MIAMI -- The biggest surprise of the Super Bowl has already occurred this year, long before the opening kickoff.
Somehow, the truth got out.
Head coaches Dan Reeves of Atlanta and Mike Shanahan of Denver honestly and genuinely dislike each other.
That you know is, well, quite an upset.
Such bald truths usually get buried at the Super Bowl beneath heaping mounds of nonsense and happy hype, but this one somehow made it through all the checkpoints of the NFL's highly orchestrated spectacle and loosed itself on the public.
And in a shocking development, Reeves and Shanahan didn't do it to hype a book or a pay-per-view event or some such, nor did they do it in the name of that greatest of Super Bowl traditions: attracting attention to thine self.
They did it because it's real, and they couldn't help themselves. How about that?
After coaching together in Denver for seven years and splitting up under terrible circumstances, they'd love nothing more than to squash the other into a bowl of conch chowder on Sunday.
Not that either went that far when admitting to their mutual disaffection last week before coming to Miami. And of course, both have clammed up completely here, falling into the traditional Super Bowl week pattern of saying nothing remotely interesting.
"Mike's done a terrific job," Reeves said yesterday, blah, blah.
But it's too late. The truth got out this time.
Reeves, the former coach of the Broncos, was the one who made it happen. He just couldn't stop himself when asked about going up against Shanahan, his former offensive coordinator, and John Elway, his former quarterback. Shanahan and Elway conspired against Reeves over play-calling and control, and when Reeves had Shanahan fired, Elway then had Reeves fired, or so goes the story.
Yes, Reeves said last week, all that hurt me deeply and I'll probably never get over it.
Oh, and how do you really feel?
After the initial shock of hearing Reeves' blunt comments wore off, Shanahan replied that he, too, thought their relationship was damaged beyond repair.
"I'd thought we were going to take the high road on all this," he added.
Elway, the eternal master of escape, somehow floated safely over it all; he and Reeves patched up their wounds on the golf course last spring, at least to some degree. But Reeves and Shanahan couldn't.
The NFL being what it is, a bastion of conspiracy theories, some observers suggested Reeves had dredged up his old hurts on purpose, to divert the meticulous Shanahan from the task at hand, preparing for the game.
A more likely scenario was that Reeves, an old-school coach for whom loyalty is everything, just couldn't bring himself to gloss over the events that led to his lowest point, his departure from Denver.
It was a gut reaction, that's what it was. A rare glimpse at a hard truth inside the Super Bowl.
Predictably, Reeves arrived in Miami, blinked hard at the 3,000 reporters, apologized and started backpedaling. How could he spend this week, of all weeks, on such a subject?
Unmoved, Shanahan never said he was accepting the apology, only that he had bigger things to worry about, such as winning the game.
Watching them operate separately now, it's amazing they ever worked together. Both are headstrong, stubborn and convinced they know best. And both now have what they always wanted: total control.
Reeves never had it as the head coach of the Broncos or Giants, but he does now, and, in the ultimate display of his effectiveness, he has taken a perennial loser to the Super Bowl in two years. It's his greatest accomplishment.
But Shanahan has accomplished even more in four years in Denver, building a team favored to win a second straight Super Bowl title Sunday, a team that stands above the rest of the NFL right now.
That's probably why the friction continues to exist between them even now, so long after the fact. Shanahan, the pupil, has outfooted Reeves, the teacher, in their race to the top. That's never a comfortable situation.
That could change if the Falcons upset the Broncos on Sunday, but don't believe for a second that Reeves is thinking that way. He's too old and experienced to let a personal vendetta become his top priority.
After losing three lopsided Super Bowls with Elway and the Broncos, he doesn't care who he beats as long as he beats someone. Not that, you know, he wouldn't mind it being Shanahan.
In the end, their hard feelings won't decide the outcome of Sunday's game, and you probably won't hear either even acknowledge that such a rivalry exists.
That's what the Super Bowl does to people. It turns off their inner honesty. It buries the truth underneath a mountain of hype and blandness.
But not this time. They can't fool us this time.
In the famed words of announcer Keith Jackson, these coaches "just, plain don't like each other."
And somehow, against all odds, the story got out.
Pub Date: 1/29/99