Even though Bill Belichick has led the New England Patriots since 2000, he is not the longest-tenured coach on his own staff. That title instead belongs to Ivan Fears, whose own arrival in Foxborough predates Belichick’s by one year.
Originally starting as the Patriots’ wide receivers coach under Pete Carroll in 1999 — a role he also held between 1991 and 1992 — Fears moved to the running back position in 2002. Since then, he has been responsible for the position group and has worked with franchise legends such as Kevin Faulk, Corey Dillon and James White.
Entering his 31st season in the NFL, however, the end seems to be on the horizon. As the 66-year-old acknowledged during a recent media conference call, Father Time has started to catch up to him.
“I’ll let my body determine that one,” Fears said. “The signs are coming quickly. I ain’t no way in the world moving like I used to. Father Time is coming fast. He’s on my back pretty damn good.”
Fears’ coaching career started back in 1976, when he served as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, William & Mary. He later also coached wide receivers and quarterbacks, before joining Syracuse in 1980. After a decade as the Orange’s wideouts coach, he moved to the NFL by signing with the Patriots. His initial tenure with the team lasted only two seasons, but after a stint with the Chicago Bears he returned in 1999 to resume in his previous role.
Even through the head coaching change from Carroll to Belichick, Fears remained on the staff. He has since played a part in all six of the club’s Super Bowl wins.
After 45 seasons as a coach — including 24 with the Patriots — the team might now have to start preparing for life after the ever-affable assistant, though. If that happens the spotlight immediately falls on Troy Brown, the former wide receiver who was listed as “Running backs/Kick returners” coach in New England’s 2020 media guide.
“Troy is very good with all the skill players, catching the ball, running the ball, returning kicks, getting open in the passing game and so forth,” Belichick said about Brown during mandatory minicamp last week. “Like a lot of coaches on our staff, he’s versatile, he can do a lot of different things and help a lot of different players. So, I’m sure we’ll be able to use him in a variety of ways.”
Brown spent his entire 15-season career in New England, and in 2019 joined the club via an NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship. The following year he was promoted to the full-time staff working alongside Fears.
With the veteran likely entering one of his last seasons as a coach, Brown seems like the natural successor waiting in the wings. The Patriots, however, have also used somebody else to work with the running back position as of late.
Vinnie Sunseri, listed as “Defensive Assistant” in the Patriots’ media guide last year, has been coaching the running back group alongside Fears this offseason.
“Ivan and Vinnie have worked hard with Damien [Harris],” Belichick said last week.
Sunseri played safety during his brief NFL career and later went into coaching as a graduate assistant at Alabama. While he worked on the defensive side of the ball after his arrival in New England last year, he does have some experience at running back as well after having played the position during his high school days.
Whether or not his employment during minicamp is a sign of a bigger role in the future or just him helping the backs read their defensive keys is not known, but it certainly will be interesting to watch Sunseri’s development this summer and into the regular season.
Regardless who they pick to replace Fears once Father Time indeed gets a hold of him, the Patriots seem to have some options available. As was the case after Dante Scarnecchia’s retirement last year, they will likely be prepared for life after the most experienced member of their coaching staff.