In pro football, the real game is on the sidelines. There the head coach paces, barking orders into his headset, congratulating or chastising a player, wearing a sociopath's stern face as he silently prays he'll be baptized by a tub of Gatorade in the final minute of a winning game. The coach is a chess demon, planning dozens of gambits that depend on whether his quarterback throws for a big gain or gets sacked. He is a video-game whiz kid, and the playing field is his Grand Theft Auto Vice City. He is a field marshal and, sometimes, a counselor--General Patton and Dr. Phil. The quarterback may be the glamour boy, but the coach is the star. The TV camera knows this: during a game it follows Bill Parcells, head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, as avidly as if he were J. Lo with her back turned.
The same star treatment will be given to the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick and the Carolina Panthers' John Fox during Sunday's Super Bowl XXXVIII, in Houston. Fox may try to mute the two coaches' importance--"He and I aren't going to play a single snap"--but he can hardly be modest about his achievement since taking the Panthers' reins early in 2002. No other NFL team has gone from a 1-15 season to the Super Bowl in just two years. Underdogs all this season, the Panthers relied on an insistent running game and a demolishing defense. They got to Houston by whupping the favored Philadelphia Eagles, 14-3, with a ferocity not seen since the barbarians upset the Romans on their home field in 476.
Punishment may seem an ill-fitting strategy for a genial fellow who was a surfer dude as well as a jock in his California teens. But Fox's German-American mom and Vietnam-vet stepdad taught him discipline and focus, which he needed as he took 15 college and pro coaching jobs in 25 years. (His wife Robin spent their honeymoon in the stands as Fox coached in the U.S. Football League.) So he knew hunger when he came to Carolina. "Losing 15 games in a row, everybody had scars. They were ashamed and embarrassed, and willing to do anything to prevent that happening again." Fox mixed paternal goodwill with a physical (read: brutal) defensive strategy and made no-names like quarterback Jake Delhomme and wide receiver Steve Smith into overachievers. "He's not a rah-rah guy," says ABC commentator and Super Bowl coach John Madden, "but he's a lot more rah-rah than Belichick. He's in the middle of the rah-rah scale."
Madden recalls Belichick when the Pats guru was a defensive coordinator for Parcells: "He could act like a mad scientist, locking himself in a room, drawing up defenses." That didn't suit Belichick for the p.r. functions of a head coach, and he failed in a stint at Cleveland. He's still ill at ease in press conferences, but he has a lighter side. Quarterback Tom Brady, another no-namer promoted to Super Bowl glory when the Pats took it all in 2002, insists his coach is "very witty, very intelligent." Asked for a few gems of Belichick stand-up, Brady demurs: "We're talking about a football coach here. Not much of that stuff is going to be printable."