Tom Coughlin was coaching himself right out of town, making a tough job much tougher, when he made the necessary tweaks in his draconian management style to help the New York Giants win two Super Bowls ... and the New York Yankees win a World Series. We'll explain a bit later.
But first, his approach to running a football team. The first day I met Thomas Richard Coughlin at his office at Boston College in the fall of 1992, he pointed toward a desk and said, "I can pull stuff out of drawers and tell you what I'm doing every minute of every day for a whole calendar year." He wasn't kidding.
He explained he showed up to work every day at 6:05 a.m. and didn't listen to the radio on the drive in because he didn't want his football-only thoughts interrupted by the sounds of Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole. Coughlin put his college players through a conditioning program that would've made Bear Bryant weak at the knees, and he carried too much of that Junction Boys mentality back to the NFL, first in Jacksonville and then in New York.
He won the Giants job a dozen years ago off an interview at the Newark Airport Marriott with John Mara, now a team owner, and Ernie Accorsi, then the team's general manager. "We were all prepared with our questions," Accorsi recalled Monday in an email, "and Tom said, 'I would like to say something first.' He pulled out a legal pad and proceeded to read an endless dissertation. Finally we got our words in and it turned into a terrific interview.
"At the elevator as John and I were leaving, I said, 'He double-bogeyed the first two holes but he finished with a 68.'"
At his introductory news conference, Coughlin struck the pose of a commanding officer fixing to take an enemy hill. "What we must be all about right now, immediately," Coughlin barked, "is the restoration of pride -- self-pride, team pride, the restoration of our professionalism and the dignity with which we conduct our business."
He spoke of injuries as "a cancer" and "a mental thing," and all but promised to chase those banged-up Giants out of their hot tubs, comments that made John Mara cringe. Coughlin's predecessor, Jim Fassel, told people he was furious over his replacement's Club Med portrait of his program, not that Coughlin cared.
Wellington Mara, the team patriarch, had hired him to do a job, and Coughlin was going to do that job his way, the dissenters be damned. When Coughlin was coaching the Giants' wide receivers for Bill Parcells, Wellington Mara thought those receivers represented the most disciplined unit in the building. The patriarch saw Coughlin as something of a cross between Parcells and Vince Lombardi, but when Parcells saw how demanding his aide could be, ordering the receivers to attend meetings at least five minutes early, among other things, Lombardi sounded more like it.
"Tom wasn't the easiest assistant coach to play for," Parcells said.
Coughlin would become one of the more difficult head coaches to play for. Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber rarely agreed on anything in their playing days together, except for the fact they couldn't stand Coughlin, who spent more time worrying about whether his players were wearing appropriate dress socks in hotel lobbies than he did about connecting with them as human beings.
Everything changed, of course, after Coughlin was nearly fired following the 2006 season. John Mara told him he needed to take something off his fastball, that he had to ease up with the players and the news media, and Coughlin agreed. The coach told Mara he wanted to establish a leadership council of veterans to bridge the divide between his office and the locker room. "If I could do cartwheels," Mara said, "I would've done one that day."
There were assists along the way. Coughlin's wife, Judy, and children implored him to show his private self in public settings. Charles Way, a former Giants fullback serving as director of player development, told Coughlin that many players didn't have father figures and that they needed to see him in that context.
"Right now, they feel it's us against them," Way told him, "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."
Coughlin would recall Way telling him to "let the players see you the way you are with your grandchildren." So on one training camp day in 2007, Coughlin famously canceled practice to take his players bowling.
"I wanted the players to see me in an entirely different environment," he would say. "They were busting my tail for throwing a ball in the gutter, saying, 'Coach, you're awful,' and, 'You can't even keep it in the alley for 25 feet.' It was fun, and a way of letting players see you in a caring manner, and letting them know you are human and passionate and concerned about them outside of football. ... And because we communicated so well and believed in each other and loved each other, that manifested itself on the field in so many games that we won late with mental toughness and staying together."
The Giants beat the 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl that season, and beat the Patriots on the same stage four years later. In between, the Yankees won a World Series credited, in part, to Joe Girardi's decision to follow Tom Coughlin's lead.
Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager and an ex-roommate of Coughlin's son, advised his uptight manager he needed to read a magazine piece on Coughlin's transformation into a more user-friendly coach. Soon enough, Girardi was acting less defensive with reporters and calling off a spring training practice to take his Yankees to a billiards hall. Though he spent hundreds of free-agent millions in the offseason to improve his roster, Cashman later conceded the Yankees wouldn't have won their 2009 championship without Girardi pulling a Coughlin.
Who woulda thunk it? In the end, Coughlin made himself a two-time champ and likely Hall of Famer by realizing he couldn't rule on fear and intimidation alone, that he needed to inspire with love, too. Before Coughlin ended his 12-year run as coach of the Giants on Monday, quarterback Eli Manning grew emotional with reporters while discussing the impact of his one and only coach, and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul called Coughlin "a father figure" -- exactly what Charles Way told the coach some players needed nine years ago.
No Giant was heard in these final weeks calling for the old man to step down, on or off the record. The players all wanted Tom Coughlin back after four consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs, and on his last day as Giants coach, that might have been his greatest victory of all.