It always nice to see old comrades. But not necessarily on occasions like this.
The Japan X Bowl, featuring the Kajima Deers and the Fujitsu Frontiers at Tokyo Dome on Monday night, will be more than just a championship game for many fans. It will also be a trip down memory lane.
Deers coach Kiyoyuki Mori and Frontiers boss Satoshi Fujita, former Kyoto University Gangsters teammates, were household names in Japanese college football back in the late-1980s and early ’90s. They will make an emotional reunion on the gridiron as the head coaches of the two sides.
Mori was a linebacker, while Fujita was a quarterback for Kyoto, a six-time Koshien Bowl collegiate national championship game winner.
As their teams have advanced to the X League championship game, both Mori and Fujita said they are honored to play on such a big stage.
But when it comes down to the game as a coaching showdown, they admitted to having mixed feelings.
“It makes me feel uneasy,” said Mori at a Tokyo news conference earlier this month. “Because I had played with him for a while and also coached together (at Kyoto), and I know how deep (Fujita) deliberates things (in football).
“Even if we hadn’t done things together, he is simply a very good coach and it is not easy to play against a team under such a man.”
Meanwhile, Fujita, who is two years younger, described Mori as “a perfect man” who tries to mold a team that doesn’t give an opponent chances to capitalize on its mistakes.
Fujita cautiously said that it would be a difficult task for his team to beat Mori’s Deers and grab its first Japan X Bowl title. The Frontiers failed to win in their first two title appearances (2002, 2007).
“They showed an unbelievable game,” Fujita said of the Deers’ performance in the playoff semifinals against the Panasonic Denko Impulse, in which Kajima rallied from a 17-point deficit en route to a 34-26 triumph.
Fujitsu handed Kajima its sole loss of the season in October (22-20). But Fujita warned that there’s no guarantee that his team can repeat the feat on Monday.
“We played them at the right time during the regular season, but they’re a totally different team now,” he said.
Mori and Fujita shook their heads when asked whether they can read their coaching counterpart’s mind and pinpoint the other’s strategies in advance since a lot of time has passed from their playing days more than two decades ago.
“It’s hard (to read) because compared to those days the tactics and techniques have drastically developed,” said Mori, who guided Kajima to the Japan X Bowl last year as well (a 28-14 loss to Panasonic).
Besides the game itself, there is another factor that worries the two experienced coaches. Their former mentor Yaichi Mizuno, who was a longtime, symbolic head coach at Kyoto, will be at the game as a guest commentator for the Sky A channel.
Mori and Fujita, recognized as the top coaches in Japan, still feel deeply indebted to Mizuno to this day.
“That’s the toughest thing to deal with,” Fujita said with a bitter smile. “I’m getting a stomachache. I want do things correctly (in the game) so I won’t get scolded (by Mizuno).”
The Frontiers, a Central Division club, enter Monday’s game with an 8-0 record. They advanced to the X Bowl with a 31-21 semifinal win over the Asahi Beer Silver Star on Dec. 6.
Kajima, another Central Division squad, is 7-1.
The 23rd Japan X Bowl will kick off at 7 p.m. The winner will face the collegiate champion Kansai University Kaisers, who won the Koshien Bowl last Sunday, in the Rice Bowl for the national championship on Jan. 3 at the Big Egg.