GLENDALE, Ariz. - There are no strangers in coaching. Not in the NFL. Everybody knows everybody. The way young assistants jump from job to job early in their careers, it's almost impossible for paths not to cross.
Tom Coughlin first intersected with Bill Belichick in 1988, when he joined Bill Parcells' staff with the New York Giants. Belichick already had three years under his belt as defensive coordinator when Coughlin became receivers coach.
The Giants won the Super Bowl after the 1990 season and the coaches went their separate ways. Belichick took over the Cleveland Browns, which certainly didn't work out, and then returned to Parcells' embrace for four years before becoming coach of the New England Patriots.
Coughlin went to Boston College as coach, then brought the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars into being and spent nine years there. He was out of coaching during the 2003 season and became coach of the Giants in '04.
Their paths will cross again tomorrow, albeit on opposing sidelines, in Super Bowl XLII.
Coughlin is 61 years old, a grandfather, and will be coaching in his first Super Bowl. Belichick is 55 and on the brink of NFL history. He has coached the Patriots to three Super Bowl victories and only Chuck Noll, who won four of them with the Steelers in the 1970s, is ahead of him on the list.
It has been 20 years since Coughlin and Belichick first shook hands and this is quite a place to hold a reunion.
"Bill was the defensive coordinator, but he also coached the secondary," Coughlin recalled. "I was the receivers coach. So we had the opportunity to work together extensively, from training camp on, and we became good friends. We shared a lot of thoughts. 'How would you attack this?' or 'How would you defend that?' We were very cooperative and the entire process was to make our players better and make our team better. And, sure, to make each other better. It was a very good experience for us both, I think. I have a great respect for him. We're not phone-call buddies or anything like that, but it's a strong relationship. I recognize the quality of the coach and I'd like to think we're good friends."
Belichick smiled and said, "Of course, that friendship will not be much for three hours or so on Sunday. But it's very satisfying for both of us to be here. I have a lot of respect for Tom. We had a great working relationship; probably as good as I've ever had with another assistant on the other side of the ball."
That relationship is not to suggest they are alike. Parcells says that both are "serious-minded guys," but that Belichick is a bit more reserved.
A bit? He is a closed book, a mystery man, about as obtuse as they come.
Coughlin, on the other hand, is a whack job, a fire-belching lunatic. Did you catch his act during the NFC title game at Green Bay when Lawrence Tynes missed two straight field goals in the fourth quarter? Or, before that, when guard Chris Snee's holding penalty looked as if it might derail a touchdown drive? It was below zero, but you could have fried an egg on Coughlin's face. And Snee, for goodness sake, is the coach's son-in-law.
OK, Coughlin is what he is. But, prior to this season, he was the same way on the field and off. And the off part was creating problems. Despite his leading the Giants to a second straight playoff berth last season, there was a near-mutiny in the locker room. He was called on the carpet.
"One of the first things he said was that he needed to make some changes," said Giants co-owner John Mara. "He admitted there were a lot of things he could improve upon. So, to me, that was huge."
Coughlin formed a leadership council of 11 veteran players to enhance communication. He started joking around in the locker room. He called off practice one day and took his players bowling.
"You can't be on pins and needles all the time," said offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie. "Now he's right in there joking with us."
Added linebacker Antonio Pierce: "We've seen a different side of him and it has brought us closer together. We have a better understanding that he's not just that rough-and-tough head coach who's yelling and screaming. He's shown us his teeth. He smiles, he has cheek bones."
Coughlin said everyone has to "grow and learn and adapt and adjust. You'd better."
Would the Giants be in the Super Bowl if he hadn't?
"That is a great question," said receiver Amani Toomer. "You can't measure the effect it has had on our team."
So, Coughlin has become more human. We don't really know what Belichick has become, other than the best coach in the NFL. Everything else is hidden under the hood of that tattered gray sweatshirt.
"The sweatshirt? That's his little woobie, his little security blanket," joked linebacker Mike Vrabel. "It's got that pouch and he keeps all his stuff in it. You would like to see what is inside that pouch, I bet."
Well, yes, we would. Any hints?
"All I know is this," added Vrabel. "I'm glad I play for Bill Belichick. He challenges us, he pushes us, he makes us better football players. He's not trying to make friends or be somebody's buddy. We have plenty of those. He's trying to make us the best team."
Belichick does that by "being a perfectionist, by being a guy who believes in no stone unturned," said defensive lineman Ty Warren.
Belichick was pretty mellow upon arriving in Phoenix earlier this week, but safety Rodney Harrison said not to be fooled. "Each day he becomes a little more ticked off and he'll find reasons to yell and scream at us. He is so bent on attention to detail. To know what everybody is doing at every single moment the way he does is amazing."
The bottom line on Bill? Ask 12-year veteran linebacker Larry Izzo.
"You get to a certain point where you're able to play in the NFL, then he takes you to another level. It's an honor to play for him. Down the road, to be able to say you played for Bill Belichick is going to be similar to guys saying they played for Vince Lombardi."
Especially if, come tomorrow night, they hand Belichick the Lombardi Trophy for the fourth time in seven years.