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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Top billing: Belichick, Parcells

There is a moral to this coaching story, but sometimes the moral is hard to see. You have to do a lot of clearing before you can get to the essence of Sunday's meeting of the Bills.

You have to strip away the emotion, something the principals -- Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells -- haven't completely done themselves. You have to view the incidents that led to their split and then move on. And you have to be sure that your phrasing is correct (Parcells, for example, is not and never has been Belichick's "mentor").

After all that, the lesson becomes clear: There is no such thing as one path to greatness. There are probably 1,000 routes to get you where you want to go and, for the sake of this discussion, there are at least two.

In Belichick and Parcells, you have two road signs, both pointing to the Super Bowl. They have worked in the same cities, coached some of the same players, and received leading-man paychecks from the same boss. Terry Glenn thought playing for Belichick was torture and is now comfortable with Parcells in Dallas. Parcells thought Robert Kraft was a meddler, while Belichick enjoys his relationship with the Patriots owner.

At one point during training camp 2001, Belichick became so determined to speak with the childish Glenn that he told a team employee to intentionally block his car in the players' parking lot. That way, he would be certain to speak with the elusive wide receiver before he left Smithfield, R.I.

Parcells probably hasn't had to do that with Glenn in Irving, Texas.

At one point during the planning for Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans in 1997, Parcells's phone calls to Hempstead, N.Y., approached the high 50s. Hempstead is the administrative home of the New York Jets, the team Parcells took over shortly after the Patriots lost to the Packers.

Now that he's a lot closer to qualifying for senior discounts at New York and New Jersey diners, Parcells isn't likely to be as impulsive as he was then. Jerry Jones doesn't have to worry -- yet -- about his coach's wandering eye. And Kraft doesn't have to be concerned with being portrayed as an owner who would love to exchange his Armani for a sweatsuit and a whistle.

Who knows why a certain style can excite one man and repulse his neighbor? Jones is precisely the owner Parcells didn't want Kraft to be. Belichick is certainly the grocer/coach that Kraft didn't want Parcells to be.

Maybe Parcells and Belichick, who are no longer friends, arrived in Texas and New England at the perfect time. Parcells was good on TV, but trading jokes with Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, and Steve Young wasn't his Sunday morning calling. Some ex-coaches on TV come off as broadcasters who used to be coaches. Parcells was a head coach who was doing broadcasting as a hobby.

The Cowboys needed him, too.

They are 7-2 on his watch when they could easily be 2-7 under someone else. They are getting to hear the treats that the old Giants, Jets, and Patriots heard. He is telling them how they stink after wins. He is telling them how far they have to go. He is cleverly dropping hints to the reporters who cover them, in other words directing the reporters to the stories they should cover.

Belichick was a good assistant to Parcells, two times in New York and once in New England. But how long can you continue to be someone's footnote and addendum? How many times can you be the key cog in the shell game? You're named head coach (wink, wink) of the Jets in 1997, knowing that you're holding the job for Parcells. You're named again in 2000, knowing that you want to go out on your own.

New England, the job and the region, was the best fit for Belichick. This is an area that makes stars out of academics and sports participants, and the head coach of the Patriots happens to be both.

He and, of all people, Parcells's son-in-law (Scott Pioli) landed in Foxborough and began gutting the team as if it were a 19th century house. They're still remodeling, even if there is a Lombardi Trophy resting on the shelves.

On Sunday, Belichick will match his 7-2 Patriots against Parcells's team. The coaches, two of the best in the NFL, haven't opposed each other since 1995, Belichick's last season in Cleveland and Parcells's next-to-last year in New England. New England won that game and finished 6-10. Cleveland finished 5-11, the franchise left town, and Belichick learned how love works in pro football: He was fired on Valentine's Day 1996.

These championship coaches were always different personally, which doesn't surprise most people. But their professional differences are probably more pronounced now than they were then.

There is no way Parcells would have signed off on the drafting of a 5-foot-11-inch, 283-pound defensive lineman such as Dan Klecko. He drafted Tedy Bruschi, who was considered undersized, in the third round in 1996. But he had to be talked into it. He favors big linebackers in the middle, so the best draftee in '96 -- 6-1, 245-pound Ray Lewis -- did not fit his height/weight/speed ideal.

Belichick likes his defenses to have multiple looks, and would prefer a simplified offense. Parcells is the opposite.

That became obvious when the men cut their professional ties after the '99 season. Parcells had taken the play-calling from offensive coordinator Charlie Weis in New York; when Belichick took over here, Weis was in full control of the offense.

In less than 10 years, New England has watched two of the top coaches in the game take its team to the Super Bowl. One man lost. One man won. When they meet three days from now, it's supposed to be the game of the season.

Supposed to be. A better game would be a Dallas-New England Super Bowl in Houston. That game would reinforce the moral of the story, too.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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