When the two men were assistant coaches together on Bill Parcells' staff with the New York Giants for three seasons (1988-90), defensive coordinator Bill Belichick and wide receivers aide Tom Coughlin used to combine to preside over the team's one-on-one and seven-on-seven passing drills.
Before the drills began, Belichick and Coughlin often caucused to discuss what each wanted to accomplish during the sessions, the former seeking advice from the wide receivers coach about how certain routes were going to be run and the personnel packages that might be deployed. And Coughlin frequently suggested to Belichick an agenda for various coverages against which he wanted his charges to work.
More than two decades after Coughlin and Belichick huddled to pick the brains of their opposite numbers, the two coaches are here attempting to get inside each other's heads, and their respective teams on Sunday evening will try to beat the opponent coach's brains out in Super Bowl XLVI. There are plenty of subplots to the league's title matchup – New York's upset victory over the then-undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, the big-game prowess of quarterbacks Tom Brady and Eli Manning, the manner in which each secondary will try to corral explosive slot receivers, and the intriguing trench warfare tussles, among others – but the shared backgrounds of the head coaches is certainly at or near the top of the list.
To the similar resume entries, and the shared narratives each has about having worked for Parcells, add the fact that Coughlin and Belichick will be attempting on Sunday evening to further their individual histories. And will try to augment the legacies that certainly will land one of the head coaches, and possibly both them, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday.
Termed "the best coach in the history of the game" by owner Bob Kraft last week, the 59-year-old Belichick owns a .651 lifetime winning percentage (192-103) in 17 seasons, counting the playoffs, and he has three Super Bowl rings, of course. He has New England in its fifth Super Bowl on his watch. Coughlin, 65, has compiled a success rate of .558 in 16 years (153-121) and is attempting to win a second Super Bowl in essentially four years over five seasons. Belichick is a slam-dunk to be enshrined in Canton after he retires. At in what many feel is the twilight of his career, although Coughlin has steadfastly maintained he has no designs on walking away from the game anytime soon, the New York coach is amassing a record that might have to be seriously considered by the selection committee.
"I looked at them both pretty closely," acknowledged Giants' rookie middle linebacker Mark Herzlich, who was undrafted nine months ago, and thought about signing with New England as a free agent before deciding on New York. "To tell you the truth, there really wasn't a whole lot different between them."
Obviously, there is a shared respect that was fairly palpable when Coughlin and Belichick were asked last week about each other, the interrogations taking place after each had won his conference title game and the Super Bowl coacho-a-coacho was set, and on Monday afternoon, as the men conducted dueling press conferences at downtown hotels across the street from each other.
"It was the best relationship I've ever had with a counterpart," recalled Belichick, emphasizing the "the" and "best" portions of his assessment. "I think we helped each other coach their position better. I wish that ever coach could have that with (his) counterpart. . . . I think it transcended the units we were coaching."
The hardly disparate personas of the head coaches don't quite transcend Super Bowl XLVI, but they add to what figures to be a matchup that may be determined by the physical prowess one exerts over the other, but also by the meticulous detail that Coughlin and Belichick will invest in the contest. Belichick spoke on Monday, with some degree of fondness, about the toughness of practices under Parcells, all but waxing poetic over the seven-on-nine drills designed to test manhood. At one point last week, Coughlin also recalled the physical nature of Parcells' practices, and each of the Super Bowl XLVI coaches seemed to long to turn back the clock.
But the outcome of the Super Bowl might be determined as much by brain as brawn.
"You're taking about two good, maybe great, football minds," said New England defensive line coach Pepper Johnson, a linebacker for the Giants whose career coincided with the seasons Belichick and Coughlin were together. "They always worked well together, made each other better, so there's some (irony) to the fact that they're facing each other now. They're not mirror images, but I think they have a lot of the same (traits)."
