BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Once the game’s over, Browns coach Eric Mangini and Patriots boss Bill Belichick will meet somewhere near the 50-yard line and face yet another of those painfully awkward moments with the whole football world watching.
That’s when they’ll have to shake hands.
Mangini already knows what’s coming.
“I’m sure it will be one that’s firm, brisk. You know, textbook,” Mangini joked Wednesday. “I’m sure we’ll be talking about it for years to come.”
The rocky relationship between Mangini and Belichick — former friends, student and mentor — has been one of the NFL’s spiciest story lines for some time. Their rift, precipitated by Mangini’s departure in 2006 from Belichick’s staff in New England to coach in New York and deepened by Mangini’s accusations of cheating in the infamous “Spygate” affair, has become legendary — or laughable, depending on your take.
On Sunday, their public and personal feud will be renewed when Mangini leads the Browns (2-5) against Belichick and the Patriots (6-1). It will be their first meeting since Mangini took over as coach in Cleveland, where he got his start in 1995 when Belichick plucked him from the Browns’ public relations department and made him a low-level assistant.
Mangini still speaks fondly of Belichick.
On the other hand, Belichick avoids anything warm and fuzzy.
During a conference call with Cleveland reporters, Belichick was asked at least five questions about his past, present and future with Mangini. Each time the three-time Super Bowl champion coach turned the discussion in another direction.
“We’re both coaching teams that are going to play on Sunday,” Mr. Sunshine said. “We’re both going to put a lot into this week and try and win on Sunday.”
Not once did Belichick say Mangini’s first name.
Mangini spent a decade working under and alongside Belichick. They were together one season in Cleveland, three in New York and six in New England before Mangini was hired by the Jets in ’06. Those years shaped Mangini into a tough-minded, no-nonsense coach cut straight from the Belichick hoodie.
In summarizing his “tremendous influence,” Mangini complimented Belichick’s well-rounded knowledge, work ethic and unmatched attention to detail. He also learned how to handle success and adversity working for Belichick.
“He’s arguably one of the best, if not the best coach in the league,” said Mangini, who added his relationship with Belichick has not changed in four years.
So where did it all go wrong?
Mangini’s decision to join the Jets, New England’s bitter AFC East rival, rankled Belichick, who felt betrayed by one of his coaching disciples.
Then, in ’07, Mangini allegedly turned in Belichick for having a Patriots aide videotape Jets defensive signals in the season opener. Belichick was eventually fined $500,000 by the league and the Patriots were penalized $250,000 and had to forfeit a first-round draft pick because of the incident.
Things haven’t been the same between the two since, and their postgame meetings have included some halfhearted pats on the back and limp handshakes with little eye-to-eye contact. Mangini hopes that one day he and Belichick will be able to and patch things up.
Can they be friends again?
“I’d say never say never,” said Mangini, who sidestepped a question about the videotaping scandal. “Obviously, he was very important to me and I respect him. He was very important to my family and all those things, but we’ll see. Time will tell. I think everything takes care of itself over time.”
Mangini, 2-5 in head-to-head matchups against Belichick, hasn’t shown any outward signs that this week’s game has more meaning. A few of Cleveland’s players have looked for cues their coach might be more eager than usual, but there’s been no noticeable change in Mangini.
“Not at all,” said Browns linebacker David Bowens, who spent two years with Mangini in New York. “He doesn’t show any emotion. He hasn’t said anything in the meetings. He’s pretty much the same as he has been every week, identifying some things and keys we need to win the game.
“But there’s no more emphasis than there was last week.”
Browns wide receiver Chansi Stuckey said Mangini doesn’t have to say anything to convey that he wants to win against the man who broke him into coaching. If the Steelers are the Browns’ biggest rival, well, the Patriots are Mangini’s personal nemesis.
Stuckey, who played two seasons for Mangini in New York, remembers the Jets-Patriots games as being filled with hard hits and hatred.
“They are both very competitive guys. They both want to be the best,” he said. “It’s common for one to want to outdo the other. I know both want to come in and pound the other guy.”
Afterward, they’ll shake hands — or pretend to do something like that.
Following New England’s win over Minnesota last week, Belichick offered Vikings coach Brad Childress a warm, two-handed exchange. Mangini was asked if he’s hoping for a similar greeting.
“Well, I haven’t gone through the range of shakes that are available,” he said, laughing. “I might have to seek an outside consultant.”
Belichick was asked about his expectations for a handshake certain to get more attention than any other around the league.
“Hopefully,” he said, “I’ll have a smile on my face. That’s what I’m hoping for. I hope we come out on top, that’s what we’re going up there for.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.