This year, a battle of cerebral coaches

When the New England Patriots square off against the St. Louis Rams in this Sunday's Super Bowl, the most interesting clash may take place on the sidelines between two of the best coaching minds in American football.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick insists on old-fashioned East Coast toughness; Rams coach Mike Martz thrives on innovative West Coast speed. The tight-lipped Mr. Belichick directs a defense so well-planned even critics admit it borders on genius. The effusive Mr. Martz runs a high-stakes offense with mad-cap brilliance.

Call them the zen and zang of American football.

Yet, as they gird for the most cerebral of Super Bowl battles, the two also have much in common. They share a near-obsessive passion for excellence, a drive that critics find arrogant and cold, and an up-from-the bootstraps career trajectory that has shaped themselves and their teams.

While famous players and college coaches sometimes vault into the front ranks of NFL coaches, these two earned it the old-fashioned way. They started at the very bottom and moved up step by step. Think Horatio Alger as water boy.

Martz's slow march

For Martz, life in the NFL began exactly a decade ago with a salary of exactly zero. Martz was so eager to coach in the pros he was just happy to be with the Los Angeles Rams staff. After graduating summa cum laude from Fresno State, he had already bounced around the profession, coaching local high school teams, taking coordinator posts at San Jose State, Santa Ana College, Fresno State, University of the Pacific, University of Minnesota, and Arizona State. Early on, he earned so little he and his wife, Julie, went on food stamps and ate cornflakes for dinner several days a week.

But after 20 years' experience and failing to get the head-coaching position at the University of the Pacific, Martz approached Ernie Zampese, then offensive coordinator for the Rams, looking for work. Head coach Chuck Knox took him on - as a volunteer - with the promise that if he did well, he'd get hired the following year.

Martz agreed, even though it meant leaving his four kids behind in Arizona, where Julie took a part-time job. To make ends meet, they refinanced their house, and he borrowed from his retirement plan and lived with friends in Huntington Beach, Calif. After a full day, Martz would pore over statistics and then return to the office at 6 a.m. After a year, he was hired as an offensive assistant.

He went on to become Rams receivers coach, then quarterbacks coach with the Washington Redskins. In 1999, he returned to the Rams (now in St. Louis) as offensive coordinator and designed a scoring powerhouse that led the team to its first-ever Super Bowl victory.

Immediately afterward, head coach Dick Vermeil stepped down, and Martz got his first head-coaching job and the glittering keys to the most feared offense in the league.

"I've been at the very bottom, and right now we're at the very top," he would say that year. "I've seen every angle of this doggone thing, and I feel good about it."

Enter Belichick

If Martz worked for free, Belichick's first NFL job didn't pay much better - $25 a week from the Baltimore Colts. It wasn't even his first pick. A merely average football player at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he had majored in economics and demonstrated an analytical turn of mind that seemed more white-collar than sweat suit.

"We thought he would go on to business school or Wall Street," recalls John Biddiscombe, then position coach and now athletic director at Wesleyan.

In fact, Belichick had snagged a spot in North Carolina State's graduate business program with a part-time job on Lou Holtz's coaching staff. But complications arose, and Belichick landed instead at the coaching table of the Colts' Ted Marchibroda. Halfway through the season, the young man was breaking down film of opposing teams - just as he had at age 10 for his father, Steve, longtime coach at the US Naval Academy.

"There really isn't a job I haven't done," he would say much later. "I made the airport runs and picked up the towels.... I know what 'entry level' means."

After stints with the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos, he began to shine in New York, where the Giants named him defensive coordinator in 1985. Belichick's unit became ranked as one of the best in the league and helped propel the Giants to two Super Bowl victories. In 1991, the Cleveland Browns made him the youngest head coach in the NFL.

It proved a stormy tenure. Demanding and detached, he was more at home analyzing film behind closed doors than reaching out to the media In 1993, he did the unforgivable in the eyes of fans - cutting quarterback Bernie Kosar.

Although the Browns made it to the second round of the playoffs the next year, Belichick's reputation didn't recover, and he was cut after the 1995 season as the team left Cleveland. Belichick went to New England, where he rejoined Bill Parcells, his old boss at the Giants, as defensive coordinator. He helped propel the Patriots to a Super Bowl appearance, then followed Mr. Parcells to the New York Jets. When Parcells retired in January 2000, Belichick was handed the head coaching job.

Astoundingly, he declined it in a rambling press conference and accepted instead the head-coaching post at New England. It offered a chance for redemption after the bitter experience at Cleveland.

Ram tough

Just as Belichick struggled with communication at Cleveland, Martz as new head coach of the Rams faced a communication breakdown with his defense. Star players groused about contract problems. The unit sagged. Even though the Rams sparkled offensively, the defense became truly awful, and the 1999 champions quickly exited the playoffs in 2000.

In the off-season, Martz showed the same ruthless resolve as Belichick. He cut disgruntled stars and coaches, brought in eight new defensive players and a new coordinator, Lovie Smith. Amazingly, in a single season, the defense became one of the best in the league. The Rams began marching toward this Super Bowl with a sense of inevitability - or, as opposing coaches began to say openly, arrogance.

Martz ran up scores on opponents, they complained, used trick plays when games were already won, left in starters long after they had clinched the outcome, and publicly criticized opposing players by name. Even reporters who follow him remain baffled by Martz's Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde swings. "I have only one theory," wrote St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz this week. "Six days a week, Martz is a nice guy. On Sunday, his competitiveness and creativity conspire against his judgment and he loses control at times."

But the new Rams coach has toned down his aggressive on-field attack at times. Meanwhile, Belichick has been seen high-fiving players and even cracking a smile at times.

Even critics give the second-chance coach his due. "Somehow, Belichick willed himself to outgrow his very serious limitations," Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Bill Livingston wrote recently. "The man who couldn't reach out here has touched all New England. It's called self-improvement, and I can't knock it."

So keep an eye on the sidelines this Sunday. The tight-lipped guru and the mad-cap wizard are sure to do something unpredictable.

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