Coughlin gets shot to join game's greats

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On the way to his office Monday, moving a few steps closer to his return to Green Bay, Tom Coughlin looked much like his football team -- healthier, more vibrant, no longer walking with such a noticeable limp.

Battered in that sideline collision with the long forgotten New York Jets, Coughlin's left leg is better off here at work than it would be at home, resting while the old man watched another coach merrily freeze his face off on the visitors' side of Lambeau Field.

"I missed it," Coughlin said of the playoffs. "I missed it a lot."

So this is why the coach of the New York Giants was bouncing around the team facility and hopping up to a podium in a packed conference room to compliment -- not censure -- the gathered reporters for making so much postseason noise.

"Nice to see some enthusiasm in here," Coughlin said through a smile.

Only nobody was showing any more enthusiasm than the 65-year-old coach who spent the last two winters out of the tournament, and who discovered the hard way that his old boss, Bill Parcells, was right: There really are no medals for trying.

"Ten wins and being out of it last year, that was miserable," Coughlin said in a conversation with ESPNNewYork.com. "The whole idea of this is to get into the playoffs, and to not be involved again, to be one of the 20 teams that go home, it's just miserable.

"We missed it for a couple of years, and now we realize how much it hurts to not be there. So it's exciting, it's fun to be in the chase right now, it's great for everybody to be back in it. I missed it because of what we're experiencing right now -- the fun, the exhilaration, the energy, the adrenaline rush of it all."

Coughlin is 65 going on 60. He was told it appears he's got enough left in the tank to coach until he's 70 and beyond, and Coughlin waved off the thought. "I feel great," he said. "But I'm just thinking about now."

Now Coughlin faces the challenge of the 15-1 Packers and the chance to win another Lambeau classic, ultimately win another Super Bowl, and ultimately establish an enduring legacy among the sport's most prominent winners.

But win or lose Sunday, Coughlin will always have that Ice Bowlish night his team beat Brett Favre in the NFC title game for the right to beat Tom Brady in the biggest game of all. As a former Packers assistant on two losing teams in the mid-'80s, and as a football lifer who counts Vince Lombardi among his heroes, Coughlin was asked what it meant to him to have won a championship game at Lambeau that will be remembered long after he's gone.

"I'm not much of a reflector," he said, "and I can't go there now. But as a body of work? As I look back? Yeah, sure, it means a lot. But the end result is what we were really after, and I'm just ... well ... thank God we got it."

He got the Lombardi Trophy, and that name -- Lombardi -- means the world to him.

"Remember now, I was a player in college when he was at Green Bay," said Coughlin, a supporting member of the Floyd Little/Larry Csonka backfield at Syracuse. "And as I was finishing up playing in '67, that was Lombardi's time. That was the time when he was winning everything.

"He gained tremendous notoriety because of the style of individual he was, and the quality of teams he put together, and the way in which they won. As a young guy aspiring to be a coach one day, Lombardi's style and the way he operated was something I was naturally attracted to."

After coaching at three colleges and spending two years as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, Coughlin landed on Forrest Gregg's staff in Green Bay. In the middle of those dark days for the franchise -- the Packers would go 9-21-1 in Coughlin's time as wide receivers coach -- the glorious past suddenly appeared in the form of a ghost.

"I'm sitting with Forrest in a meeting one day," Coughlin said, "and I'm a guy who has always read everything about Lombardi that I could ever get my hands on. And it's during the season, we're working, and the meeting rooms out there have glass windows, little glass squares.

"There's a knock on the door, and I look up, and I see that face in the window."

Vince Lombardi's face.

"It was Vince Lombardi Jr.," Coughlin said, "but he looks just like his father. I did a double take, and I couldn't believe it."

Coughlin cited Lombardi and John Wooden as the significant figures who shaped his own coaching philosophy. He used to savor his phone conversations with Wooden, and for the longest time wanted to meet face-to-face with the Wizard.

In fact, Coughlin put a meeting with Wooden on his personal bucket list. It was fitting that Coughlin waited until he won a title as a head coach before he sat down in 2008 with the man who had won 10.

The three-hour meeting in Wooden's California apartment felt like it lasted five minutes. "A national treasure," Coughlin called Wooden, and the Giants coach keeps the Wizard's books and sayings and Pyramid of Success virtues in this office or on that wall.

"I've been greatly influenced by John Wooden," Coughlin said, "the way in which he conducted himself, his thinking, the way he was with his teams. I just admire him, just like I admire all the great winners, whether it's Wooden, Lombardi, or Bill Russell.

"You can't help but notice who they are, what they're all about, how they go about their business, and so I just try to grab everything I can from them."

Coughlin pointed toward his many motivational quotes posted in the office hallways, wedged between the framed jerseys of retired Giants stars. There's one from George Patton ("I am a fighter. I fight where I am told, and I win where I fight."), another from Harry Truman ("Work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear."), and another from Confucius ("If you cannot find it in yourself, where will you go for it?).

"I don't read junk," Coughlin said. "I read biographies and autobiographies, and anything I read in the offseason, if I can apply it, I'm always reading it simply to apply it to what we do here."

Coughlin can match Parcells' two Super Bowl titles here, and put himself in the company of the all-time NFL greats. When reminded that another ring would greatly enhance his place in history, Coughlin said, "That's not the goal that I have. I was taught that it's not about me.

"It's about us. It's always about us, and about what it would mean to these young men who have earned the right to be in this competition."

After a painful two-year absence from this competition, after dominating the Atlanta Falcons in Round 1, Coughlin's team has earned the right to face the Packers in Sunday's Round 2. If the Giants travel through Green Bay on the road to another ticker-tape parade, their coach's impact on the franchise and sport will be much like his bright red face at Lambeau four years back:

Frozen in time.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.