|Long known as a stern tyrant, Tom Coughlin finds more to smile about these days. (US Presswire)|
Late on a Sunday night in December, New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin emerged from the team's locker room following an impressive road victory over the Dallas Cowboys, one that kept his team's playoff hopes and, more importantly, his job status alive.
"They fire you every week," I told him.
"After every loss," he said. "It's been that way for a while."
Truth be known, if Coughlin didn't win that night in Dallas, and didn't win his final two games to get into the playoffs, his 16-year NFL career would likely have been over. Now with two victories -- starting Sunday at San Francisco against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game -- he would get a second Super Bowl ring and earn his place among the all-time coaching elite -- maybe even a bust in Canton.
See, what the back-page headline writers and those columnists who were calling for his head a month ago when his team was 7-7 don't know is this: Coughlin does some of his best coaching when nobody expects his team to do much. And wasn't this team buried six weeks ago?
By now, you all know about Coughlin's 2007 Giants going on a magical playoff run, winning three road games, and then upsetting the supposedly unbeatable and undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
That was truly special. But it has nothing on the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars, his second year in the league.
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That team, as a wild card, pulled off the second-biggest upset in postseason history -- only the New York Jets beating the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III was bigger. They upset the top-seeded Denver Broncos as 15-point underdogs at Mile High Stadium in the divisional round that year.
They did so after being 4-7 after 11 games, in only the second season of the team's existence.
It was a group of young players mixed with expansion-draft castoffs, yet Coughlin somehow got that team to within a game of the Super Bowl in what truly ranks as one of the great underdog postseason runs ever.
How did he do it?
"Preparation," former Jaguars left tackle Tony Boselli said. "That's what makes him such a great coach. Even for a young team, we were ready for everything we saw. He's great at getting guys ready to play for anything that will come their way."
Coughlin was my obsession for years -- and word is it went the other way as well. As the only beat guy covering him for his first five seasons in the league, I was there for every one of his practices, media sessions, games and almost everything else he did in building the Jaguars into one of the most successful expansion franchises ever. One day I missed because of food poisoning, the only practice I missed.
"That's a blow," he told my backup.
Coughlin probably would say I was a spur on his ass, but it allowed me a peek into the mind of the man and it allowed me to hear countless stories about him as a football coach -- some good, some bad.
Back then, his players almost always complained about him -- and I was often their sounding board. Too rigid, they said. Too demanding, they cried out. It was great for copy. It was horrible when dealing with the wrath of Tom.
Now, to a man, his former players all say the same thing about why he's been so successful.
"Consistency," Boselli said. "He was the same every day. The good ones are always center-lined. They win, and they're the same. They lose, and they're the same. That's what made Tom so successful."
I once told Coughlin that his old players said he was an ass, but he was a consistent ass.
He smiled. To him, that was a badge of honor.
Coughlin's consistency, players and coaches say, is why he can take a team that is seemingly down and out and get it to rise to special heights.
"He knows when to push and when not to push," Giants safety Deon Grant told me earlier this year. "He knows how to treat veterans, how to let us handle the locker room. Most of all, you know what you get with him. There's no up and down."
Coughlin now has six road playoff victories in his career, one short of Tom Landry's record for seven. Coughlin's teams were big underdogs in almost all those games.
"Once we got to the playoffs, we had a big, long talk about what was expected," Boselli said. "He made us aware that it was going to be tough to go on the road and win. He told us to just stick together and we could get through any situation."
Strangely, when he had the best team in the AFC in 1999, a Jaguars team that went 14-2, he lost at home in the AFC Championship Game as a favorite to the Tennessee Titans. Twice with the Giants he has lost home playoff games as a favorite after successful regular seasons that included winning the NFC East.
"He's had success with other teams deep into the playoffs, but if you look at what he did in 1996 and 2007, it's hard to argue with the idea [that he does better with teams not expected to do much]," Boselli said.
Stay the course.
Deeds not words.
The concentration line.
Coughlin has used all of those to keep his team focused over the years. Some of it seemed corny. His rules certainly seemed to go beyond rigid.
This was a man who fined players for not wearing socks on the road. This was a man who wouldn't let his players outside their rooms on the road unless they were in proper attire.
He seems to have relaxed as he's aged. Now 65, and a grandfather 10 times, he seems much more at ease with being an NFL coach. Getting that ring in 2007 helped take some of the pressure off. So did a close look at the way he does things.
The man smiles a lot more now, even if it doesn't always seem that way.
"He was strung so tight all the time," Boselli said. "He was so negatively strung. If you had to rate how high he was strung on a scale of one to 10, he was a 12. He looks like he enjoys it more now."
When his team left Cowboys Stadium that night in December. I noticed they were in comfortable sweats, not suits.
"You really have changed," I told Coughlin.
He snarled. "It's one o'clock in the morning. That's letting them be comfortable."
In other words, just a small change. Don't get any ideas it's much more than that.
But little things matter to NFL players.
If Coughlin can beat the 49ers this week -- his team is a 3 1/2-point underdog -- he not only will tie Landry but also might earn some respect in New York. Remember, he has only one more year left on his contact after this one, but if he wins the Super Bowl he would be the oldest coach to do so. Could he walk away? Let's put it this way, he has a house on the beach in Jacksonville that could make it tempting, especially with some of his kids still in the area.
Only three Giants coaches have ever won multiple championships. Steve Owen is one. A guy named Bill Parcells is the other.
From fired to revered would be a heck of a run for Coughlin.
If you want the reasons why he's so good when his teams seem so up against it there are two words that sum it up: Preparation and consistency.
Somewhere, you know he has those two on a sign in his office -- the Coughlin credo of coaching.