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.