Regardless of who wins the Super Bowl, this week will have been one of football's finest because of Don Shula and Bill Walsh.
Whether the Miami Dolphins or San Francisco 49ers win Sunday, both men still will be exactly the sort of winners who give sport its dimension and attract us to the world of hard games.
Because they're utterly different in outward style and inner temperament, in football tactics and in personal background, there's been a temptation here to choose between them, to try to decide who's the better man and coach.
Are you for Shula, who rides to his news conferences on public transportation, "in line with my blue-collar image," and is as utterly in tune with himself, his game and his world as any man you'll ever see?
Are you for Field and Stream, barbecue with the family, a station wagon and old-fashioned rectitude? "All I want is what's coming to me," says Shula, a man who hasn't stopped growing for 55 years and now stands full stature.
Or are you for the patrician, intellectual Walsh with his cryptic smiles, his sardonic wit, his exotic strategies, his hint of devious genius, his strung-too-tight intensity and his barely disguised assumption that he's a cut above his profession?
Are you for champagne and "Tennis, anyone?" For designer sweat suits and a wife named Geri? Are you for the sort of fella who'd say that, if he weren't a football coach, he might be playing lead guitar for Willie Nelson?
Fortunately, it's not necessary to make this pick. In fact, Shula and Walsh show how totally opposite two equally esteemable men can be.
Shula is the epitome of a lifelong football man. From his amazingly forceful face, which looks like it belongs on a military statue, to his stomach, which laps comfortably over his belt, he's easy to like and easy to grasp. With Shula, it's all up front.
He was a hard-nosed, hot-tempered, mediocre NFL player for seven years. A head coach at 33, he had enormous early success, but also had a knack for losing big games. His favored Colts once lost an NFL championship game to Cleveland, 27-0. Then, he took a highly favored Baltimore team to the Super Bowl and "screwed it up and made the Jets famous," recalled Shula this week.
That flaw got him fired by the Colts. And that firing might have taught him the wisdom of acceptance. He began to mellow, though reeeaaal slowly, to be sure. In the '70s, he still ruled his Miami teams with the fanatical attention to detail and the gift for barely veiled threat that marked Vince Lombardi.
The perfection of his 17-0 Dolphins team in 1972 and the glory of back-to-back Super Bowl triumphs seemed to extinguish the fires that burned in the darker side of Shula's nature. Vindicated, he seemed to lose his mean, bullying edge, his need for total control. A streak of humor emerged, plus a genuine dignity as a leader in his profession and a spokesman for his game.
The Shula on display here shows how much a man can blossom in middle age. He's encouraged his players to savor the Super hype and not be up tight. Thomas Jefferson admonished himself always to "look for the smooth handle." In every situation, Shula seems to find it. He's made the press an ally simply by never treating them like an enemy. Criticism and praise roll off him.
Even Walsh says, admiringly, "I don't know how he can take it in stride so easily." Shula manages to look like he is totally committed to winning while being invulnerable to any real damage if he is defeated.
Though Walsh is 53, and has snow white hair (compared to Shula, who has just a bit of gray at the temples), the 49ers coach seems like the much younger and less-formed man in temperment.
Because Walsh had little glory in his playing career as an end at San Jose State, because his coaching odyssey was so long and frustrating (including 17 years as a college or pro assistant), Walsh never really got to grab at his brass ring until he became head coach at Stanford in 1977.
When he took over the 49ers in 1979, Walsh was a man who had been choking on his own brilliance for nearly 20 years. When he took San Francisco to a Super Bowl victory in 1981, Walsh rubbed plenty of his colleagues the wrong way by acting as though he should have been on top of the hill for years.
Walsh was probably right, but he should have hidden it better. He shouldn't have loved the sound of his own voice and ideas so much, nor given so few spontaneous "thank yous" to others.
Talk to insiders here and you get a long list of NFL rivals -- from Shula himself to Joe Gibbs of the Redskins -- who occasionally give off irritable vibrations when Walsh's name comes up.
That's just the price you pay if you don't pretend to be part of the mainstream of a profession in which you also happen to be the star of the hour.
On Friday, Shula gave a helpful 20-minute talk to a gathering of 800 reporters who were desperate for notebook fodder, then answered questions for a half hour. Walsh followed Shula to the podium and said, "I have no presentation . . .until Sunday. I'll take any questions."
During those Friday questionings, one disoriented fellow asked both Shula and Walsh a rambling, indulgent question. Shula looked at the man for several seconds, then decided not to destroy him, giving a cordial nonanswer. Walsh looked hard at the man and said slyly, "You know, there's a clicking of cameras, and I kind of lost the question."
Shula has learned to suffer fools and swallow defeat.
He has learned to play above the breaks. That is to say, he gives the impression that no bad break -- no fumble or dumb question, no muddy practice field or flawed official -- can affect his elegantly composed way of going about his work and his life.
Walsh might not yet have reached that level. There's still hunger in his gut, envy in his eye, smart ideas years in the birthing that still haven't found their way into football plays that will dazzle the multitude.
Walsh and his vanity have not yet reached the accommodation that Shula and his temper have achieved. But, it will probably come.
Perhaps getting back to the Super Bowl (or winning it) after his near collapse from coach's burn-out in '82 will be what Walsh needs to find the peace in his work and in his world that Shula obviously has discovered.
The Super Bowl has never had two teams with records as good as the 33-3 mark the Dolphins and 49ers have.
This Roman numeral stage might never have had two coaches and two men who stand as tall as these, either.