Thursday, January 17, 2008
Tom Coughlin's startling personality makeover remains intact
By Greg Garber
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The first question, about predictions calling for frigid weekend weather at Lambeau Field, drew an almost imperceptible wince from Tom Coughlin.
"What we prefer to do, really," the Giants' head coach said Wednesday, "is focus on the things that we can control. We need to focus on the Green Bay Packers."
As the second meteorological question unspooled, Coughlin's eyes narrowed a bit.
"Our team is not going to entertain a whole lot of questions or spend a lot of time talking about the weather," he said.
The third -- something about freezing practice footballs to simulate the cold -- was so off the wall that Coughlin forced a flicker of a smile.
"I don't think we are going to have the balls in the freezer," he said.
Time was (from 2004 to '06) when Coughlin would have berated the bearer of the second and third queries, perhaps even to the point of rudeness. Facing a media mob that jammed the press room at Giants Stadium, Coughlin -- a professorial study in wire-rimmed spectacles and short-cropped, silver hair -- was restrained and sometimes even approached cordial.
Those waiting for a relapse after Coughlin's startling personality makeover last year have been sadly disappointed. This, perhaps even more than the Giants' presence in the NFC Championship Game, is the upset of the 2007 season that finds Coughlin one win from his first Super Bowl as a head coach.
Human nature is doggedly stubborn. Effecting true change, particularly at the age of 60, when the thought process has congealed into inflexibility at best and confusion at worst, is very difficult. We are, to paraphrase Dennis Green, who we are.
|Giants coach Tom Coughlin is still a stickler for rules, but he has eased up a bit. "I never thought that he was a bad guy," running back Brandon Jacobs said.|
Coughlin, now 61 and the last of the NFL's head coaching dinosaurs, somehow modestly changed his spots. The days of snarling, domineering head coaches such as Vince Lombardi and Mike Ditka are gone. Modern athletes question authority; fire and brimstone no longer invokes fear, but it almost always guarantees loathing.
"I may be a dinosaur," Coughlin told The New York Times before the season began, "but I can change."
And so he did.
He took Jacksonville to the 1996 and 1999 AFC Championship games, but after three losing seasons, Coughlin was fired. After a season in exile, he returned as the Giants' head coach. After a 6-10 season in 2004, New York went 11-5. But Coughlin may have escaped termination last season when his team ended a 1-6 slide by beating the Washington Redskins in the regular-season finale to finish 8-8. Coughlin became the first Giants coach to put together back-to-back playoff seasons since Bill Parcells in 1989-90.
Nonetheless, a three-point wild-card loss in Philadelphia left his future unsettled.
Coughlin, the living definition of the old-school coach, has always been a stickler for discipline. On the road, players are required to wear leather shoes, dress socks and collared shirts. If they are on time for a meeting, they're five minutes late. And once the meeting begins, cell phones or baseball caps are against the rules. For awhile, Coughlin did not permit his assistants to wear sunglasses on the practice field because he believed eye contact was important. On the very first day on the job, he promised to chase all the injured players out of their whirlpool baths.
Comments by running back Tiki Barber and tight end Jeremy Shockey made it clear as the 2006 season closed that Coughlin was not respected by a number of his players. His wild, crazy-eyed displays on the sidelines and his sometimes sour dealings with the media also worked against him.
A year ago, with one season left to go on his original four-year, $12 million contract, the franchise spent more than a week doing its due diligence. The Giants' brain trust, which had always been puzzled by the gap between the engaging Coughlin they knew in the blue-carpeted hallways under Giants Stadium and his sometimes harsh public persona, had a few suggestions. Namely, lighten up.
Coughlin, according to the Giants, provided most of the thrust for change. He had never liked his negative public image, but on reflection, he was never moved to change his behavior. Coughlin pledged to try to be nicer, maybe even smile once in awhile. This was no altruistic mood change. He did it to save his job, and today he is looking at another multiyear contract.
There was the now-celebrated evening during which he cut short a meeting planned for 150 minutes and took the team bowling during training camp in Albany, N.Y. He sat down with each of the regular newspaper reporters who cover the team and tried to get to know them better. Coughlin also formed an 11-player council to keep him in touch with the players' feelings. Instead of appointing captains on a weekly basis, Coughlin for the first time as a head coach allowed the players to vote for five permanent leaders. Players report that sometimes he lets some of the smaller stuff go.
"He tweaked a few things," said right guard Chris Snee, who happens to be Coughlin's son-in-law. "He's established a better relationship with the players. Now he'll hear both sides of an argument.
"But he's still the same at the core."
Indeed, the strident rules are still the rules -- three minutes early is still two minutes late -- but Coughlin, by all accounts, has been less peevish and petty. He's still hopelessly anal-retentive -- just no longer to a fault.
"I never thought that he was a bad guy," running back Brandon Jacobs said. "Some guys may think differently. In my three years here, we have never been so close to each other as we are this year, and that's mainly because of him."
These modifications, while admirable, were probably less critical to the Giants' success than three subtractions.
When Barber departed for the broadcast world, he told anyone who would listen that Coughlin was a big factor in his decision to retire in his prime. Maybe so, but the locker room, particularly the young players under Barber's influence, has warmed to the new Coughlin. Replacing defensive coordinator Tim Lewis with Steve Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator John Hufnagel with Kevin Gilbride has brought stability to both units.
The consensus of the folks who cover football for a living was that these Giants would win six or seven games. Now they are 12-6, winners of an NFL single-season record nine games on the road and on the cusp of something superb.
Coughlin was unhappy last season when he became, in a negative sense, the story line. Not that he exactly relishes being one of the positive story lines. When asked Wednesday how personally satisfying the season has been, Coughlin practically recoiled.
"I am not going there," he said. "This is not about me, it is about our team."
Later, he was asked if he was enjoying himself.
"Every second," he said.
"Can't you tell?"
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
He's established a better relationship with the players. Now he'll hear both sides of an argument.
--Chris Snee, Giants right guard and Tom Coughlin's son-in-law