"Two terrific football men," said former Giants' quarterback Phil Simms. "You can bet they'll have things planned down to the smallest detail, because that's what each of them is about. They'll be ready, believe me. It's going to be a brain game, too. All that ‘togetherness' stuff is great copy, but they both want to win. Badly."
In general, Coughlin's recollections of the pair's tenure together were essentially the same, as Belichick's memories although he did allow there was a degree of "competitiveness" between the two men, but he also spoke of the "interaction" between them and their position groups.
"More than that," Coughlin said, "there was a spirit of cooperation."
Former Giants cornerback Mark Collins, who played the first five years of his 13-season NFL career for Belichick, agreed there was a mutual admiration society with the two coaches, but also allowed there was a competiveness of sorts. "I don't know," Collins said, "that either guy tried to ‘one-up' the other. But it was clear they both had head coaching (aspirations), and that was no secret."
It is hardly a secret, either, that both possess the Parcells imprimatur. His seal of approval was once highly sought by both, and now that Belichick and Coughlin are establishing their own histories, they are proud products of the Parcells finishing school, each has said.
Remembered Parcells, who is regarded as an icon, perhaps even a patron saint of sorts, by Belichick and Coughlin: "They were two guys who sweat the detail stuff . . . and each of them worked hard not to be outworked. And they were smart football guys, really into the game. They worked well together. I'm proud of them both and what they have accomplished."
Said former Giants' linebacker Carl Banks, now a radio analyst for the New York broadcasts: "I think, in their own ways, they each sought (Parcells') approval. And I think it means something to them both, without being sappy about it, that they've got it now."
There are certainly similarities, on and off the field, between the coaches. While neither of the coaches is knee-slapping hilarious, both possess droll senses of humor and neither is above bantering with their players or the press. The coaches likely learned the fine art of button-pushing from Parcells, a master motivator, and a mentor who Belichick recalled as a guy who "could shoot the needle in there a little bit, and get a little dig in." Although Coughlin and Belichick can be frustrating for the local media contingents who regularly cover them, because of a dearth of one-liners and headline-stirring quotes, each is incredibly insightful in discussing the nuances and finer points of the game. Both coaches have learned well the opposite side of the ball from which they gathered their initial expertise. Belichick, for instance, takes a much bigger hand in the New England offense, despite his reputation as a defensive guru. An offensive guy at the outset of his career as an NFL assistant and a college head coach, Coughlin has grown markedly on defense.
Each of the coaches has been fired once, and both Belichick and Coughlin have reached new heights in their second NFL jobs. And each readily maintains that he is a far better coach the second time around.
"More patient," Coughlin said Monday, when asked the quality on which he has most improved in his second NFL station. "I pick my spots a little better."
During his eight seasons as the inaugural Jacksonville coach, Coughlin had a record of 72-64, and won a pair of division titles, and was twice a wild card qualifier, but he never advanced to a Super Bowl game (he was 0-2 in AFC championship games), and was fired following the 2002 season after three straight years of not making it to the playoffs. His record in eight years with the Giants is 81-57, and while there have been difficult times in which the overreactive New York press was penning his eulogy (like when the Giants dropped four straight games on November and early December), Coughlin has benefitted from the stability of the Giants' organization.
"One of the things I learned (as a Giants' assistant)," Coughlin said, "is continuity. We had it and it paid off."
In his first head coach stint, Belichick was 37-45 in five seasons at Cleveland (1991-95), and made the playoffs just once during that time. Notably, his first year with the Patriots, in 2000, produced the same 5-11 mark the Browns managed in his final year with the club. It's also worth mentioning that, in Belichick's lone season taking the Browns to the playoffs, 1994, they defeated the Pats in the wild card round.
In his dozen seasons with the Patriots, he was won .728 percent of his games, taken nine division titles and been to six conference championship games.
"It's funny," said a former member of the New York staff that included Belichick and Coughlin, and who knows both well, "that what goes around comes around. Back then, they worked well together, but each wanted to win a little bit.
"And now, here they are, and each wants to win the big one."
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.