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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Coughlin in the Hall of Fame? A win over the Patriots might seal the deal


INDIANAPOLIS -- Who knew? Who knew that maniacal coach from the college ranks I first encountered 18 years ago in a trailer -- a year before he ever coached an NFL game as he started to put together a franchise -- would turn into a potential Hall of Famer?

Who knew?

Did I know Tom Coughlin had that potential?

The answer is no.

Heck, did anybody in New York think it even eight weeks ago?

Two months ago, they had the firing stories ready and Coughlin appeared as if he might be prepared to use that retirement home on Jacksonville Beach. Now he's on the verge of something special: Being Hall of Fame worthy.

If Coughlin's New York Giants beat the New England Patriots on Sunday in Super Bowl XLVI, it will give him his second championship, which will take him from Hall possible to Hall probable.

In 16 seasons, he will have built the NFL's most successful expansion franchise, and won two Super Bowls in his second stint as a head coach.

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Get to work on the bust if he wins Sunday

A straw poll of a handful of the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters here came away without a concrete verdict. But all said another title would make it a much more valid conversation.

Getting one ring is special for a coach. Getting two takes them to elite.

I say it puts Coughlin in based on the body of work.

"He would belong in the discussion," said Hall voter Len Pasquarelli of SportXchange. "But I will say this, non-players are a little more difficult to get in. There are some who still think it's for the players."

There are four coaches with three or more Super Bowl victories. Three are in the Hall, while New England's Bill Belichick, Coughlin's opposing coach this week, is all but guaranteed a bust.

There are eight other coaches who have won two Super Bowls. Of those eight, three are in the Hall -- Don Shula, Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi. The five who aren't are Tom Flores (Raiders), Bill Parcells (Giants), Mike Shanahan (Broncos), George Seifert (49ers) and Jimmy Johnson (Cowboys). Shanahan is still coaching, and Parcells is up for election as a finalist Saturday.

With 142 regular-season wins, Coughlin has more than Flores (97), Seifert (114) and Johnson (80). He has more division titles (seven to three) than Shanahan. Coughlin trails Shanahan by 15 victories on the career list in two fewer seasons as a head coach.

Comparing Coughlin to Parcells is an interesting study. In 16 seasons, Coughlin is 142-114 for .555 winning percentage. In 19 seasons, Parcells was 172-130 in the regular season for a .570 winning percentage.

Coughlin has had winning records in nine of his 16 seasons, with Parcells having 10 in 19. Coughlin has seven division titles, while Parcells had eight. Coughlin has four in eight seasons with the Giants, while Parcells had five in eight seasons in New York. Coughlin has seven double-digit victory seasons; Parcells had nine.

In the playoffs, Coughlin is 11-7 while Parcells was 11-8. Parcells also lost a Super Bowl with New England.

"I'm not sure either one is getting in with two Super Bowls," one Hall voter said.

Said another: "Talk to me when a guy gets to three."

Aside from his Giants work, Coughlin backers can also point to his first NFL job in Jacksonville. He had the expansion Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game in his second season, losing to Parcells' Patriots. In his fifth, they were the top seed in the AFC, but were upset at home in the AFC title by the Tennessee Titans.

"That means a lot," one Hall voter said. "He is the one who gets credit for building that team into a quick contender. Not a lot of coaches can say that."

Coughlin went to the playoffs four consecutive years in Jacksonville, but then salary-cap issues and bad free-agent moves crippled his team. After three losing seasons, he was fired.

The last one was a 6-10 season. That might not look good, but the staff that followed him studied that team's games and came away thinking it was one of the best coaching jobs they had seen. That's how depleted the roster was at that time.

That was Coughlin's fault. He was in charge of everything. It was too much. He was seduced by being close, and broke free from his beliefs about signing older players. Free-agent signings like Carnell Lake and Bryce Paup and Hardy Nickerson all busted on his watch and the team sunk.

Former Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver recently said he regretted firing Coughlin as coach, but instead should have just taken away his personnel power. That might not have flown well with the Coughlin of 1995, but by the end it might have kept him where he wanted to stay.

After a year sitting out and driving his wife crazy, the Giants hired Coughlin in 2002, not to have personnel power but just to coach. It's the right fit.

At several points during his tenure, Coughlin has been in the firing line. In 2007, he led the Giants to an upset victory over the Patriots in the Super Bowl to put that to rest. But it surfaced again this season when the Giants struggled midway through the season. If he doesn't make the playoffs, there's a chance Coughlin could have been fired.

Now he's one victory away from a potential Hall bust.

Change is a big part of why he has been so successful in New York. Asked the biggest change from the early ways, Coughlin said this week it was patience.

I also think his players are much more tolerant of him. He has opened up to them.

Take two separate meal stories that show the difference. In Jacksonville, Coughlin once joined some players as they ate doughnuts in the locker room. Slowly, every player left, leaving Coughlin alone -- just a man and the doughnuts.

Fast forward to this week. Eli Manning talked about a lunch some players shared with Coughlin on Tuesday.

"Yesterday, after our media day, we all sat down and had lunch with him amongst other players," Manning said. "He's in high spirits and a great mood. He's smiling and laughing and we can kind of laugh about some of the ridiculous questions we've been asked at media day. He likes to smile. You just have to find him in the right moment."

That right moment could come again Sunday night if he hoists another Lombardi Trophy -- and if it does I would expect to see it again sometime in Canton.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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