TEMPE, Ariz. Kevin Spencer was coaching a lacrosse practice at Detroit Country Day School in 1976 when a passing car slowed down and stopped. A vaguely familiar figure stepped out.
It was Bill Belichick, then an assistant for the Detroit Lions.
The duo had competed against each other in college lacrosse Spencer at Springfield (Mass.) College, Belichick at Wesleyan University (Middletown, Conn.) but the memories were a little fuzzy.
"Bill was a Maryland guy (raised in Annapolis), and of course, lacrosse is huge in Maryland, but I think it shocked him to see it in Detroit, Michigan, Spencer recalled. "We kind of looked at each other for a minute, trying to place each other, then I said, 'Youre Belichick, right?' He said, 'Yeah. Youre that pain-in-the neck defenseman from Springfield, right?'"
And so a friendship was born.
Thirty-six years later, the duo will meet again when the Cardinals face the Patriots on Sunday in Foxborough, Mass.
Much has changed since then. Belichick has earned a reputation as the NFLs preeminent coach, a master technician whose exhaustive preparation has helped the Patriots capture three Super Bowl titles and five AFC Championships. Spencer has built a reputation as one of the best special-teams coaches in the game. His peers bestowed that very honor on him in 2003 when he coached the Steelers' special teams.
Last season, Spencers unit accounted for an NFL-high four touchdowns on punt returns (all by Patrick Peterson). The club also finished second in average punt-return yardage (15.1), 14th in average kickoff-return yardage (24 yards) and 13th in punts downed inside the 20.
"That unit is outstanding," Belichick said of the Cardinals special teams. "They are certainly one of the top ones we have seen in a long time. I think (Kevin has) had an excellent career."
Spencer is certain Belichick would be exactly where he is today had the two never met on that fateful day in Detroit. On the other hand, Spencer has no idea where hed be had it not been for Belichick.
"My career has Bill Belichick written all over it, Spencer said. "I probably wouldnt have gotten a head coaching job, and I definitely wouldnt have gotten in on the ground floor with the (Cleveland) Browns if Bill hadnt given me a chance.
"I am who I am because of him. There isnt anybody who shaped me more than Bill."
Belichicks rise through the coaching ranks began in Baltimore in 1975, with stops in Detroit ('76-'77), Denver ('78) and New York, where he served a variety of roles with the Giants before becoming the defensive coordinator from 1985-90 under Bill Parcells.
While with the Giants, Belichick was still an active Wesleyan alumnus and was part of the search to replace coach Bill Macdermott in 1987.
"He called me up one day and asked, 'Have you ever considered being a head coach?'" Spencer said. "He was friends with the president at the time (Colin Campbell). He said they needed to get the program cleaned up a bit, and I might be the right guy for the job."
Spencer said he went into the Wesleyan job with eyes wide open, but he later admitted that "wide eyes still cant prepare you for the Wesleyan experience."
Wesleyan is a small, academically elite school about 15 minutes south of Hartford that boasts scores of high-profile alumni both on Wall Street and in Hollywood. It puts a capital "L" in liberal arts. The school has maintained a hippie culture, boasts a large, active and influential gay-lesbian community and was alternately celebrated and mocked in the movie "PCU" for its trademark diversity and its students willingness to protest virtually every perceived slight in society.
When Spencer arrived, the football team was in dire need of a culture change. Spencer delivered it in the form of discipline and attention to detail.
"It was an adjustment for a group that had been together for a while and enjoyed the party after the game as much as the game itself," said Greg Waldron, a senior defensive back on Spencers first Wesleyan team. "Here comes this straight-laced coach where 'gosh darn' was about as racy as it got when he yelled.
"It took a lot of courage to come into that environment and not be afraid to swim against the tide, to remain truly principled. I dont think I realized that until 15 or 20 years later. At the time, I thought he was corny. Now, I realize he taught me a lot of valuable lessons."
Belichick and Spencer have shared numerous stories of their respective tenures at Wesleyan, but as Belichick put it, "Weve kind of agreed to keep those off the front page."
In 1991, fresh off a pair of Super Bowl titles in 1986 and 1990 that were sparked by a dominant defense, Belichick was named the Browns head coach, and he brought Spencer aboard as an assistant.
Four stops later (Oakland, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Arizona), the diminutive Spencer has a Super Bowl ring (Steelers, 2006) and another Super Bowl appearance (Cardinals, 2009) and is revered by his players for his quirky, colorful and passionate personality.
When you first talk to him on the phone and you dont see him, you think hes 6-foot-8, 360 pounds, said long snapper Mike Leach, who joined the Cardinals in 2009 after being released by the Broncos. "The voice doesnt match the body, but the voice matches the passion he has for the game."
Among Spencers trademark phrases are "hey, hey, hey" when hes trying to get his players attention, and "sugar, honey, iced tea," a phrase he learned from his mom that replaces the obvious acronym created by the first letters of those four words.
Spencer did have a foul stretch that Cardinals beat writers dubbed F-bomb Fridays, but he has since abandoned that practice to avoid "going to confession on Saturday."
"(Linebacker) Sam Achos a pretty religious guy, and he always looks at me sideways when I talk dirty," Spencer added. "Besides, I dont believe in motivating guys that way. I try to be a teacher because thats what Ive always been."
Its one thing to try. Its another to deliver.
"Hes the glue of the special teams, even though he doesnt play because his enthusiasm for everything we do makes playing so much easier," said fullback Anthony Sherman, who also noted Spencers exhaustive preparation. "He says he tends to overthink things, that sometimes he needs to leave film study earlier than he does so he doesnt over prepare for anything a team might do to us."
Now in his 22nd season and at age 58, Spencer is content if his career arc never takes him further than his current post.
"Im proud because I think weve done some things to help the team contrary to last week when we did things to hurt the team," Spencer said, referencing two long kick returns by the Seahawks in the Cardinals 20-16 win. Ive been blessed to last so long. Belichick always said the hardest things in this league is staying not getting in and thats true.
"In a different time and place, would I aspire to be a (Baltimore coach) John Harbaugh? Do I think I could do that job? Absolutely. But Im 58 years old. Times have changed. I know how they look at head coaches.
"Besides, Ive been in two Super Bowls. I could leave here and believe I always had the respect of the guys I coached and the respect of the man I coached against."
There is no doubt of the latter when it comes to this weeks opponent.
"Great guy. Solid guy," Belichick said of Spencer. "(He) demands a lot out of his players but works hard and earns their respect. I was fortunate to have him as an assistant in Cleveland."
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