Commentary

Coughlin vs. Belichick: A Giant clash

Former Giants assistants under Bill Parcells will decide Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis

Updated: February 1, 2012, 12:21 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

In his first major job as a head coach, Tom Coughlin worked hard at being the most anal-retentive man in an anal-retentive field. He would make the predawn drive to his Boston College office in deafening silence, never allowing himself to enjoy an old Sinatra song or listen to a weather report, not when the radio might distract him from the day's master plan.

He would arrive at 6:05 a.m. -- sharp -- and do what he had to do to restore the Eagles to national prominence. If that meant mapping out drills designed to make players puke their way into shape, Tom Coughlin shape, so be it. Every move was part of a purpose, and every purpose was part of a schedule the coach religiously followed until he went to bed at 11 p.m. -- sharp.

On one November day in 1992, Coughlin pointed to his desk and told a visitor to his Chestnut Hill office, "I can pull stuff out of drawers and tell you what I'm doing every minute of every day for a whole calendar year." He wasn't kidding. Tom Coughlin wouldn't kid about something like that.

He ended up at BC after the New York Giants took the Super Bowl from the Buffalo Bills on Scott Norwood's wide right. Coughlin was Bill Parcells' wide receivers coach, and one of his guys, Mark Ingram, made one of the game's biggest plays, breaking five tackles on third-and-13 for a first down.

But the biggest plays came from a Giants defense charged to stop a fast-breaking Buffalo offense that had just beaten the Raiders, then of Los Angeles, in the AFC Championship Game by a 51-3 count. Bill Belichick ran that defense, and in his first unit meeting that week in Tampa, Fla., he laid out a strategy that sounded like a practical joke.

"We want Thurman Thomas to run for over 100 yards," Belichick told his players. "I will quit this business if Thurman Thomas runs for over 100 yards and we lose."

Carl Banks remembered the initial reaction in the meeting room. "We almost lost it," he said Saturday by phone. "Bill was still young then, and you heard a few F-bombs from players in the room.

"But then Bill backed it up with phenomenal statistics. Most coaches only go back four games, and yet he went back nine games and said, 'Thurman Thomas gets his yards receiving in the flat, on swing passes. The Bills don't have a traditional running game. And if they've been doing it this way nine weeks straight, they're not changing it for this game.' ... Bill was dead serious, but at first we thought he was kidding."

Thomas rushed for 135 yards, and it turned out the Giants' defensive coordinator wasn't kidding. Bill Belichick wouldn't kid about something like that.

It was a great night for a great Parcells staff loaded with former and future NFL and college head coaches. Belichick. Coughlin. Ron Erhardt. Romeo Crennel. Al Groh. Ray Handley. Charlie Weis.

In the winners' locker room, Coughlin put Lawrence Taylor on the phone with a couple of his BC recruits and landed them both. Coughlin later staggered about the victory party mumbling "world [bleeping] champions," an expression Parcells had stitched into his aide's souvenir blanket, and eventually made his way to a new life in Chestnut Hill.

[+] EnlargeTom Coughlin
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesNow with the Patriots and Giants, respectively, Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin will meet again in Indy.

Belichick left for Cleveland to coach the Browns, and maintained a long-distance relationship with Coughlin through the dramatic twists and turns of their careers. Belichick and Coughlin liked and respected each other, and helped each other's units in Parcells' meeting rooms and on his practice fields.

Their relationship survived Coughlin's Super Bowl XLII upset of Belichick's 18-0 New England Patriots, as evidenced by all the kind things said in recent news conference settings. Coughlin, the offensive guy, talked about his admiration for Belichick's "meticulous work." Belichick, the defensive guy, talked about his admiration for Coughlin's tough, disciplined approach.

Belichick also went on about his unmitigated affection for his time in the Meadowlands, calling it "12 great years of my life." Across all of his winning seasons in New England, Belichick has spoken of the Giants the way Vince Lombardi used to speak of them during all of his winning seasons in Green Bay. The Patriots coach can't deny his romantic connection to the franchise that gave him his first big shot.

So this Super Bowl rematch in Indianapolis will be one settled by two Giants on opposite sides of the field, two old Parcells guys who built championship programs around their obsession to detail.

Which man will outsmart and outwork his opponent? Which coach gets to add a sixth Super Bowl title (Belichick 3, Coughlin 1, Sean Payton 1) to the Parcells family tree?

Belichick is favored to even the score with Coughlin. "Bill was a special teams coach when I became defensive coordinator," Parcells said, "and we were in the same office together, four of us, and Bill was on the same side as me. I saw how hard he worked and I said to Ray [Perkins], 'I don't know whether it would be too much for Bill to help out with the defense a bit, but if it doesn't interfere with his job I'd like to have him.'

