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Where Does New York Giants' Super Bowl Return Put Tom Coughlin in NFL History?

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Where Does New York Giants' Super Bowl Return Put Tom Coughlin in NFL History?
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Tom Coughlin may not be the archetypal NFL Hall of Fame Head Coach, but taking the New York Giants back to the Super Bowl has started us thinking. 

He’s always on the “coaching hot seat," despite building one of the most successful Giants teams of all time. He’ll forever be remembered as the strict disciplinarian whose players didn’t like him and almost got him fired. Right before he took them to Super Bowl XLII.

Or maybe he’ll be remembered as the man whose Irish ancestry lights up his face in anger—or in Lambeau Field.

Lest you think I’m making ethnic assumptions, I did look it up. Coughlin is a very old Irish name. 

The historical family motto (and yes, it's on the coat of arms) is: Brave in Difficulties. No, I’m not kidding.  

Tom’s ancestors would be proud. Despite being the Rodney Dangerfield of coaches, Coughlin just keeps showing up at work and turning out winning teams in a business where the average career of the players on those teams is less than four years.

In a move typical of the “what have you done for me lately?” NFL, the New York Giants renewed Coughlin’s contract last summer—for one year.

Three seasons after defeating the unbeaten New England Patriots and bringing the Lombardi to the Five Boroughs, that is the biggest vote of confidence ownership would give him. One year.

Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Coaching him up.

 

 

Wait, isn’t that exactly what happened in 2007? When fans and media were screaming for Coughlin’s coaching head, owners John Mara and Jonathan Tisch gave him one last chance. "I think he knows we need to do better, that our expectations are much higher.”

Hindsight is a funny thing. Mara went on in this article to criticize Eli Manning’s inconsistencies. It was Coughlin who unhesitatingly confirmed Manning as the “quarterback of the future.” 

Former Giants RB Tiki Barber led the malcontents on and off the field before retiring and continuing to criticize Coughlin while working at NBC. How’s that working out for you now, Tiki?

Tom Coughlin’s image problem stems from being a member of the Bill Parcells coaching tree, both in team strategy and coaching style. Drill the basics, maintain discipline, concentrate on the lines.

People forget, and I’d be curious to see how many Giants players even know, that Coughlin played halfback at Syracuse University. This man is not a Kyle Shanahan who wouldn’t know what a big-league hit was even if he ever left the nepotism cocoon long enough to sustain one.

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Coughlin played football—on offense. Then he went on to coach—on offense.

He coached Doug Flutie at Boston College. He won a Super Bowl with Parcells as a wide receivers coach. It was the first Super Bowl in which neither team committed a turnover. Are we seeing a pattern?

 

 

Tom Coughlin was later to set a standing NFL record for the most successful expansion in League history. The Jacksonville Jaguars made the playoffs three times in their first four years of existence.

In his second season, Coughlin took the Jacksonville Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game. He beat John Elway’s Broncos to get there. It was a huge shock to the football universe (and yet another disaster brought on by resting starters before the playoffs—but I digress).

Tom Coughlin is a smart man. He’s a smart coach. He’s so smart that he was able to mold his coaching style and his ego into the modern era.

The Tuna was the last guy to get away with the coach-as-God system. Somewhere in the early 90s, the players got the power. This was probably right about the time that they got all the money.

When the player is making $15-20 million and the coach is making $3 million, it’s not hard to see the shift.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Eyes on the Prize

Parcells also got away with it in part because of his own larger-than-life persona and his biting humor, much appreciated by the cynical sports media.

In case you haven’t noticed, Tom Coughlin is not funny. I’m not entirely sure he has a sense of humor. I’ve only seen him smile twice and one of those times was last week.

Tom Coughlin coached the Parcells way in a world that had moved on and in which the power base had shifted. That is part of the reason that he was fired in Florida and it was just about to get him fired in New York at the end of the 2006 season.

 

 

And smart Tom changed. His transformation to the “kinder, gentler” Tom Coughlin is credited with at least part of the 2007 Giants success.

In a multi-billion dollar industry, egos run amok. For Coughlin to take an honest look at himself though the light of reality as opposed to the cloud of embarrassment is a huge sign of his character.

Not only did his team go on to win it all, but Coughlin is also clearly now respected more in the locker room than in the media. Without exception, even the youngest Giant interviewed will, at some point, mention his belief that “Coach Coughlin really cares about his players.”

For young men who have probably been treated like commodities since the age of 12, that must be refreshing. It leads to trust and commitment.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
There it is. A smile!

And that leads to success. In eight years coaching in the nation's biggest media fishbowl, Tom Coughlin is 74-54 in the regular season with two NFC Championships, one Super Bowl win—and counting.

People will always compare him to Parcells and Bill Belichick. But total wins compared to the previous Giants coach don’t take into account the fact that Coughlin spent eight years on an expansion team.

Coughlin was certainly more successful in Jacksonville than Belichick was in Cleveland.

Numbers don’t help much with figuring out Coughlin’s place in NFL history, but character does. He maintains a foundation in Jacksonville dedicated to helping children with cancer. He wasn’t afraid to publicly admit that he needed to change. His players know he cares. He has proven that his sincerity is real and that sportsmanship still lives. 

 

 

And those are things dour Bill B. will never prove.

He drafted and coached Eli Manning. He created one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and probably the best defensive line (San Francisco is clearly snapping at their heels, but it’s Big Blue going to Indy).

He has assembled a championship wide receiving corps—twice. He and Manning have slowly transformed a group of undisciplined, loud-mouthed egotists into a solid, team-centric group of more mature egotists. And that has made all the difference.

In the glitziest of all glitzy cities, Tom Coughlin remains a fundamentals-first head coach. It’s tempting to call that old-fashioned, but don’t forget Jim Harbaugh is doing the exact same thing in San Francisco. Quality overcomes time. It always has.

Is it a coincidence that the two teams still standing are coached by taciturn, serious, detail-oriented, no-nonsense head coaches trained by Bill Parcells? In a society too often seduced by sparkle over substance, this year’s Super Bowl is a refreshing example of content over advertisement and function over outward form.

Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick are cut from the same cloth. In the ultimate genealogical irony, the name Coughlin is an anglicized version of the Gaelic MacCochlain and means—wait for it—“hood.” You cannot make this stuff up.

 

Check out my complete breakdown of every Super Bowl matchup. 

And—How will Gronkowski's injury affect the Big Game?

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