Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman
Before Ernie Adams was Bill Belichick’s right-hand man on six Super Bowl winning teams in New England, he was a Northwestern student looking to help the team beyond the normal role of a manager.
Coach Alex Agase saw Adams’ potential, and thought scouting would be a great fit for a freshman with an enormous football IQ. So as a trial, he sent Adams to travel with assistant coach Jay Robertson to Notre Dame’s spring game in 1972.
“After every play that they ran, I would draw the play up on a card and flip it over to the next one and keep going,” Adams told The Daily. “Jay, he took the cards I had done and he stuck a couple in the middle of the deck. When we went through it afterwards, he said, ‘I don’t remember this. Where did you see this one?’”
Adams wasn’t caught off guard by the fake cards and correctly identified them as erroneous. He passed the test, and went on to scout opposing teams starting as a sophomore, and then after Agase left and John Pont was hired, Adams coached the JV team.
Since graduating in 1975, Adams has gone on to a decorated career in professional football. After spending time as a coach and front office executive — plus a short stint on Wall Street — Adams was hired by Belichick in New England in 2000. Adams and Belicheck first met as high schoolers at Phillips Andover, where they bonded over their love of football.
Belichick and Adams have won six Super Bowls since, with Adams playing a crucial role in each. The exact work he does as football research director is held close to the vest, with almost every article ever written about him labeling him as mysterious.
Even though he is years removed from helping the Wildcats, Adams looks back very fondly on his time in Evanston.
“Going to Northwestern,” he said, “it worked out for me in every way.”
The Daily talked with Adams this summer about his time in Evanston and the lessons he learned as an NU student coach. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
The Daily: What about Northwestern appealed to you in the first place?
Adams: This was back in the dark ages, there’s no internet or anything but everything about the school appealed to me. I didn’t know how things were gonna work out but Northwestern was a great fit for me. Alex Agase was the head football coach when I got there and he really gave me my first chance. It was an opportunity to — like a lot of people — get a chance to take it.
The Daily: What was that first opportunity?
Adams: Going into my sophomore season, I did the scouting for our upcoming opponent. So I would go out and watch whoever we were playing the next week. Sunday morning, I would have a report ready for the whole coaching staff. In fact, I say about the week after Northwestern’s spring game in the spring of 1972, Notre Dame had their spring game. That was my trial. I got to go down there and see if I could handle scouting another team like a regular game with the same kind of tempo. I did alright on that and moved forward.
The Daily: Did you do anything with the football team your freshman fall?
Adams: When I got there, Alex Agase, he said he didn’t really know what to do with me so I was a manager, which was great for me because I was on the field every day, keep my eyes and ears wide open, keep my mouth shut. But I really got a pretty good handle on everything that Northwestern was doing. The defensive backfield coach was Rick Venturi, who had played for Northwestern back in the mid ’60s. I got to know him well. It was great preparation just getting a handle on things.
The Daily: Do you have any memories from years of being a student manager that really stick out?
Adams: No, I have no great stories for you. But after the season, Alex sat me down and said I’d like to see if I could get you involved more and his idea was to start me off with doing the scouting next fall. Then Alex left after my sophomore year and John Pont came in as the head coach. This was back in the day when you had, I’d call it a junior varsity but basically a freshman team. That’s where I got my first opportunity to coach, on the JV team in 1973 and 1974.
The Daily: Did you ever expect to be coaching a college JV football team as a junior in college yourself?
Adams: I look back on it and say, “Well, maybe that’s a little bit improbable.” But like I say, I saw an opportunity and I took it. It was probably great for me that unlike, say a program like the University of Oklahoma, where they might have 30 graduate assistants, they really didn’t have any at Northwestern. As somebody who could make a positive contribution, there was plenty of work to be done. Nobody ever said no. I’m grateful to the people who were there because they could have easily brushed me off. But like I say, once you show you can make a contribution, you’re more than welcome. Which is kind of the same approach we take now with the Patriots because we have young guys come to work for us. As soon as somebody shows that they can handle something, we’re perfectly willing to give them a little more.
The Daily: When you were coaching the JV team, were you scouting as well at that same time?
Adams: Yes, what I would actually do is I would go out and do the scouting on a Saturday and then the JV games were played as I remember either Sunday or a Monday. So basically anybody who didn’t get into the game on Saturday was eligible. But then during the week, the JV team would run the plays our upcoming opponent would run. So of course, I’d scouted them the week before I was familiar with them and we tried to try to give a good look. That was important then. It was important then as it is right now on the 2019 New England Patriots. Players who will be playing in the game getting a good look there in practice really makes a difference.
The Daily: Do you see a lot of what you did running the JV team now what you do with the scout team now?
Adams: Yea, it’s still the game of football. Field’s 100 yards long. Touchdowns are still six points. Having a scout team give a good look is still very important. The one that got all the publicity was working on the Seattle pass down on the goalline that Malcom Butler intercepted at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. That was a play they liked, we tried to make sure he got a good look at it in practice. And boy, did it pay off.
The Daily: What was your normal day like when you were a junior/senior doing scouting and coaching JV?
Adams: I know that the Cats now have practice at like six o’clock in the morning and classes tend to be a little bit later. Well, when I was there, classes started at eight o’clock in the morning so it would be a morning with classes. Everything with a football team was out at Dyche Stadium, Anderson Hall, which is the building next to Dyche. I’d get over there early afternoon, be there through practice sometime in the early evening.
