very much in style.
Belichick's innovations are defensive -- especially those he used to slow down high-powered Buffalo and St. Louis offenses in the 1991 and 2002 Super Bowls, the first as defensive coordinator for the Giants, the second as head coach of the Patriots.
And like Walsh, Belichick lets people know he's smart.
He often projects an image that he's above explaining the complexities of his schemes and that he's simply smarter than his 31 adversaries. Many of them resent him for that as much as they resent him for the episode in the first game of the season when a Patriots employee was caught taping the defensive signals of the New York Jets, coached by former Belichick assistant and protégé Eric Mangini. Belichick was fined $500,000 by the league.
"He's one of the smartest people I've ever known, maybe the smartest. That's why I hired him," said Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Despite numerous calls urging him to stay away from Belichick, Kraft hired him in 2000 even though his record as the coach of the Cleveland Browns from 1991-95 was 37-45.
Unlike when in Cleveland, Belichick now has many stars at his disposal with the Patriots.
But plenty of talented teams have failed. This one hasn't because it has bought into Belichick's "one-game-at-a-time" philosophy that he has inculcated into his players.
"Anyone can teach you Xs and Os," said Pepper Johnson, Belichick's defensive line coach, who has spent 19 of his 22 seasons in the NFL playing for or coaching with him.
"If you don't understand the whole concept, it doesn't do you much good," Johnson said. "You see guys who come here from other teams and say, 'Man, I've never had the game explained to me this way.' Or you get guys who go somewhere else and say, 'They don't do anything like the way we do it.'
"Not only is Bill coaching football, he's teaching football."
But for as much as Belichick teaches about the game, he reveals little about his personal life.
Unless, of course, the topic is Petty.
"I'll have some of his CDs playing in my office this week," Belichick said when he heard Petty would perform. "That'll put me in the mood: 'Free Fallin'.' "
But "Free Fallin' "?
Not these Patriots.
More like another Petty hit, "Runnin' Down a Dream."