Tonight, the coach of the Super Bowl winner - Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts or Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears - will joyfully cradle the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
A gleaming silver football, the NFL's Holy Grail honors the coach whose very name evokes vivid sideline images of steely authoritarianism, ferocious passion and an unforgiving insistence on perfection.
In short, Lombardi stood for just about everything Dungy and Smith are not.
"The head coach of a successful team, to many people, looked like Vince Lombardi," Dungy said mid-week. "It was a white, middle-aged coach who screamed fire-and-brimstone and that's what we saw in NFL Films and everything, and it was a great picture."
Dungy was responding to a question regarding African-Americans as NFL coaches but, as he has done before, he steered his remarks in the direction of coaching styles and, ultimately, applying spiritual ideals in a violent sport.
"With two guys coming to the Super Bowl with maybe different personalities than most people perceive of an NFL head coach, a different value system maybe, a different way of expressing themselves, people say, 'You know what? Anything can work if you get the right person.'"
Unlike Lombardi and many others with a similar coaching style, Dungy and Smith are even-tempered, don't use profanity, reject intimidation as a motivational tool and clearly would never, ever utter, "Winning isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing."
For them, what is most important - to the degree that they are consistently demonstrative about it - is their Creator.
"My relationship, first, is with Jesus Christ, and he is the center of my life," said Smith, a former assistant to Dungy in Tampa Bay. "I try to live a Christian life. I would like for [players] to know my faith based on what they see on a day-to-day basis."
Not that other coaches who came before Dungy and Smith weren't religious. Green Bay Packers immortal Lombardi, for instance, was a devout Catholic who studied for a while to become a priest. Mike Ditka, who led the Bears to a Super Bowl win 21 years ago, has been involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Still, their coaching demeanors were fiery, steel-fisted and frequently profane.
"Lombardi was more Old Testament, and that's not the kind of faith where you accept defeat," said Brian W.W. Aitken, a professor of religious studies at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, who has written extensively on sports and religion. "Dungy is not about that. He's more about excellence of play, giving your all and being a warrior for Christ."
For such spiritually influenced coaches and athletes, even a hard-fought loss can be seen as useful in achieving salvation, Aitken said.
"Look at Christ and the crucifixion. On the surface, he loses, but he's tough and he gives it his all and God allows him to win in the end [with Resurrection]," Aitken said.
Rare yell gets noticed
The influence that Dungy and Smith have had on their teams is obvious. Almost to a man, Colts and Bears this past week described how their coaches approach their jobs with a noble calm, and teach rather than berate.
Colts linebacker Gary Brackett told a parable of two dogs as he contrasted Dungy to other coaches, explaining why his coach is so effective.
One dog barked so constantly that after a while no one paid attention, Brackett instructed reporters. But when the other dog that was usually nice and quiet barked "you want to heed what that dog is saying and be conscious of what is going on" because it signaled something significant, the linebacker said.
Less poetically, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher made the same point about Smith.
"I don't think I've ever heard him yell out on the field and I know he's never cussed. ... I love his demeanor because he doesn't gripe-coach," the Pro Bowl middle linebacker said.
"His number one thing is your effort has to be good every play and all game long," Urlacher said.
Conspicuously absent from this Super Bowl prelude has been trash talk from either side. Instead, coaches and players have been discussing how they can use this platform to spread the evangelical word.
"You can't get any higher than the Super Bowl, but it doesn't define who we are as men," said Colts center Jeff Saturday. "The faith in Christ is what defines us ... how we treat our families and our wives are the things that are the most important to us. And that is the greatest part, that we have this stage, this platform, to speak about your faith."
While Dungy has piled up wins throughout his head coaching career - 122 in 11 seasons - he has been dogged by the failure to win a title, and that blemish has often been attached to the mild-mannered coach being "too nice."
Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark, who appears in a Super Bowl-targeted spiritual video, Power to Win, says today is vindication for the Dungy approach.
"No matter how many failures we thought were failures, it makes the reward that much greater," Clark said.
"It's great to be here and just understand that good guys can finish [first]," he added "and to realize the bigger picture at the end."
Tests of their faith
While religious services and Bible sessions are common throughout the NFL - and players frequently gather at midfield for post-game prayer - among the Colts and Bears, the atmosphere of faith is palpable.
"Before practice [Dungy] walks around and talks to a few guys, you maybe hear something that was said in chapel or we hear how something relates to the Bible," Brackett said.
But Dungy and Smith have had to deal with off-the-field issues like any other coach.
For instance, Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson has had several scrapes with the law, including one for aggravated assault, and in December police found a half-dozen guns at his home. He was suspended for one game and was allowed to travel to Miami for today's Super Bowl only after getting special permission in court.
"He treated me like a man and I understood I let him down," Johnson said of Smith. "He's a coach who drafted me in 2004 and I was grateful for that. To let him down was upsetting to me, as well. We went through it, talked every day. I've grown from it. He called me every day on the phone. That meant a lot to me."
Dungy's open and dignified handling of a personal tragedy more than 13 months ago, when his 18-year-old son, James, committed suicide, cemented his standing as a person of faith. And there is the possibility that this game, especially if the Colts win, may be his last. He has talked about wanting to pursue a prison ministry.
"Getting to the Super Bowl is what we are all in this business for, and you strive to get here," Dungy said. "But I think you have to know that, in the final analysis, in the long run, it is not that meaningful ... as great as this is, we can't look at this as the end-all be-all. I think that is important, especially for young people, to know, and I think they are going to get that message."
Information in this article includes comments made at Super Bowl news conferences.