American Football: Fox points Panthers towards pantheon

Super Bowl XXXVIII: Indomitable dedication can earn ultimate accolade for a tough leader and his star performer
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The Independent Online

John Fox, the coach of Carolina Panthers, is not Vince "winning is the only thing" Lombardi. He is not Bill Walsh, the tall mastermind of the San Francisco 49ers, or Chuck Noll, the disciplinarian who went home to cook pasta and listen to classical music after a day of fine-tuning his Pittsburgh Steelers - possibly the most ferocious gridiron team ever assembled.

Indeed, no; some say that Fox is one of the main reasons why Super Bowl XXXVIII here today is so critically lacking charisma. There is, however, a very good chance that this will change in a few hours' time.

If it should happen that his Panthers, who before he arrived in Charlotte two seasons ago seemed to be on a mission to define sporting futility, beat the favourites, the New England Patriots, Fox will be hobnobbing with President Bush. Not as a dour, faceless technician but as a full-blown genius.

"In a business like this," he says, "I think the key to any success is showing that you are honest, that you have integrity in your relationship with your players. Of course it helps if they think you know how to win."

As Fox worked last week to round off one of the most extraordinary stories of team renovation in the history of his sport, and to defy those who say that the Patriots, themselves upset Super Bowl winners two years ago, will comfortably take control of events in the magnificent new Reliant Stadium, he displayed little of the classic swagger of his profession. But then nor did he display some of the insecurities which have so often left men of great success broken to the point of tears.

It took the 49-year-old Virginian 14 coaching jobs and 24 years finally to make it to the highest level in the National Football League, and if he has not charmed the armies of media here, nor has he buckled under the drip-drip of constant attention. He has simply announced that, for the moment at least, he is utterly in charge of the challenge he tackled with impressive certainty two years ago.

Most agree that there are two main reasons why he is at this early point of potential coronation. First, he won instant respect from players who had just suffered the ordeal of a season of 15 defeats and just one victory. Then, last year, he signed free-agent running back Stephen Davis, a player of great power and, crucially, one who shares Fox's belief that football is a hard business in which survival demands unflagging dedication. Like Fox, Davis, around whom the defense-minded coach has built the main strand of his offensive game, goes to a press conference as though he has been assigned to the gallows.

This week he has firmly rejected the idea that he has acquired star quality on the way to the Super Bowl, saying: "I didn't come here to be a leader, but I did come to play football the only way I know how, and that's all out. You'd like to think that guys pick up on that, but all you can do is just play to your best. If I play my best, and somebody else plays their best, soon enough you have got everybody playing at their best - and that's when the good things happen."

For Fox, there was just one moment of concern during Davis's ascent to the team leadership he refuses to acknowledge. It came when the player lost his 90-year-old grandmother, who, in bringing him up, had become both his guide and confidante. Fox wondered about the emotional impact, but two days later still sent him out against Tennessee. It was a disaster. Davis was squashed, achieving just 20 yards in 11 carries. The heart of Fox's revival appeared to be damaged - but just for a week. After going to the funeral, Davis re-emerged dramatically against the New Orleans Saints, gaining 178 yards and two touchdowns in an overtime victory.

Today Davis goes in with the stunning record of 1,444 yards, more than twice the combined total of New England's Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk. He has achieved the ideal set out by Fox when he first addressed the Panthers. After a few days, the new coach called a meeting. "You know I've watched a lot of tape from last year," he told the players. "I won't stand up here and question your athletic ability, but I am questioning your toughness. I don't think you're very tough."

Later Fox said: "My point was, 'You didn't get it done - so they fired a lot of coaches. But I want you to understand it wasn't George Seifert [the former head coach] dropping all the passes and missing all the blocks to lose 15 games and get fired'. To lose 15 in a row, there was some give-up, some quit in the team."

Mike Minter, the fierce-tackling strong safety who has also emerged powerfully in the new Carolina, recalls looking round a room filled with shocked players. They all agreed they felt as if they had been kicked in the stomach. "But then I thought," says Minter, "we've got the right guy. We had to look at ourselves and see the truth. We really weren't very tough."

A leading psychologist mused about the challenges facing gridiron coaches. He said that ultimately they faced a challenge that could not be met, that when cancer took away the life of Vince Lombardi it probably saved his football reputation. "It removed from him the possibility of defeat after his great years at Green Bay, the erosion of his image of invincibility. The most important thing for a football coach is his aura."

John Fox does not do aura, but there is a suspicion that he might just be due a shipment. However, it is unlikely to trigger any change of style. After revealing - in a rare discussion of his personal life - that he was 32 when his mother told him that the man he thought was his father was not, he was asked if it worried him that his team, after all their success, were still virtually unknown. "Hey," he said, "don't worry, we know who we are, and you know, in the end that's all that really matters."