Joe Judge has had as terrific a football apprenticeship as possible, having worked under coaching legends Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. The Giants’ newly named coach has learned from two of the greatest minds in football history, and he never took for granted just how fortunate he was to soak up their lessons.
“There wasn’t a day I went to work that I didn’t come home with a full new education,” Judge said at Thursday’s introductory news conference at MetLife Stadium. “I knew every day there were coaches who would pay thousands of dollars just to hear the wisdom they would say on a daily basis. I’d like to think I wasn’t foolish enough to squander that.”
But it takes more than simply working under two great coaches to have success at the next level. History shows that many disciples of either coach didn’t come close to living up to their mentor’s reputation. In fact, the world of pro sports is littered with coaches who couldn’t live up to the standards set by those who imparted lessons from their own legacy.
It is a lot to ask of any coach to replicate the Hall of Fame-caliber magnificence of his respective mentor, and Judge certainly has his work cut out as he embarks on the formidable task of trying to rebuild a team that has had six losing seasons in the past seven years. Belichick’s coaching tree hasn’t been nearly as fruitful as his own career, in part because Belichick himself has dominated the league through most of his 20 seasons as the Patriots’ coach.
Saban doesn’t have a collegiate or NFL champion on his tree, either.
The biggest mistake Judge could make moving forward is to try to be a clone of either — or both — coaches. We saw Eric Mangini try to imitate Belichick when he coached the Jets from 2006-08, and it blew up spectacularly. Matt Patricia has had two losing seasons in Detroit. Charlie Weis flamed out at Notre Dame after finding out his tough-guy act didn’t work.
It is a far cry from the days of Bill Parcells of the Giants and Bill Walsh of the 49ers, who won a combined five championships from 1981-90 and created coaching trees that have borne Super Bowl fruit ever since. Consider: 21 of the last 23 Super Bowls have been won by coaches whose roots can be traced back to Parcells or Walsh. Six coaches who coached directly under or played for Parcells and/or Walsh — including Belichick — have won a combined 14 Super Bowls.
Just because Judge worked under Belichick and Saban doesn’t mean the experience will guarantee a successful head- coaching career. But Judge does realize one very important thing: He knows he must be himself and not a cheap imitation of Belichick or Saban.
“One of the things people ask me a lot [after] working with Coach Saban and Coach Belichick is what makes you different?” Judge said. “Look, I’m myself. I’m going to be myself every time. If I’m anything else, everyone is going to see straight through it. You’re going to lose the team immediately. That’s a little bit different than other people and that’s fine. I’m not trying to emulate anyone I’ve ever worked for.I’m trying to take what I’ve learned from them, what matches with my belief structure and do it in my own personality.”
It’s the right approach. It’s the only approach, really. But there’s no question Judge will heed the lessons of both men and tailor his philosophy in a similar way.
Nothing wrong with that, because Saban and Belichick have created winning formulas wherever they have coached — starting with the days when Saban worked as Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Browns in Belichick’s first head-coaching job.
“Both have a very unique style about them,” Judge said. “Both have a world of knowledge. Both have the same philosophical views and a lot of the same values.
"What I learned from Coach Saban is that it’s important to address everybody, not only with what they have to do but how it should look and why it’s important.
“What I learned from Coach Belichick was real simple: Be flexible within your personnel. Don’t try to shove round pegs into square holes. Figure out what you have and let them play to their strengths. Don’t sit in a meeting and tell me what you don’t have in a player. Tell me what they can do, and we’ll figure out as coaches how we can use that.”
Judge came across well in his first public appearance as the Giants’ coach, expressing his vision of building a tough, physical football team that won’t back down from anyone (yes, there were plenty of similar clichés). He also came across as a man who might be demanding but will be understanding, too.
“You need a relationship with the entire team to have them trust you, that you have their best interest at hand and the team’s best interest at hand,” said Judge, a former special teams coach with the Patriots. “With special teams, one thing you have to manage is time, the other thing is people. As the head coach, there are two main things you have to manage — time and people. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll find out the ones I don’t know and make sure by the time we get to the players, they’re the right ones.”
The Giants hope they found the right answer at coach.