"Ray was all for it, and that's how the relationship with Bill started. It didn't take me long to realize that this guy had a chance to be really good."

The son of a longtime coach and scout at the Naval Academy, Belichick had first memorized Navy's plays at age 6. He broke down game films as a fourth grader. He wasn't just driven as a child; he was lucky, too. At the Academy's commencement ceremony, after hundreds of graduates had thrown their caps into the air and onto the ground, young Bill calmly walked over and randomly picked up one without looking at it.

It happened to belong to his hero, Joe Bellino, Heisman Trophy winner.

Only Belichick's luck would be the residue of his incredible design. "Bill really knew how to maximize talent," said Karl Nelson, an offensive lineman on the championship team of '86. "LT used to forget whether to drop back in coverage or rush the passer, and so the coaches said, 'Screw it, let's just let him rush the passer all the time.' Belichick didn't let his ego get in the way and say, 'I'm not letting this guy screw up my system.' He just decided, 'Hey, if LT screws up my system, let's at least make it tougher on the offense.'"

If Belichick's monotone delivery left him with the nickname "Captain Sominex," Banks saw nothing boring about his game-day willingness to adapt on the fly.

"Bill could readjust his entire defense just like that," the former linebacker said. "If you saw something and told him after a punt, by the time we took the field again we had a brand new defense. It was amazing.

"One time Lawrence and I were flip-flopping against the Redskins -- I'd go to the tight end side and Lawrence would go to open side -- and [Joe] Gibbs tried to get us caught in between, running the tight end back and forth. So Lawrence had me stay with him so we could blitz together, and you should've seen the look on Joe Jacoby's face. He didn't know who to block. We told Bill, and it took him 30 seconds to draw up a new defense with the two of us on the same side."

Coughlin wasn't quite as flexible when he joined the Giants staff in 1988. Parcells first heard about him from Marion Campbell, who had Coughlin on his Philadelphia staff.

"Marion told me he had an up-and-coming guy who would do a really good job for me," Parcells said. "It turned out to be true."

Coughlin drilled his young receivers on being accountable and professional, and soon enough he would come to be known as "Colonel Coughlin." The position coach wanted his unit to understand the responsibilities of every teammate on the field and, of course, being on time meant being at least five minutes early. "He drove those receivers crazy," said Nelson, the lineman-turned-radio analyst.

"But the receivers didn't really rebel against it," Banks said. "Tom practiced more preventive medicine than Belichick and Parcells did. Tom's guys never made mistakes, where Belichick and Parcells would make you regret the day you made a mistake and didn't play the technique."

So which Giants assistant was more consumed by the little things, by the pursuit of perfection?

"Tom was a bit more extreme than Belichick," Banks said, "and yet Belichick was a real stickler for technique. ... It's tough to say. I don't know, Belichick was so detail-oriented that Tom might have to be a close second."

This much is clear: Coughlin will go down as a Giant. Belichick? He might win a fourth title for the Patriots, and yet he cherishes few things more than a chance to relive the good ol' days with LT and Banks and the rest.

"Bill still shows the Patriots film of how we did certain things with the Giants," Banks said. "I used to see [Mike] Vrabel and [Tedy] Bruschi all the time and they'd say, 'I'm so sick of looking at you guys playing Cover 2.' They told me Bill's got a library of plays that we made that he's constantly showing the Patriots."

These stories make Parcells proud, and do nothing to hurt his legacy and his own shot next weekend to land in the Hall of Fame. He's quite fond of Coughlin, and after his former receivers coach was fired in Jacksonville, Parcells told him he had a standing offer to rejoin his staff whenever he wanted.

Only he doesn't talk to Coughlin as often he talks to Belichick, who also worked under Parcells with the Patriots and the Jets. Big Bill and Not-so-Little Bill had a falling out over Belichick's disastrous departure from the Jets, and Parcells agreed when asked if their relationship had to survive some of the mentor-protégé tension that once defined the Bob Knight-Mike Krzyzewski relationship.

"But it's much better now," Parcells said. "First of all, I'm not in coaching anymore. I'm not the competition."

Parcells is just the neutral observer who can't give a definitive answer to the following question: If Coughlin beats Belichick in another Super Bowl, does that make him the superior coach?

"Oh, they're both terrific," Parcells said. "Belichick's body of work is among the best ever, if not the best ever. What are you going to do? Tom's done a really good job, and I'm just proud of them both."

Two Giants, one trophy. The defensive coordinator versus the wide receivers coach. Captain Sominex versus Colonel Coughlin.

May the most anal-retentive man win.

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 from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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