Time Has Been Good to T.C.

Posted: May 23, 2011 in NFL, NFL teams, sports, sports teams
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The Tom Coughlin who left Jacksonville in 2004 after eight seasons as the Jaguars head coach and one year of looking for another job isn’t the same guy who now coaches the New York Giants.

It isn’t accurate to say he’s mellowed. Well, maybe a little. The fire still burns in the 64-year-old Coughlin. He says he certainly plans to continuing coach “for at least two more years.” You get the sense he considers retirement something for other people, less motivated and lazy people.

He doesn’t hide the fact he’s disgusted by the ongoing labor dispute. He’s careful not to take sides, publicly at least, but he is puzzled why a resolution can’t be found. He admits he’s “anxious” to get started preparing for the 2011 season. He’s never hidden the fact he’s at his happiness on the practice field, yelling, teaching, consoling, demanding and screwing butt.

But the 2011 Coughlin comes across as more relaxed, more secure, happier. Winning a Super Bowl can do that for a coach, even one who coaches in New York where the tabloid news media never saw a story it couldn’t twist and bend into a controversy. Win four games in a row? Yawner. Fail to convert a fourth-down gamble? Choker. Idiot. Yeah, throw the da bum outta here.

Coughlin smiles when the subject of the media comes up. He makes a point of saying he understands they have a job to do. Next subject, please. That wasn’t the case when Coughlin coached the Jaguars. He often railed at the media, more than once shouting obscenities at media reps. He expected his rules to be not only for his players and coaches, but for anyone who entered his world. He expected to read and hear but he wanted written and heard.

That Tom Coughlin understandably had some issues with insecurity. I’m not talking about a major flaw. I’m not talking about a man who couldn’t sleep because he wondered if he was up to the job. He was head coach at Boston College when the Jaguars hired him. He’d gained national notoriety when his Eagles upset a Notre Dame team that appeared headed to winning a national title.

But he wasn’t the Jaguars first choice. Owner Wayne Weaver courted Jimmy Johnson and others, but he settled on the workaholic Coughlin to build a franchise from scratch. It was a bit of a surprise hiring, but the doubters quickly disappeared. Coughlin spent more than 18 months putting together his blueprint for the Jaguars. He did so brilliantly. The Jaguars had a winning record (9-7 thanks the Falcons’ Morten Andersen missing a 30-yard field goal attempt on the last play in the season finale) and two playoff victories in his second season. Back-to-back 11-5 seasons were followed by an NFL-best 14-2 record in 1999 and a second appearance in the AFC Championship Game. But in the title game the Jaguars blew a halftime lead to Tennessee, and that was the beginning of the end for Coughlin’s run in Jacksonville. The team had to gut its roster because of salary cap issues. Seasons of 7-9, 6-10 and 6-10 followed and Coughlin was fired.

Today’s Coughlin might have survived in Jacksonville, but the ’02 Coughlin eventualy forced Weaver’s hand. Coughlin was a public relations nightmare back then. He not only battled the news media, but he alienated the fans with his standoffish attitude, his over-the-top single-mindedness and, at times, rudeness. He talked funny, and I don’t mean ha, ha funny. Fumbles were a lack of ball security. Turnovers were called catastrophes. Weaver was bombarded with complaints. His wife Dolores couldn’t go anywhere without people telling her Coughlin had to go. When he complained about fans not showing up for game when a hurricane warning was out on the First Coast . . . well, let’s say he pissed off a lot of people who never forgave him.

Truth was Coughlin probably did his best coaching in his last season in Jacksonville. A young team with little star power lost five games by a total of 10 points. One of the losses came on a last-second, Hail Mary pass by Cleveland.

Still, ticket sales plummeted. Weaver really had no choice but to fire him.

Coughlin’s phone rang but not with offers of another head coaching job. He was asked to visit numerous NFL camps to help evaluate talent. He studied film hour after hour in his Marsh Landing home. His advice was in demand. He did all of this and wasn’t paid a dime. Call in love of the game. Call it obsession. Call it Tom Coughlin.

When the Giants hired him they knew what they were getting. He’d been an Giants assistant coach under Bill Parcells, earning a Super Bowl ring in 1990. The Giants knew they were getting a very, very good coach who’d work 24/7. One of my favorite Coughlin stories was told by Parcells. It was Christmas day morning. Parcells called the office to check for recorded messages. Coughlin answered the phone. He’d been busy preparing for the upcoming game. Even Parcells was blown away by TC’s work ethic. (Meanwhile, wife Judy and the kids were, no doubt, less thrilled.)

The ’04 Giants didn’t need a PR man. Giants tickets were willed from father to son. Empty seats were rarer than Tom Coughlin smiles. The Giants needed a coach and rebuild a team coming off a 4-12 season.

Under Coughlin, the Giants went 6-10 and then 11-5. After 8-8 in ’06 there were cries for TC’s scalp even though they made the playoffs as a wild card. An 0-2 start in ’07 turned up the heat on Coughlin, but the Giants recovered and went on to win the Super Bowl, rallying in the fourth quarter to defeat the previously unbeaten Patriots.

Coughlin still catches heat – it is New York and the NFL, you understand – although he ranks among the Giants’ most successful coaches ever. His Giants record is 65-47. In 15 seasons as an NFL head coach he’s been in the playoffs nine times.

He has nothing left to prove. When I caught up with him last week he was all smiles. He actually looked younger than he did when he left Jacksonville. Smiles seem to come easier. He actually seems to be enjoying his time off, seeing family (a son and daughter still live here) and friends. He says he was ready to get out of New York for a while because of all the rain in that area.

He has maintained a home in Ponte Vedra Beach and makes it clear he will return full time to the First Coast when hangs up his whistle.

The private Coughlin always has been different than the public Coughlin. Other than family, including five grandkids, nothing is closer to his heart than the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation, founded in honor of a player who died while he coached at BC. The Foundation has raised millions of dollars to help families struck by cancer. There’s a spring wine tasting event. “We had more than 800 people attend,” he told me, his squinty eyes lighting up. Coughlin’s annual Jay Fund Foundation dinner and golf tournament was yesterday and today. As usual, the First Coast was flooded with celebrities who participated at Tom’s personal request.

Daughter Keli runs the foundation on the First Coast, but Tom is far more than just a figure head. He works hard to keep the foundation successful.

Would you expect anything else from the man?

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