The owners of both teams in Sunday’s Super Bowl will attest that they once had people pressing them to fire their coaches, the same two coaches now lauded for their ingenious leadership.
Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, says many called him “an idiot” when he first hired coach Bill Belichick in 2000, a guy who had stumbled as head coach of the Cleveland Browns and awkwardly mumbled through press conferences. John Mara, owner of the New York Giants, had a special file for all the “Fire Tom Coughlin” e-mails he received this season.
Today there is nothing but talk of grandeur for the two coaches in Super Bowl XLVI. For all the differences in the personalities and tactics displayed by Coughlin and Belichick, they both have a talent for managing people and developing a product. Neither brags about his accomplishments, yet each man’s strategies and accolades point to extreme confidence. Both keep their stories to themselves and reveal little, if anything. And neither is exactly warm and fuzzy.
With a victory, the legendary status of Belichick, 59, would become epic. Patriots receiver Deion Branch already calls him “the best coach to ever coach the game.” His Patriots are playing their fifth Super Bowl in 11 seasons, with victories in three, the only loss coming at the hands of Coughlin’s Giants in 2008. Coughlin’s team also trumped Belichick’s 24-20 in November, and the Giants carried their coach off on their shoulders.
So the intrigue surrounding this coaching matchup has hit a fever pitch, with media probing them to talk about one another. Reporters have yearned to hear the two spin old stories about the days they spent coaching together as assistants under coach Bill Parcells with the Giants in the late 1980s.
But neither coach – both of whom are task-oriented and a little mysterious – has opted to share such stories. Nothing beyond a few cordial compliments for the other.
The now retired Parcells always insisted his assistants be intelligent and analytical and run tough, physical practices. They both take on Parcells’ serious, disciplined approach, one that Belichick also learned under head coach Ray Perkins in New York.
The Giants’ coach has been dubbed Colonel Coughlin, largely because of his strict policy to be five minutes early for everything. He has disciplined players who are two minutes early; in his eyes, that’s late.
His toughness escalated and made him unapproachable at one point in his career. Some players feared him up until the 2006 season. Former Giants star defensive tackle Michael Strahan has publicly said players asked Coughlin to “loosen up.” He seems to have changed his strategies.
“You better have an ability to self-analyze, make it honest, try to adjust, and try to do the things that you think are necessary to make your presentation and your team respond better to you on a yearly basis,” the 65-year-old Coughlin said this week. “Probably the number one thing that I’ve done is I’ve kind of gotten better at being patient and picking my spots better rather than be automatically spontaneous.”
He began to listen to them more. He invited some players to create what he called a “leadership council,” a select group of players representing many different positions and viewpoints, so he could consult them on numerous matters. He let them make arguments for changing policies about padded practices or travel logistics.
“At first, his rules I think caught people off-guard,” Giants tackle David Diehl said. “But I think you have to respect the man for how he does things because he does things professionally.”
Coughlin stepped up at one press conference this week, dressed in a crisp Giants team jacket, grabbing the podium firmly and speaking with command, yet showed no cockiness about winning his last Super Bowl outing.
“You find out pretty quickly that the next off-season and the next season roll around very quickly,” Coughlin said matter-of-factly. “You build on your team, and you challenge them to do that again.”
It’s a message Belichick delivered too, only differently. Never a fan of typical coach dress or conventions, he sported a lavender button-down and jeans, and spoke in his unassuming way about hitting the restart button every season, constantly tweaking his product by finding players who can fill a role, no matter where they come from.
“You just have to try to remain competitive by bringing in good quality talent, let them compete against each other, and take the best players,” Belichick said. “There were a pretty large number of players who didn’t make our roster who played throughout the league this year, and some of them played at a good level. In the end, we kept the ones we felt were best for our football team.”
He’s known for moving to a 4-3 defensive front this season, even without a proper training camp to perfect it first. He has helped develop players who were underused or rejected elsewhere, and drafted guys from little-known colleges. His tight ends are the toast of the NFL.
“Belichick is a savant in the area of understanding personnel and product,” Kraft said. “He knows how to balance veterans with youth and strategizes to replenish his team.”
Belichick excels at making in-game adjustments. He even had the Patriots take a “halftime break” of exactly 31 minutes at Wednesday’s practice, simulating the time they will have to regroup on Sunday while Madonna performs.
“I think that’s really been the hallmark of a Belichick-coached team,” said quarterback Tom Brady, who says Belichick starts every morning by telling them it’s a big day. “Early in the year you try out some combinations of players and plays and then you realize that they don’t work so you don’t use them any more and you go to the stuff that does work and you try to do those things more consistently.”
Brady says other Belichick hallmarks include treating every player the same from starter to practice squad. He also uses jokes, some of which Brady figures he’s heard 20 times. Belichick says he often uses examples of successful teams in other sports, always finding new ways to relay lessons.
“I’ve always felt like if a player can understand what you are telling him, and if he has the concepts and the aptitude to understand what you are coaching, and then he works hard at it, then he’s got to improve,” Belichick said. “That has got to happen.”
This Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, Belichick will no doubt appear expressionless as usual on the sidelines, operating within the confines of his signature hoodie, something he describes as practical – a pocket for his stuff and arms he can trim back the way he likes them. Coughlin is likely to be his emphatic self on his sideline, often red-faced.
Regardless of which masterful strategist wins this Super Bowl, many will no doubt watch carefully for their postgame embrace, one between coaches who started from the same cloth.