One evening last March during the NFL meetings in Phoenix, a group of folks leaving a restaurant encountered Tom Coughlin and Dick Jauron dining with their wives on the outdoor terrace.
Nothing unusual about that - Jauron, Buffalo's coach, was once Coughlin's defensive coordinator in Jacksonville.
Bill Belichick wasn't there. He doesn't spend much time at owners' meetings. But if he had been present, he might have been sitting with Coughlin and Jauron, among the few NFL coaches for whom the Patriots coach has any genuine affection. Add Cleveland's Romeo Crennel and you might have the entire list of peers Belichick truly likes.
That makes next Sunday's Super Bowl almost a love fest between two men perceived to be among the NFL's least lovable coaches: Belichick and Coughlin, portrayed by television cameras and sometimes his own New York Giants players as the ultimate grumpy old man. It's more dramatic because Coughlin can keep Belichick from making history with the first 19-0 team in NFL history.
'Tom and I have a good relationship,' Belichick said this week.
'We go way back to the '80s there at the Giants. We worked together closely, as a secondary coach and a receiver coach would. He's a good personal friend, and Judy and his family. We've spent time with them away from football, whether it was at Boston College, Jacksonville and so forth. I respect Tom. I think he's an outstanding coach and wish him well in every game but this one.'
Coughlin, reminiscing 200 or so miles away, recalled when he and Belichick would sit up late at night working on drills for Coughlin's receivers and Belichick's defensive backs.
'It was always competitive, but competitive in a way that would help our team,' Coughlin said. 'We developed a relationship of cooperation then. He's done an excellent, excellent job.'
OK. Mutual admiration platitudes.
But there actually seems to be a sense of real camaraderie between the Super Bowl adversaries, who were together on what has to be one of the best staffs ever, the Giants of the late 1980s who beat Buffalo in the Super Bowl following the 1990 season. It was headed by Bill Parcells and included Coughlin, Belichick, Crennel; former Jets and current Virginia coach Al Groh; and Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis.
Not to mention Ray Handley, who got the Giants' job when Parcells stepped down in the spring of 1991.
'I always thought both of them were going to be pretty good,' Parcells quipped this week about his two former assistants, even noting that he and Belichick were on the outs for a while - 'a little difference of opinion on a couple of things,' is how the Tuna put it.
Belichick has been on the outs with a lot of coaches since Week 1 this year, when one of his former proteges, the Jets' Eric Mangini, turned him into the NFL for videotaping defensive signals. Belichick was fined $500,000, and the team was fined $250,000 and lost its first-round draft pick, though the Patriots still have the seventh overall, obtained from San Francisco.
The Patriots used the episode and the resentment it caused as incentive in a 16-0 regular season, now 18-0 after two playoff wins.
But the resentment among NFL coaches, which had simmered as the Patriots won Super Bowls after the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons, became a little more open. It was most likely reciprocal. While Belichick never says anything overtly nasty, there's an overriding feel that he disdains many of his colleagues, whom he feels aren't quite as smart as he is.
Coughlin isn't in that category.
As monomaniacal about the game as the Giants coach can be, Belichick was off his radar until the final game of the regular season. The Patriots won 38-35 to complete an unbeaten season, but the Giants were bolstered for the playoffs by showing they could stay with the best. And the two coaches remained friends through Coughlin's stints with Jacksonville and now with the Giants.
In his first three seasons in New York, Coughlin's obsessive ways often put him in conflict with his players.
In 2004, his first season in New York, he antagonized Michael Strahan by fining him for 'not being early enough' to a team meeting - Coughlin's rule was that to be on time, a player had to be 5 minutes early. With Strahan, Tiki Barber, Jeremy Shockey and a few others, he inherited stars and self-defined team leaders with huge egos.
The clash was immediate and debilitating on both sides.
But this season, his fourth with the Giants, Coughlin has moderated and Barber's retirement seems to have left the locker room a happier place. Indeed, the coach and Strahan now form a mutual admiration society.
And Coughlin can coach. He is sixth among active coaches with 110 regular- and postseason victories, and 32nd all time. His job was in jeopardy after an 0-2 start, but it's not any more - at 60, he's expected to get a long-term contract extension after the Super Bowl.
He's also mellowed, instituting a council of team leaders to help him run things.
Is he easier to be around? More interesting?
'Have his pep talks gotten peppier? I think his pep talks are a little bit better,' said wide receiver Amani Toomer, with Strahan the last players left from the Giants' Super Bowl trip seven years ago.
'Of course it is easier to get up for a game when he says something when you are winning. It is going to mean more to you than when he says something when you are losing. I think a lot of that has to do with just winning and how contagious winning can be.'
Belichick's teams have been winning since 2001. So when he talks they listen.
Every week, he sets down the party line for the game, usually that the opponent is the best the Patriots have played so far - even if the opponent is winless.
Then you hear exactly the same phrasing from the players, from leaders Tom Brady and Rodney Harrison on down. Normally, rookies are told not to talk to the media and the more talkative youngsters often are 'handled' by veterans at their positions. Second-year running back Laurence Maroney, for example, is liable to be 'tutored' by nine-year veteran Kevin Faulk.
Not so different, it turns out, from Coughlin's players council.
If you go back two decades, Parcells used to send his message down to the Giants through veterans Harry Carson, George Martin and Phil Simms.