They both served as assistants under guru Bill Parcells at the New York Giants. Each left his first head coaching job because he couldn't get along with anyone. Their résumés are so similar, in fact, that the main difference on Sunday may come down to this: Bill Belichick has already been to the Super Bowl three times, but this is Tom Coughlin's first appearance as head coach.
Theirs is a friendly rivalry – they've been chums for decades and each praises the other's record.
But warm and fuzzy aren't necessarily words that spring to the lips of all who've shared the sidelines with the Patriots' Belichick or the Giants' Coughlin. Both are known for an autocratic style, an exacting attention to detail.
"They come from the same family tree of coaching," says Howie Long, a Fox football analyst and former Oakland Raider. "I don't think either one of them are necessarily guys you'd want to take long walks with on the beach, but they're great coaches."
Under Belichick, meanwhile, the New England Patriots have been undefeated this season. If they win Sunday, they will become the first NFL team ever to finish 19-0. And with a Super Bowl victory, Belichick could be anointed the greatest NFL coach of all time.
Both Belichick and Coughlin are lifelong students of the game and have worked their way up through the ranks. They tackle adversity with gusto and almost make rawhide-tough Tommy Franks, the general who ran the US invasion of Iraq, look like milquetoast.
"They are what I would call old school because they coached together under Parcells," says Steve Mariucci, on-air host for the NFL Network and former head coach for the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions.
Belichick's start with his dad
Belichick learned the game at the knee of his father, an assistant coach at Navy for 33 years. Young Bill began attending scouting meetings with his dad when he was in grade school and was diagramming plays before he hit junior high.
"I went over and watched Navy to hang out with my dad around Joe Bellino, Roger Staubach, Tom Lynch, Pat Donnalley, and guys like that," said Belichick at the University of Phoenix Stadium during media day this week. "They were the best players because they worked the hardest. They were the first ones out to practice. They were the last ones to leave."
It instilled a work ethic that remains with Belichick today. He is usually the first in the office or on the field and the last to leave. That dedication to work, along with Belichick's understanding of the game, his preparation, and lightning-quick adjustments to deal with opponents' plays, is legendary.
"He's smart, well prepared. He has knowledge of all three areas – special teams, defense, and offense," says Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. "He just pays attention to every single aspect or detail about this football team, and that's the thing that really separates Bill Belichick from others."
But some of his moves haven't gone over well. In 1993, when he was head coach at the Cleveland Browns, he decided that the quarterback, Bernie Kosar, had become ineffective. Belichick released him from the team, even though Kosar's back up, Vinny Testaverde, was injured. The incident upset just about everyone connected with the team, and the Browns went on to lose six of their next eight games.
Yet he learned from that experience. When Drew Bledsoe, the Patriots' star quarterback, suffered an injury in 2001, Belichick replaced him in the lineup with little-known Tom Brady. It wasn't a seamless move, but the transition was much smoother, experts say, because of the way Belichick handled it.
At the onset of this season, however, Belichick dealt with more controversy: The NFL hit him with a $500,000 fine for videotaping an opposing team's defensive signals. The NFL also fined the team $250,000 and took away its first-round draft pick.
But the team has used that adversity to motivate its near-perfect play this season. And through it all, Belichick keeps his team focused on the task at hand. For example, his players have been peppered this week with questions such as, "How will it feel to be the first team to go 19-0 in one season?"
They stick to the same answer: There is one game to play, and we are focused on trying to win it. "We've been dealing with that all season," says Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Coughlin's success with the Jags
Like Belichick, Coughlin spent many long seasons coaching college football and assisting other coaches in the NFL. His first head coach job was with an expansion team, the Jacksonville Jaguars. He built the team from the ground up and took it to the AFC championship games in 1996 and 1999.
Coughlin's list of rules, with the Jaguars and later with the Giants, has become legendary. No sunglasses on the sidelines. No white socks and sneakers in hotel lobbies. Two feet on the ground during team meetings.
Soon after he joined the Giants in 2004, he fined four players for being just a couple of minutes early for a team meeting. He reportedly expected these players to show up at least five minutes early for meetings.
Last season, the Giants posted an unimpressive 8-8 record and lost a wild-card playoff to the Philadelphia Eagles. Since then, Coughlin has somewhat transformed his leadership habits, reportedly at the request of the team's owners. He's tried to improve communication and set a kinder tone, and he's more personable with his players. Many in the game say the Giants outstanding record this year is due largely to Coughlin's changes.
At the beginning of this season, Coughlin set up a leadership council of veteran players who act as middlemen between Coughlin and the other players.
"You grow, and you learn, and you adapt, and you adjust," says Coughlin, his blue eyes sparkling in the Arizona sun. "I've tried to do a much better job of communicating to the players through our leadership council…. I was going to make them feel comfortable and feel that they could contribute. And they did, and they have."
The players have noticed the difference. "If [Coughlin] didn't change, we wouldn't be here," says defensive end Michael Strahan, one of the four players that Coughlin fined in 2004. "I don't think you'd have guys with the same commitment or who would care enough to win 10 games on the road."