- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tom Coughlin was hurrying away from the biggest nonevent on the New York sports calendar -- his daily news briefing -- when he suddenly stopped being a football coach bent on answering questions in seven syllables or less and morphed into an engaging storyteller.
Somehow on a rainy day in 2011, Coughlin found himself talking about a Paul Newman Western from 1967, "Hombre." The coach of the New York Giants was explaining the film's defining scene, waving his hands and altering his voice to match that of the villainous character who confronts Newman's Hombre.
Coughlin reveled in the protagonist's response: "How are you going to get down that hill?"
Outside his locker room, Coughlin put his finger on an invisible trigger and mimicked Newman's follow-up -- he used his rifle to blast the man down the hill -- before leaving a trail of laughter in the hall and heading off to his next meeting. "That's a classic," the coach said.
Even if it wasn't classic Coughlin.
In the middle of a tabloid town's worst nightmare -- a Rex Ryan bye week -- classic Coughlin was the painful exercise that unfolded inside the Giants' airplane hangar of a practice facility.
Pinned by cameras and notebooks in a grim corner of the hangar, Coughlin tried to write as few headlines as possible.
Ryan needs a podium the way a comic needs a stage. The coach of the New York Jets loves being what they call good copy, so he'd prefer to deliver his outrageous quotes and forecasts through a bullhorn.
Coughlin? He's so skilled at saying nothing, his briefing opened with the not-so-sweet sound of silence. Reporters knew going in they couldn't ask anything that might inspire a revealing response.
"Ten, nine, eight, seven," Coughlin said to fill the awkward void. "Thanks for coming."
When the questions finally started, Coughlin was true to form. He didn't say he would have won two Super Bowl titles with Tony Sparano's players in Miami. He didn't confess any knowledge of Brandon Jacobs' remarks in the pages of Men's Fitness, where the running back griped again about something or another.
"I am not aware of anything," Coughlin said. "I don't know anything about this article."
Ryan knows everything about every article, if only because he practically writes them. The Jets' coach is on record saying he reads a thick stack of Web and newspaper stories -- especially the critical ones -- to motivate himself and his team.
Coughlin breezes through USA Today, and scans only a few clips here and there in search of helpful tidbits about opposing teams. Pat Hanlon, the team's chief PR man, gives Coughlin a quick review of subjects likely to be covered in that day's meeting with the news media -- Hanlon likely gave him a summary of Jacbos' quotes before Thursday's session -- and then the coach does his damnedest to bore reporters to tears, anyway.
Ryan surely would have said something to make the day more interesting, even if it came at Sparano's expense. Rex has barreled through the marketplace like no coach or manager before him, offending opponents and guaranteeing titles and trying like hell to break George Steinbrenner's world record for back pages seized.
In a quiet moment Thursday, when asked for a reaction to Ryan's scorched-earth style, Coughlin said, "I don't read that, and it's none of my business. I've got my own issues, but I've never been involved in anything like that."
"Because that's the way I believe, and that's the way I was raised," Coughlin said. "With the influences that were extended upon me and with the chance I have to be in this position as a head coach, that's the way I choose to do it. That's me."
For the most part, Coughlin's way has worked. In seven full seasons with the Giants, he's won an epic Super Bowl, reached the playoffs four times and presided over four seasons of 10 victories or more.
Coughlin is 4-2 this season and in first place in the NFC East. His former assistant in Jacksonville, Sparano, is 0-6 and selling his house. The Dolphins have had five coaches during Coughlin's time with the Giants, and they've made the playoffs once.
The specter of Bill Cowher hovers over Sparano the way it hovered over Coughlin last season, when the Giants' coach admitted to ESPNNewYork.com that the speculation he might be fired was "really difficult to ignore. Every time we lose a game, that stuff comes up."
Despite missing the playoffs for a second straight time, Coughlin won enough games (10) to get another shot at age 65. When reminded Thursday that it isn't easy for anyone to focus on his team while enduring what Sparano is going through now, or what Coughlin went through last year and in 2006, the Giants' coach said, "It's not, but you have to do it.
"You have to remember you are responsible for those young men you're working with. You can have compassion in private, and you can have moments of empathy, but you really have to stick to what you're doing."
So the man from Waterloo, N.Y., isn't focused on his next potential Waterloo, a post-Miami schedule that includes road games at New England, San Francisco and New Orleans, a home game with defending champ Green Bay, and a Christmas Eve rumble with Ryan's Jets.
Coughlin is focused on Friday night's event in the city for his Jay Fund, a foundation supporting children with leukemia, and he's focused on beating the winless Dolphins on Sunday. Coughlin is focused on making as little fuss as possible over his standing in the sport and on remaining the anti-Rex in every conceivable way.
"Tom never makes it about Tom," said his defensive coordinator, Perry Fewell, who was also on his staff in Jacksonville. "It's always about how he can help others succeed, and it's always about the team. That's why he's not a diva, I guess you can say, as far as coaches are concerned."
If Fewell still sees the same driven and intense boss he had in Jacksonville, he sees a different human being.
"Tom's a teddy bear who's got a lot of love in his heart, and who cares so much for the players, the coaches and this organization," Fewell said.
"He seems a little looser now, and it seems like he's enjoying himself more than he did in the past. I think he embraces the kids more, and I see him joking with them at times that are appropriate. It's funny to say, but it seems like he's matured."
It took a little time. The PR man, Hanlon, remembered the day he walked into Coughlin's office in the spring of 2004, after the coach was hired, and found newspaper articles marked up with red ink. Like a professor grading midterms, Coughlin had corrected everything he believed to be factually untrue.
"You haven't even lost a game here yet," Hanlon told him.
Now Coughlin barely pays attention to the noise in an overheated, over-Rexed market. His big quote of the week about those allegedly dangerous Dolphins -- "Respect all and fear none" -- sounded like it was pulled from some outdated Lombardi handbook.
"You have to be a sponge as you go along," Coughlin said of his growth on the job. He spoke of his high school coaches upstate, of Ben Schwartzwalder at Syracuse and of Bill Parcells in New York.
"You take what's really good from these people," Coughlin went on, "and then you formulate the way you would do it if you get the opportunity to be a head coach."
And the way Tom Coughlin has decided to do it barely registers a whisper during Rex Ryan's bye week in Rex Ryan's town.
That's OK. The Jets are in third place in their division, the Giants are in first place in theirs and Coughlin would much rather mimic Paul Newman than a football coach who talks bigger than his team plays.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.
13hEric D. Williams