Unsung Giant showed Coughlin the Way

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tom Coughlin had just weathered the 2006 season with his job intact, barely, when he summoned a retired running back to his office to hear exactly what his current players thought of him.

Charles Way, New York Giant, had never carried the ball for Coughlin. He was a sixth-round fullback out of the University of Virginia who played a little for Dan Reeves and a lot for Jim Fassel, rushing and pass-catching for more than 1,000 yards combined in 1997 before his bum knee gave out for good a couple of years later.

Wedged between the Rodney Hampton and Tiki Barber eras, Way was a good Giant, not a great one, and yet he was about to make a play that would help his team win one Super Bowl and, ultimately, land in another.

As the Giants director of player development, a liaison between the athletes and their bosses, Way decided to go up the gut and give it to Coughlin straight.

"Don't change your core values, because you need that discipline and that structure with today's player," he told the coach. "But you have to have that sensitive side. They want to know that you do care. To them, this isn't a business, because some of these guys don't have father figures at home and they want someone who cares.

"Right now [the players] feel it's us against them, that you don't care about me, that I'm just a piece of meat to you, just a number to you. And if you want them to play for you, given the way you are, you have to show them that you care about them, which I know you do. But you have to show them that."

John Mara, co-owner, and Jerry Reese, general manager, were among the team officials who had advised Coughlin to soften the jagged edges of his tense and distant approach. But by the coach's own account, Way's advice to "let the players see you the way you are with your grandchildren" really made him think.

We can all recite the rest of the story without even a cursory glance at our notes on Coughlin's leadership council. The Giants went bowling in training camp, howled over their coach's gutter balls, and six months later rewarded his somewhat-kinder, somewhat-gentler ways with an epic Super Bowl triumph over the 18-0 New England Patriots.

Now the Giants and Patriots are ready to do it all over again, Coughlin's act is playing to rave reviews from a fresh group of Giants, and Way remains as low profile now as he was back then. "I don't need any accolades," he said. "You don't hear my name being mentioned about anything."

Until Thursday, Way had never spoken publicly about his meeting with Coughlin. Once called a "teacher's pet" by his college teammates and a pro's pro by his fellow Giants, Way is a former civil engineering major who wants to cut a quiet and dignified path to his goal of becoming an NFL GM.

But on that day in Coughlin's office before the '07 season, Way's noise was loud enough to help alter the direction of a franchise.

"How the players perceived Tom was totally different from the way I perceived him," Way said. "I'd seen him out with his family, and his son Tim and I went to school together at Virginia. I'd seen Tom's interactions at Christmas parties with his own grandkids, where you always saw a different side of him.

"But the players were like, 'Can this man have fun? Can he loosen up a bit? Can he unbutton his top collar?' I think they always saw Coach Coughlin, and they never really saw Tom Coughlin, the person."

Way had already established a relationship with that person. When Coughlin was hired, Way asked around about him. He wanted to know what made the man tick.

The gathered intelligence said Coughlin preferred meticulous workers who didn't make many mistakes and didn't waste many words. "So I tried to mold myself into the type of person he could trust," Way said. "I wanted to make sure that I was one of his guys."

Hired in 2000 to help build bridges between the locker room and the front office, Way also needed to earn the trust of Giants players. He couldn't come across as a management spy, especially in a sport in which pain and punishment are guaranteed and contracts are not.

Way said he won over the vast majority of players by honoring any requests they made for confidentiality, and by never speaking ill of them behind their backs. So when Coughlin solicited his opinion on how he could better connect with his team, Way was a man with a winning plan.

"We talked about how to get the most out of each individual," he said. "If you're a player development director, you need to understand your players. If you don't know your players better than the entire organization, what value do you serve the organization?

"Tom was receptive to what I was saying. When I told him that some guys didn't think he cared about them, I said, 'Look, whatever you need me to do to help you get the job done I'll do.' In order for us to get the most out of our team, I have to help the coach understand what types of players he has and how to best communicate with them."

Coughlin listened to his aide. In the summer of '07, the first real sign came in the form of that canceled-practice-turned-bowling outing.

"It was all part of the plan," Way said, "to get him out of this environment."

The Giants made their charmed postseason run to Super Bowl XLII, and Michael Strahan was among those who said they wouldn't have advanced that far had Coughlin refused to change.

Four years later, with the Giants preparing for a Super Bowl XLVI rematch with the Patriots, Antrel Rolle and others say they are loving life under a loose, almost bubbly Coughlin. And in his anonymous corner of Giantdom, Way is enjoying the chemistry more than most.

He busies himself studying film, evaluating prospects, and advising players on their post-career options. Oh, and Way still meets with the head coach. Regularly.

"Tom's core values never changed, and that's what I like so much about him," Way said. "The only real tweak he made was pulling back the curtains on Coach Coughlin to let people in the building see him as Tom Coughlin, and that's helped this team a great deal."

Meaning, of course, that Charles Way helped this team a great deal, too. If the retired running back was never an MVP, he did once engage in the Giants' MVC:

Most Valuable Conversation.

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.