Dave Hyde: Belichick, Saban exit as mirror images of coaching greatness

To tie their exits in a symmetric story, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick entered the Miami Dolphins locker room to see then-coach Nick Saban after a meaningless regular-season finale in Foxboro. This was New Year’s Day, 2006.

A handful of Dolphins players still dressing for the losing trip home looked at each other, eyes widening in surprise. Opponents never entered another team’s locker room. And this was Belichick, stopping just long enough to shake the hand of Dolphins star Jason Taylor, on the way to the coaches’ dressing room.

A couple of Dolphins assistants were equally shocked as Belichick sat down on a bench opposite Saban. They exchanged greetings, handshakes, their background well known. Belichick wanted to explain why he had Doug Flutie drop-kick an extra point in a game that meant nothing to the playoff-bound Patriots but added snickering at the Dolphins. Saban said he understood.

“They talked like the good friends they were,’’ said an assistant, who only heard a moment of the conversation before leaving them to privacy.

They leave their respective NFL and college kingdoms within hours of each other like they were mirrors of each other. They were in some way, too. There’s some function of age here, Saban leaving Alabama at 72 and Belichick leaving New England at 71. The larger overlap of personality, of stern consistency toward work in an almost dour way that led the greatness in their profession.

“How many want to win a Super Bowl?” Saban once asked his Dolphins. Every player raised a hand. He then asked how many were willing to go through the demands of doing that that — the daily work, the lifestyle changes, the constant sacrifice and overcoming failure that greatness took.

He was willing. Belichick, too, in ruling the NFL, and especially the AFC East, in a manner that added snickering at the Dolphins for a football generation. Belichick didn’t just win six (and made nine) Super Bowls. He won 17 AFC East titles. He won 42 playoff games during a stretch of eight Dolphins coaches who won zero.

“You’ve got to beat that team if you want to win,” said Dave Wannstedt, the first Dolphins coach to be effectively fired for not matching up to Belichick.

So, Belichick didn’t win without Tom Brady. So what? It’s a partnership in the NFL, a great coach needs a great quarterback. And vice versa. Belichick drafted Brady in the fifth round, won the first couple of Super Bowls with defense and then helped develop Brady to greatness.

To the Brady-made-Belichick crowd: Aaron Rodgers won a single Super Bowl in 17 years in Green Bay. Was he that much less a quarterback than Brady? Or did their respective organizations have something to do with the rings?

The question becomes what now for Belichick. He’s 14 victories shy of Dolphins legend Don Shula’s all-time wins record. Does he want to chase that? Or does he realize in the coming days that the fire doesn’t burn as strong?

“It’s great,” Belichick said after win No. 300 this season to join Shula and George Halas. “I’m really more focused on our team and this year. I’ll worry about that later. Thank you.”

Is it later for Belichick now? Not lost amid Dolphins history is how Belichick nearly took the defensive coordinator’s job under Jimmy Johnson in 1995. He returned to Bill Parcells’ New England Patriots instead.

“It was pretty close,’’ he told me as I worked on a book on Johnson. “Obviously had a long relationship with Coach Parcells and, in the end, just a better fit for me. Plus, I stayed in New England. I went to college in New England and was comfortable in that part of the country. Home in Nantucket. It was the right move for me.”

Will the next move be to the Los Angeles Chargers? Or Atlanta Falcons? Does that sound like a geographical fit for a coach who believes in geography?

Saban says his next move is retirement. All the South Florida talk is of his failed, two-year Dolphins tenure. If he’d taken the right quarterback — Drew Brees instead of Dante Culpepper — he would have remained Dolphins coach for years, Taylor insists. He’d have won, too, as his Alabama run suggests.

Saban’s two-year run instead can be summed up by a story by equipment manager Tony Egues. They met at the door to the Dolphins complex for work at 5 a.m.

“Morning, coach,” Egues said.

Saban’s enforcer, Scott O’Brien, soon visited Egues and told him to never greet the coach. Such stories weren’t unusual. Office workers were told not to walk by his office, to take a longer route to bypass it.

When Saban left the Dolphins, though, he wrote Egues a letter thanking him for his work and offering help if it ever was needed. Egues appreciated the professionalism and minimalism of Saban.

“Working for him was one of the great honors of my life,” he said.

Now Saban is free to spend time at his $20 million complex in Jupiter. Belichick is his neighbor. They once worked together with the Cleveland Browns. Could they get together again? Doubtful. But interesting.

More likely the two defining coaches of this football generation have private conversations, like they once did after a game in the Dolphins coaches’ room, as retired legends in Jupiter.