The head coaches in this year's Grey Cup are a study in contrast on the surface.

But scratch a little deeper and the two share plenty.

First, the differences.

Calgary's Wally Buono is a former CFL player whose easygoing personality and media savvy make him popular among reporters.

Winnipeg's Dave Ritchie, on the other hand, never played Canadian football and is gruff, even suspicious of the media and their motives.

Buono, 51, who was born in Italy, but grew up in Montreal, has spent the last 12 years as Calgary's head coach and football-operations director. There he has developed a core of veterans who have spurned opportunities to leave because the Stampeders are perennial contenders.

Ritchie, 63, a native of New Bedford, Mass., has coached three different CFL teams the last 10 years. He has never been afraid to sign renegades or castoffs from other teams to improve his own squad.

But for all of those differences, Buono and Ritchie share similarities.

Both are deeply religious, have a soft spot for physical no-nonsense players and preach discipline. They give their players immense off-field freedoms, but with the expectation that the players are adults and can be their own conscience.

Buono and Ritchie are encouraging their players to enjoy Grey Cup festivities this week, but to remember they're on a business trip and still must prepare for one last game.

They also share an Italian connection. Ritchie's 41-year coaching resume includes a stint with the Milano Seamen, a team he guided to a 13-1 record and the Italian league title.

Buono and Ritchie have also been close friends since 1983 when both began their CFL coaching careers as assistants with the Montreal Alouettes. For years, their families have vacationed together in Hawaii.

All of which made Wednesday's coaches' news conference more of a mutual admiration society than a discussion about football strategy.

"When I came to Canada 18 years ago, everything was strange and Wally was the first person I met," Ritchie said. "He took me into his home, we rode together to and from work for years and talked about many things like Jesus Christ.

"There aren't many people you can call your friend in the business we're in. But if I ever needed something, I know I'd just have to call Wally. I love the guy."

The feeling is mutual.

"I've never felt with Dave that our friendship was based on what he would get in return," Buono said. "There are few people in life you consider your true friend and I consider Dave a true friend.

"His teams are built upon hard work. He's a good man, a good husband and a good father and his teams are an extension of his family."

Calgary defensive tackle Joe Fleming and Winnipeg cornerback Marvin Coleman have played for both coaches and say they're very similar.

"They're both hands-on, but they let their coaches do what they need to do to coach the individual positions," said Fleming. "There's not a lot of words from both of them, either."

Added Coleman: "Coach Ritchie is wilder, coach Buono is more like business. Coach Ritchie is business, but he's looser. Other than that, they're pretty much the same. When it comes to football, they know what they're doing."

Bombers defensive co-ordinator Gene Gaines, a former standout defensive back with Ottawa and Montreal who was elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1994, says sincerity is Ritchie's key to success.

"People say he's that big dog with a big bark," Gaines said. "But his bark covers a lot of area, meaning he's sincere and fair with the players and that's why things go well."

Predictably, neither Buono nor Ritchie will let their long-standing friendship stand in the way of winning Sunday.

"We understand the nature of the business," Buono said. "When you prepare, you prepare to win."

By Dan Ralph