They walked into the original One Buc Place together in 1996, new members of Tony Dungy's coaching staff. Rod Marinelli, a white former Vietnam vet who had coached the defensive line at Southern California, and Lovie Smith, nine years younger, an African-American from Big Sandy, Texas, who had coached defensive backs at Ohio State.
"We're about as different as you can imagine," Smith said.
They also were on the last rung of the Bucs' coaching ladder and forced to share a room at the Holiday Inn in Tampa while the rest of the staff had separate rooms at the airport Marriott.
"So we were the only two in the Holiday Inn Express," Marinelli said. "Everybody else had the Marriott at the airport with their own room. We said, 'Man …' So we were roomies.
"It was great. We spent, I think, three months together in the same hotel room. It was just learning the system and all that; it created an incredible bond."
Since then, their paths have crossed many times in the NFL. Marinelli coached against his friend when Smith was the defensive coordinator of the Rams and head coach of the Bears. Smith was in the same division as the Lions when Marinelli was their head coach from 2006-08. Marinelli served as the defensive line coach and assistant head coach, and later defensive coordinator with the Bears during Smith's final three years in Chicago.
Today they are competitors again. Smith, the head coach, is also calling the defense for the Bucs, and Marinelli is the Cowboys' defensive coordinator.
"(We) found out that we had a lot in common," Smith said. "(We) created a bond there — brotherly bond. I love him like I love my brother. That will never change. He's a good football coach. There's nothing like competing against your brother. You don't want to beat anybody worse than you want to beat your brother.
"We know what (the Cowboys) are going to bring to the table. It's an important game for us. We won't have a family reunion or anything like that this weekend, though."
There was speculation Marinelli would be reunited with Smith in Tampa Bay when his contract ran out with the Cowboys after the playoffs in January. But Marinelli said he liked what the Cowboys were building.
"He's one of my best friends in my life," Marinelli said of Smith. "But I just felt that we got something started here, and I've really enjoyed it here, and I've been (in Tampa Bay). Sometimes it's hard to go back. … I love the head coach and the organization."
This is Marinelli's first return trip to Raymond James Stadium since he left the Bucs after the 2005 season. His memories of his early days with the Bucs are good ones.
"Oh, great. … . It was all football," he said.
"We'd stay up at night just trying to learn the system. … There's a lot of details in it. So we kind of grew together within the system under coach Dungy … and the whole thing.
"It was a special time, really a special team. They had a long history of losing, and we were able to be part of something that was pretty special."