EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Bill Parcells was in the market for a wide receivers coach in 1988 when a man whose opinion he respected, Marion Campbell, called with a little tip.
Campbell was head coach of the Atlanta Falcons at the time, and he told Parcells that his New York Giants would be a better football team if it hired a no-nonsense aide who had worked for him in Philadelphia.
"Tom Coughlin," Campbell said. "I think you're going to like him."
Parcells was on the phone Wednesday to confirm that it didn't take long for him to like Campbell's candidate.
"Tom and I have a lot in common," Parcells said. "We're both East Coast guys. Both of us are part Irish. Tom started out coaching at a very small school [Rochester Institute of Technology], where he had to do everything, and I started out at Hastings College in Nebraska, where we had to cut the grass and wash the clothes.
"I mean, there's just a lot of the same stuff going on. Tom is really everything you'd want in a football coach, and so is Bill."
Bill Belichick, that is, Coughlin's opponent now and staffmate then. By the time Coughlin arrived in New Jersey, Belichick had already helped Parcells win a Super Bowl. Their Big Bill-Little Bill partnership started in 1979, when Parcells was the Giants' new defensive coordinator and Belichick was their new special-teams coach.
Parcells liked Belichick's hustle and asked his boss, Ray Perkins, if Belichick could do some extra work with the defense. Perkins approved.
"And I knew early on this guy had a chance to be really good," Parcells said.
All these years later, Belichick is so good at his job that he stands with Vince Lombardi among the all-time greats. Belichick has won four championships with the New England Patriots on top of the two he won under Parcells with the Giants, and he now leads an 8-0 team that has a chance to match the historic 16-0 team of 2007.
Of course, that historic 16-0 team finished 18-1 thanks to Coughlin's first of two Super Bowl victories over Belichick, who has lost five of six career meetings with his former Giants colleague. It's a relatively small sample size dating to their days in Cleveland (Belichick) and Jacksonville (Coughlin), but given that two of the meetings were Super Bowls, the questions are worth asking:
Has Coughlin figured out the Belichick riddle? Does the Giants coach have the New England coach's number?
"I don't know how to answer that," Parcells said. "I would tell you that they talked a lot of football when they were assistants together, so maybe the experience of having been with one another gives each of them a little insight they otherwise wouldn't have. But I don't think that is having somebody's number. I don't believe that. They have that familiarity with one another personally, but a couple of those games the Giants were very fortunate to win and New England was very unfortunate to lose."
In the 2007 and 2011 seasons, the Patriots won 10 more combined regular-season games than their Giants counterparts. New England was clearly the superior team entering Super Bowl XLII in Arizona and, despite losing a November game to the Giants in the final seconds, was arguably the superior team entering Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. The Patriots were favored in both games. They carried an 18-game winning streak into the first matchup and a 10-game winning streak into the second.
If 17 funky things don't happen in that first Super Bowl, the Patriots go down as the greatest team ever. If Rob Gronkowski is fully healthy in that second Super Bowl, Belichick might have his one for the thumb in New England.
But the Giants won those games by a combined seven points. In fact, Belichick's only career victory over Coughlin -- that 38-35 epic in the Meadowlands to punctuate the 2007 regular season -- proved to be something of a pyrrhic one. With their playoff fate already determined and precious little to play for, the Giants proved to themselves that night they belonged in the same ballpark with the Patriots. Some losing players left the field believing they had physically outhit New England and that they could stage the upset if a rematch was meant to be.
It was. Coughlin woke up at 5:30 that morning in the Arizona desert and was 90 minutes into his pregame preparation when his grandchildren poured into his room, crawled all over him and drew animal figures over his notes. Stressed out, Coughlin needed the laugh. Plaxico Burress, already limited by an ankle injury, had a knee injury the Giants were hiding (he'd slipped and injured a ligament in the shower five days earlier), and it appeared he wouldn't play. Beyond that, a backup receiver named David Tyree had all but ruined the previous day's practice by dropping every Eli Manning pass thrown his way.
"If 17 funky things don't happen in that first Super Bowl, the Patriots go down as the greatest team ever. If Rob Gronkowski is fully healthy in that second Super Bowl, Belichick might have his one for the thumb in New England."
