Coach's work ethic crosses party lines

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The pep rally was complete, and a New York Jets fan named Chris Christie stopped in a loading dock area outside MetLife Stadium to talk about the enemy coach, Tom Coughlin, and a commitment to excellence that transcends all team loyalties.

The governor of New Jersey wanted the ticker-tape parade -- not just the pep rally -- in the Garden State, and more than that, he wanted his Jets to be the ones riding high in the floats. Christie predicted his team would beat the New York Giants in Week 16, and so maybe it was a good idea the governor let Coughlin, Justin Tuck and Eli Manning do the talking before the 30,000 fans who welcomed their Super Bowl champs back from Manhattan for a sweet kiss goodbye.

But Christie, the Rex Ryan of governors, wanted to celebrate the same 65-year-old head coach Rex Ryan had disrespected before their Christmas Eve brawl. After all, this was Tom Coughlin's day, his house, his time to reap the rewards of a work ethic that goes unmatched by coaches half his age.

"The guy is just so resilient," Christie told ESPNNewYork.com. "That's such a big part of leadership, because every day isn't going to go great no matter what you're trying to do. When you lead a group of people, there's going to be tough days, and he's had plenty of them."

Tuesday wasn't one of them.

"He just keeps believing in who he is," Christie continued. "And he listens. That's a huge part of being a leader. He listens, he changes and he gets the job done. He's a prototypical leader because he's not stuck in one way of doing things. He adjusts to the situation, and he does a great job."

The Jets fan was saying so many kind things about the Giants coach, Christie sounded ready to make an official endorsement.

"The guy has an incredibly strong character and mind," he said of Coughlin, "and so the bad stuff doesn't get him down. I talked to him a couple of times when things in the season weren't going well, when they lost four in a row, and I just asked him how he was doing.

"He'd see me around here and he'd say to me, 'I'm getting back to work, governor. I'm getting back to work.' That's the thing I admire about him the most. It doesn't matter how good or bad things are going, he's pretty much the same guy. He's strong, he knows he's got a job to do, and he loves to work. And we all know there's no substitute for that."

Work. It was an appropriate theme on a day when thousands upon thousands of Giants fans called in sick to bask in the glory of their team, first in the city and then in the stadium.

Even at his age, Coughlin outworks people, beats them to the office in the predawn hours. The Giants know it, too. They also know Coughlin always does what his invaluable offensive line coach, Pat Flaherty, said he does -- puts his players ahead of his staff.

So on a stage erected on the field at MetLife Stadium, the coach who defeated Bill Belichick again in Super Bowl XLVI like he defeated him in Super Bowl XLII earned a standing ovation from his team when called to the mic.

Coughlin had already fielded a phone call from President Obama, who described a team that was as mentally tough as its head coach. Coughlin told the fans that their support, their willingness to make the time Tuesday to thank his Giants, "puts us right back in the Super Bowl."

It was some scene in the Jersey marshes. Helicopters were buzzing overhead, replays of the victory over the New England Patriots were playing on the parking lot video boards, and fans were chanting "M-V-P" for the two-time winner of the award they once nearly ran out of town.

Of course, Eli Manning quoted the clichéd mantras of the only NFL coach he has played for, the only NFL coach he ever wants to play for.

"This is always what we had hoped for," said Coughlin's wife, Judy, as the confetti flew and "We are the Champions" blared on the speakers. "My heart is pounding, and to live this dream twice is awesome. Tom deserves it because nobody works harder or cares more than he does."

One of Coughlin's daughters, Kate, was walking out of the stadium with her husband, Chris Snee, and their sons when she said she got choked up over the outpouring of affection sent her father's way.

"I literally don't know anybody who spends more time with his work than he does," Kate Snee said. "It's because he cares about the team, he cares about his players."

Coughlin's daughter mentioned past newspaper columns critical of the Giants coach, and the frustration she felt over the fact that fans couldn't see the full portrait of her old man.

Until he softened the edges of his public persona. Until he made concessions to his players behind closed doors.

Until he started taking Super Bowl titles from one of the greatest coaches and quarterbacks of all time.

"I don't think he changed too much of what he was," Kate Snee said. "Instead of thinking of all the negatives, [people] started thinking of the positives and saw the type of person he is, and the players started to respond to the person that he is.

"There's nobody more deserving than Tom Coughlin. He's a great dad, a great grandfather, and he's a great coach. … I know he doesn't pay attention to a lot, but there's been a lot of negative talk about him in the past, for whatever reason, and I think he's hopefully shut that up."

Twenty-five years after his former boss, Bill Parcells, won his first Super Bowl, Coughlin beamed from the ceremonial stage as he watched a corner scoreboard that showed highlights from his second championship season.

Soon enough, Coughlin climbed down to the field and signed autographs for two young fans in wheelchairs, posed for pictures, shook hands with Christie, and headed for the tunnel while fans reached down and screamed his name.

Someone mentioned that Coughlin wouldn't mind a few more days like this one before he retires. "I'd like a few more years like this," he responded.

No, Coughlin isn't going anywhere.

"I've been doing it all my life," he said, "and the awards and the satisfaction that you get out of it, I don't know how you can replace it in any other form of work."

As always, Coughlin came back to the blood and sweat, the sacrifices the players and coaches made. "You do have to pay a price for whatever you're going to accomplish," he said.

The Giants coach always pays that price, which is why even a Jets fan like Christie appreciates him. The methods and venues might be different, but in the end leadership is leadership.

"People admire strength and certainty in where you want to head and where your goals are," Christie said, "and that you have a plan to get there. I think that's true whether you're the governor or the president of the United States or a head football coach."

Coughlin is a head football coach, and one with a goal, a conviction, a plan and a work ethic that are the envy of the league.

That's why his second Super Bowl title won't likely be his last.

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 9-11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.