The Daily: Do you have any memorable moments you can remember whether it’ in practice or watching games that you remember from those years?
Adams: I’d say probably the most memorable thing in Northwestern football when I was there was my first year beating Ohio State. When you’re competing in the Big Ten, that’s always the gold standard. Unfortunately, my last two years I was there from the start of what’s been referred to more than once as the Dark Ages for Northwestern football. Unfortunately, you could just see it coming. It was sort of like standing in front of a slow motion car wreck.
The Daily: What did you major in at Northwestern?
Adams: I was an education major. Coaching is teaching. A lot of the stuff that we’re going through right now trying to do, we’ve got all our rookie players coming in. I mean, it’s like starting over in second grade and we got to get guys ready to go at graduate level here in a couple months. It’s being patient, showing them what to do and understanding mistakes are going to be made. You just gotta be patient with them. Some of those things don’t change either.
The Daily: Is it true that Alex Agase asked you to come to Purdue with him after he was hired by the Boilermakers?
Adams: No, he said I’d be more than welcome, but he would understand completely if I didn’t. I didn’t but I always had an extremely cordial relation with Alex after he left. I think just about everybody who was associated with Alex for the 10 years he was a coach, about eight years prior to that he was an assistant on Ara Parseghian’s staff. Universally loved by everybody in the program. He was just a very solid, down to earth, caring individual. But this somebody who when he was like 24 years old was in the Marines fighting the Japanese on Okinawa. He was decorated for that. He was a hard-nosed marine with a heart of gold.
The Daily: What do you think are some of the big lessons you learned as a coach and a manager at Northwestern?
Adams: One thing is, we were never gonna be in a position at Northwestern where we were just gonna have better players than the other teams we were playing against. It had to be a combination of getting the players we have to play as well as they could (and) have a good plan for them. You can’t go out in a 12-game season and think you are going to out-coach everybody. But there are times in a close game where you could make decisions for the coach that can make a difference in the game. And when you are in a situation like Northwestern, you really have to be looking for those opportunities instead of just saying, “We need to get better players,” because realistically that’s not gonna happen.
The Daily: Have you taken the lessons you’ve learned and applied them throughout your whole pro football career?
Adams: One thing about coaching in the National Football League, everybody’s got good players. The fact that you have good players and you have them well prepared, that’s what you’re supposed to do. So you’re always looking, analyzing. It’s the little things. It’s the little details that can make a difference. For instance, we’ve had a chance in the last 20 years to coach in nine Super Bowls. And the last one we won against the Rams, we won by 10 points. That was our largest victory margin. When you’re in a championship game and it’s tied in the fourth quarter, every little thing can turn into a big thing which could make a difference in winning or losing the game.
The Daily: How often does your time at Northwestern come up in your work?
Adams: I would say something comes up every day. I lived there for four years. That’s a good size chunk of your life. A lot of good people, a lot of good experiences. Something comes up on a fairly regular basis.
The Daily: Before you arrived on campus, you sent the coaching staff a treatise on the quarterback in the T formation in hopes of gaining an opportunity to help the team. What is the story behind that paper?
Adams: Football fascinated me for a long time so it’s something I wrote up and I said well, I got it so I’ll send it to them. I’m not gonna say it was any good, but at least that kind of gave them the idea that I was serious about what I was talking about. I’d say when you’re starting off at your first job, don’t miss any opportunities to let people you’re giving everything you got and you actually are serious.
The Daily: What lessons and morals would you take from the story?
Adams: Not everybody’s gonna say yes, but you just keep— if (there’s) something you want to do, you gotta believe in yourself, knock on people’s doors. And when someone answers it, be ready with your elevator pitch. You got 60 seconds, tell me why you want to do what you’re doing. You got to have an answer ready.
The Daily: Why do you love football?
Adams: It’s an extremely competitive game. There’s a lot of room in the game of football for thinking, strategy, tactics, trying new things. Where it really started for me was when I went to grade school at the Dexter School in Brookline, Massachusetts, football was mandatory. Every boy from third grade through eighth grade, you put the pads on in the afternoon, you went out and played football. When I was in the eighth grade, I told the athletic director there who was also the coach, I said, “Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?’ He basically said, “Okay, you’re so smart, you go coach the team.” So I said okay. So I did that. And I said, “Oh that’s kind of fun. That’s kind of where it started, and I think there’s probably a lot of people, they had something happen to them when they’re young and say, “this is interesting,” and it goes from there.
The Daily: Do any of the Super Bowl losses hurt more than another?
Adams: They all hurt. And losing the AFC Championship to the Colts in 2006, that hurts too. I’m sitting here in my library, I have a wide variety of pictures of our victories up here. But the truth is all of those games went down to the end of the fourth quarter. We could have won all of them, or we could have lost them all. They were all great football games to watch because they could have gone either way.
The Daily: Do you spend a lot of time thinking about thinking about those losses?
Adams: Believe me, they are deeply ingrained. Things happen in each game. I have a very vivid memory. When you get to that game, I always tell people it’s kind of rigged. You’re gonna have the two best teams there. They’re supposed to be close games. And in our case they certainly have been.
The Daily: What do you think your legacy in the game of football will end up being?
Adams: I hope I made a positive contribution on some real good teams, won some games. I’m not the guy that invented the forward pass or anything, but just try to move the ball forward every day. This is a grind it out, detail game. Particularly talking about the National Football League, nobody’s got all the answers. You’re just trying to get a little better every day.
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