"Balls were ricocheting off his helmet," Coughlin would recall, "and Eli had to pat David on the butt and remind him he was a clutch player who would come through for us in the game."
No ball ricocheted off Tyree's helmet that night. Manning made his great escape, Tyree made his absurd catch and, after praying for guidance at his locker and taking painkillers to numb his knee, Burress made the touchdown catch that won it all.
Four years later in big brother Peyton's house, Lucas Oil Stadium, Manning completed the pass of a lifetime to Mario Manningham after Tom Brady and Wes Welker failed to make a connection they'd normally make in their sleep. When it was over, Belichick threw himself into a full-throttle embrace of Coughlin that stunned observers accustomed to much colder postgame receptions.
Belichick was showing his deep regard for the Giants franchise and for the fellow assistant coach who had challenged him every day in practice. Parcells recalled the late '80s scenes of Belichick's defensive backs getting after Coughlin's receivers in morning red zone drills on one end of the field.
"Just throwing goal-line, inside-the-ten, inside-the-15 passes," Parcells said. "That's where Tom and Bill got to know each other."
Some Giants defensive players had earlier nicknamed Belichick "Captain Sominex" for his robo-delivery in the film room. Some Giants receivers would come to call their coach "Colonel Coughlin" for his relentless attention to detail, for demanding that his players show up for work at least five minutes early, and for insisting that the receivers know their teammates' responsibilities.
"Tom wasn't the easiest assistant coach to play for," said Parcells, who wasn't the easiest head coach to play for.
But Colonel Coughlin and Captain Sominex built a relationship around their shared work ethic that helped drive the 1990 Giants to their improbable victories over the two-time defending champion San Francisco 49ers (in the NFC Championship Game) and the high-flying Buffalo Bills (in the Super Bowl). Of his bond with Belichick, Coughlin would say, "I really do feel like the way in which we worked was something that became, for our entire team, a good example for the rest of our coaches and players in terms of cooperating so that we might be the best that we could be."
Belichick's gameplan that toppled the Bills ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, another reason why the Giants remain the one opposing franchise still dear to his heart. Wednesday, the Patriots coach spoke affectionately of two late, great Giants -- matriarch Ann Mara and running back Frank Gifford -- and of his time spent coaching Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks and Pepper Johnson. Belichick also said some predictably nice things about Coughlin, who returned the favor. It took a little prodding, but after Coughlin turned a question about his matchup with the Patriots coach and whether it stirred his competitive juices into a team-centric answer, he relented on the follow-up by conceding it "does get your motor running, no question about it."
Of course it does. Belichick is a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer, and Coughlin is a probable Hall of Famer because, you know, he twice beat Belichick on the biggest stage in sports.
Were those bitter New England defeats matters of happenstance that could've been prevented by Asante Samuel (dropped clinching interception in XLII) and Wes Welker (dropped clinching pass in XLVI)? Maybe. Or maybe in a game of inches and yards, Coughlin's familiarity with Belichick was worth something in the narrow divide between winning and losing.
Coughlin was the one who decided to play that final 2007 regular-season game for real, even though some in and around the organization felt laying down there and resting for the playoff bid already earned was the right call. From his daily competitions against Belichick's unit way back when, Coughlin might've learned the only way to play a Belichick team is to go at it full speed.
More than a few NFL coaches are intimidated by Belichick, or by the prospect of facing him, and if nothing else, Coughlin isn't among them. One of the reasons was playing Wednesday on Giants training facility TVs: the NFL Network showing of Super Bowl XLII.
Above all else, Coughlin has beaten Belichick with an opportunistic quarterback, Manning, who plays at Brady's level when the stakes are high, and with a pass rush that makes Brady most uncomfortable. Unless Jason Pierre-Paul is back to his disruptive self, Sunday at MetLife Stadium could be the longest of days for a 5-4 Giants team that has been treating opposing quarterbacks as if they're wearing those red do-not-disturb jerseys.
Either way, the dynamic between the two head coaches will be just as fascinating to watch as the game.
"I'm very proud of both of them," Parcells said, "and of the fact that they've gone on to be their own guys who've done it their own way."
Bill Belichick might go down as the greatest football coach who ever lived. Tom Coughlin?
He might go down as the only man who truly understood how to beat him.