MIAMI (AP) – As he munches on lunch, Bill Belichick talks on the phone with the cheerfulness of someone eating a glass sandwich.

The subject is today’s matchup against Nick Saban, his protege and friend of 23 years. They’ll face each other for the first time when Belichick’s New England Patriots play the Miami Dolphins.

“I wouldn’t call it fun,” Belichick says between bites. “I look at it more as a challenge. Fun would be playing golf.”

They’re tightly wound, these two, stern workaholics who rank among their sport’s most respected coaches. If it helped them win, they really would chew glass.

And it’s against their nature to let friendship get in the way of a game. Their relationship has changed since Saban became the Dolphins’ coach last Christmas.

“We don’t talk as much as we used to, especially about football, because it is competitive in that we are in the same division and kind of on rival teams,” Saban says.

Even with both clubs struggling, the stakes Sunday will be substantial. Injury-plagued New England (4-4), seeking its fourth Super Bowl title in five years, was drubbed Monday night by Indianapolis, but remains atop the AFC East.

The Dolphins (3-5) can claim a share of first place with a win, even though they’ve lost four of their past five games.

“I am not frustrated,” Saban says. “We are not allowed to be frustrated here. If me being frustrated will help us get better, then I will be frustrated. But I am not frustrated.”

How about you, Bill? Frustrated?

“I don’t really care what happened last week or two weeks ago or last year or two years ago,” Belichick responds. “None of that really makes any difference. It’s all about the challenge this week.”

Which sounds like something Saban would say.

He and Belichick first met in 1982, when Saban and Belichick’s father, Steve, were on the staff at Navy. The younger Belichick became a head coach in 1991 with the Cleveland Browns and hired Saban as defensive coordinator.

They spent four years together on a staff that also included Kirk Ferentz, now head coach at Iowa; Fresno State coach Pat Hill; Dolphins director of football operations Scott O’Brien; and Jim Bates, former Dolphins defensive coordinator and interim head coach.

“Bill’s still a mentor of mine,” says Saban, at 54 six months older than Belichick. “Bill is a really good guy as well as being an outstanding coach – maybe as good as I’ve ever been around. And I’ve learned more from him than from anybody else.”

Belichick returns the compliment.

“I’ve had the privilege to work with a lot of coaches through my career, and none better than Nick,” he says. “I consider him a great coach and a great friend. I certainly appreciate everything he has ever done for me, which has been a lot.”

In trying to rebuild the Dolphins, who last year endured their first losing season since 1988, Saban is attempting to follow the example of Belichick, the first coach to win three Super Bowl titles in four years.

Both coaches are former defensive coordinators who stress organization and hard work.

“The talk has always been that Nick’s a Belichick disciple,” Miami defensive end Jason Taylor says. “I hope he is, so we can get three rings like they’ve got.”

Since joining the Dolphins, Saban says he and Belichick have spoken only a couple of times. The two coaches regret that they both work in the AFC East, rather than in different divisions.

“You’re in competition with that team 365 days a year, not just one Sunday a season,” Belichick says. “It makes it a little tougher to have as close a relationship you would have if you were somewhere else. But we understand that.”

Says Saban: “Hopefully when we’re sitting on a log someday on the side of the hill, what happens in this circumstance won’t affect our personal relationship.”

Players on both teams are well aware that Sunday’s game carries special meaning for both coaches.

“I guess Nick and Bill are great friends,” Taylor says. “I’ve got guys on teams I play against that I hang out with in the offseason and am very close with. But for 60 minutes you’re going at it. You can love the guy you’re playing against and still want to kick his butt.”

AP-ES-11-10-05 2124EST


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