The Boston sports media market is never one to shy away from negativity. This is true even when things are going well, as they have for most of the 21st century. It is never surprising to find the topic of the day on Boston sports radio to be something or somebody to tear down. And even in the best of times, there are some local writers willing dig deep for a complaint. But when Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe opted for this route yesterday, it was surprising.
Bob Ryan has been an incredible sportswriter for a very long time. If Ryan is not the greatest basketball writer of all-time, he is on a very short list. And while Mr. Ryan may not always be sunshine and rainbows, he has become so well respected by being more than a mere troll. If he is critical, it is because there is something worthy of criticism. And Bob Ryan almost always goes about his criticism in a fair and informative way.
For whatever reason, fair and informative were missing when Bob Ryan wrote about Bill Belichick on Thursday.
The message of Bob Ryan’s article boiled down to a quote from Lord Acton, who passed away 121 years ago. The quote was used in reference to Belichick: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Ryan then compared Belichick to a couple of Boston Celtics bosses, Red Auerbach and Rick Pitino.
Red Auerbach “downgraded willingly” from his duel roles as coach and executive. He stepped away from the bench after winning the 1966 NBA Championship, and never returned. Meanwhile, the other Celtics boss to also be the head coach was Rick Pitino. The Pitino Era is Boston was an awful one and his stay was short.
But comparing Bill Belichick to Rick Pitino makes no sense. Do they have anything in common at the professional level other than holding down two roles? Pitino had never done that before and it showed. Bill Belichick has been doing it for over two decades, and is the winningest coach in the Super Bowl Era as a result. How in the world is somebody with Bill Belichick’s resume having “absolute power” even remotely comparable to Rick Pitino? It is tough to say, because Bob Ryan never explained it beyond that.
Boston sports media does not need Bob Ryan’s help to tear people down. Last weekend, an unnecessarily negative poll got plenty of votes on Twitter/X. It was from the account of the popular Boston sports radio show Zolak & Bertrand on 98.5 The Sports Hub. They wanted to know who is the WORST (all capitals) coach/manager in town right now?
And of course their rival station, WEEI, had one of their shows (Jones & Mego with Arcand) run virtually the same exact poll.
Why do Boston sports media outlets do this? Because it gets attention and ratings. They get a reaction, especially if worded to be even more negative than anyone needs. Sadly, that is all some people seem to want these days.
But why would somebody with the incredible career of Bob Ryan follow suit?
What was most confusing about Ryan’s article was not who he included for comparison’s sake, but who was not. Bob Ryan managed to mention Lord Acton, Bill Belichick, Rick Pitino, Bill Parcells and Red Auerbach. He even talked about the successful 1980’s Los Angeles Lakers “pecking order” as a great example of what Bill Belichick is not doing (despite no mention of that dynasty lasting a decade shorter than that of Belichick’s Patriots).
But why was there no mention of Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs? It certainly wasn’t because he wasn’t on Ryan’s mind.
Just one day before Bob Ryan’s article came out, the latest episode of his podcast was released. It was recorded recently, as they touched on the Boston Celtics recent hiring of Jeff Van Gundy as an advisor. Here is what Bob Ryan said about an aging coaching legend with “absolute power” on his podcast:
“He’s still there, folks! And he’s over 70 now and he’s got white hair and a white mustache and white hair and all that. But he’s feisty as hell. He’s still the same wise ass guy. He’s a wise ass, frankly. And a smart one, but he is.” Ryan continued, “He always acts like he’s smarter than you, whoever you are. And guess what? He’s got five rings. That he’s earned.”
Aside from the mustache, beard and one fewer ring, Ryan could easily be talking about Bill Belichick there. But he was actually talking about Gregg Popovich. So, obviously Popovich should also be done too, right? His recent track record is significantly worse than that of Belichick. Just last season the Spurs had 22 games in an 82-game season. That is abysmal, yet barely an aberration.
Gregg Popovich last won an NBA Championship in 2014. He has never won one without Tim Duncan. The Spurs haven’t even made the playoffs since 2019, the last time they finished .500 or better. San Antonio has zero playoff series wins since 2018. Belichick last won a Super Bowl more recently than Popovich won a playoff series.
So of course Gregg Popovich should have the decency to know his time is up, right Mr. Ryan?
“He’s an ideal coach. He’s seen it all.” Ryan gushed. “He’s coached genius. He’s coached crap.” Seems a little inconsistent, but okay. “He’s the perfect coach for this kid (rookie Victor Wembanyama).”
The Spurs president is the only head coach in the four major North American sports with a longer tenure than Bill Belichick has with the Patriots. Gregg Popovich has so much power in San Antonio, he is the person who hired himself (not even Belichick can say that). Yet despite more losing of late and fewer overall championships, Gregg Popovich is somehow the perfect coach for his star rookie, yet Bill Belichick would corrupt Caleb Williams or Drake Maye or whoever else comes to New England in the 2024 NFL Draft?
Even the greatest coaches in history can go through a rough stretch and still deserve to come out the other side. And apparently even the greatest sportswriters in history, like Bob Ryan, can choose to compare Bill Belichick to Pitino instead of Popovich. Rick Pitino wasn’t right about much during his time in Boston, but his famous negativity rant certainly rings true today.