Commentary

Tom Coughlin's time has arrived

After playing with HOFers at Syracuse, Big Blue's leader is now the big man on campus

Updated: January 30, 2012, 4:07 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

Tom Coughlin arrived on the Syracuse University campus in 1964, a hot-shot recruit from nearby Waterloo, N.Y. -- a speck of a town nestled in the Finger Lakes region. In high school, he was a three-sport star with a Boy-Next-Door image. He took his game to the college next door, looking for more big things.

Reality hit as soon as the elevator door opened in Booth Hall.

Coughlin, moving into his freshman dorm, walked into the elevator and was greeted by two other freshman football players -- big dudes. They asked him what position he played.

Halfback, Coughlin told them.

[+] EnlargeTom Coughlin Rick Cassata
Syracuse University AthleticsPictured from left to right are Rick Cassata, Floyd Little, Tom Coughlin and Larry Csonka.

He looked at one of the players, a hulking 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, and fired back the same question. Probably a linebacker, he figured.

Halfback, came the reply.

The kid's name was Larry Csonka, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer. Coughlin, only 185 pounds, soon would meet the school's starting halfback, a fellow by the name of Floyd Little -- another future Hall of Famer.

Some might have taken the next bus out of town, heading home to look for a new school and easier competition, but Coughlin stuck around for four years. He was an afterthought in a legendary backfield, fuming when he didn't get the ball (that always prompted a few laughs), but he won respect with his competitiveness and toughness and knowledge of the game.

Now, nearly a half-century later, Coughlin is the big man, standing tall as his New York Giants prepare for their second Super Bowl in four years, a rematch against the New England Patriots. It's his time, his moment. Always surrounded by greatness, Coughlin gets a chance to step out. His forever friend, Little, is so moved by his old teammate's success that he gets choked up just talking about him.

"I've watched him truly become a coach where the players now will kill for him, where the players would put him on their shoulders …"

Little's voice stopped on a dime, the way his legs once could stop when he had a football in his hands. You could hear the tears building over the phone.

"I'm getting emotional right now … hold on a second," he said, pausing for a deep breath.

"I've become so proud of him," continued Little, who's hoping one day Coughlin will join him and Csonka in Canton. "At the 49er game, he gave a talk to his players and got emotional. This is not the Tom Coughlin that coached the Jaguars. He has made the change. He has become a coach where his players rally around him and they work hard for him, they try to win for him. I like that. He's the coach of now, he's not the coach of yesterday."

Many yesterdays ago, it was Little, Csonka and Coughlin in the same backfield, playing for the legendary Ben Schwartzwalder. Little was the halfback, Csonka the fullback, Coughlin the wingback. In those days, Syracuse was the cradle of running backs, going from Jim Brown to Ernie Davis to the Little-Csonka tandem, an embarrassment of riches.

"Two of the greatest players of all time," Coughlin once said of his teammates. "I tell people the only reason I played is because they needed 11 guys."

Obviously, Coughlin didn't get the ball a whole lot. He rushed only 74 times in his career, although he managed 26 receptions his senior year, a school record at the time. He wanted to be more involved, and he wasn't shy about expressing his frustration.

Imagine, say, Mario Chalmers burning up because LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were getting most of the shots for the Miami Heat. That was the dynamic with Coughlin, who was ultra-competitive.

[+] EnlargeTom Coughlin
Courtesy Floyd LittleSyracuse alum and Hall of Famer Floyd Little motivates Tom Couglin while Dick Towne looks on.

For decades, Schwartzwalder used a play called "Scissors 44," a misdirection run designed for the wingback. (It was called '44' in honor of the famous number worn by Brown, Davis, Little, et al.) When he called the play with Coughlin in the lineup, Schwartzwalder often had Coughlin and Little switch positions.

Little ran. Coughlin blocked.

And Coughlin seethed.

"Everybody on the defense knew what the play was because Tom would be so disgusted when we broke the huddle," Little said, laughing. "They could read his body language. He'd be like, 'They called my play, but they won't let me carry the ball.'"

Brandon Jacobs, who has often complained about his role, would love that story about his coach.

Obviously, Coughlin wasn't the most gifted athlete at his position, but he impressed teammates and coaches with his work ethic and determination. He liked to be in control. In high school, he was the point guard in basketball, the catcher in baseball and the captain of the football team.

He also was inquisitive. You've heard Generation X? Coughlin was Generation Why.

"No matter what you asked him to do, he wanted to know why," said Jim Ridlon, a former Syracuse player and later an assistant coach in the mid-1960s. "I remember it quite well. He always had ideas about running plays. He had really good ideas, more than any player I ever coached."

Ridlon recalled one particular session at the chalkboard. They were discussing a blocking assignment for a power running play, and Coughlin offered a suggestion.

"I agreed with him, but I wasn't going to take that to Ben Schwartzwalder, no way," Ridlon said of the stubborn, old-school coach. "The first time I took something to him, I almost got fired. But that was Tommy. You knew he'd be a great coach because of his mind for the game."

Coughlin could be stubborn, too, and he sometimes let his teammates know what he thought. He was "somewhat of a pain in the ass, always telling people what to do and how to do it," Little said, affectionately. In fact, Little has an old photo of him screaming at Coughlin as they were walking off the field.

In his first incarnation as an NFL head coach, with the Jaguars, Coughlin's rigid style made a lot of people want to scream at him. He was successful, leading the Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game in their second year of existence, but his militaristic style eventually chafed those around him and he was fired. It also caused problems in his early years with the Giants.

Jim Boeheim doesn't remember that side of Coughlin. Syracuse's Hall of Fame basketball coach, Class of '66, was the resident advisor on Coughlin's dorm floor in Sadler Hall. This was when Coughlin was an upperclassman. Boeheim remembered him as studious, never a troublemaker.

"He was the quietest guy on the floor," said Boeheim, who grew up only 15 miles from Coughlin and faced him in a high school basketball game. "He was always one of the nicest guys, extremely well-liked by everybody. When I first heard these stories that he was a tough football coach, I was shocked. You never, ever would've seen that coming. You could see him coaching, but you couldn't see him as a tough disciplinarian."

Coughlin, with input from people in the Giants' organization, softened his approach in 2007. The team responded with a historic run to the Super Bowl, stunning the 18-0 Patriots.

Little has noticed the change in his old teammate, and he loves him for it. Maybe some of Little has rubbed off on Coughlin. The former Denver Broncos great, now a special assistant in the Syracuse athletic department, is a passionate person who's not afraid to express his emotions. He can inspire men with a fiery speech or put lumps in everyone's throat with a sad story.

Coughlin displayed some of those traits in the team meeting on the eve of the NFC Championship Game, extolling the toughness of three former Giants -- Michael Strahan, Mark Bavaro and Rich Seubert, all of whom made the trip to San Francisco to serve as honorary captains.

The old coach got choked up during his speech. When he heard that, Little teared up, too. They've remained close friends. Little texts Coughlin after every victory, and he's still blown away by the effusive introduction Coughlin gave him two years ago at the coach's annual charity event in Jacksonville. It came only a few months after Little was enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Four years ago, Little woke up in the middle of night because of a vivid dream that included Coughlin. Little called it a "vision," him and Coughlin running down the sideline at Super Bowl XLII in Arizona, celebrating a victory.

This was four weeks before the game, before the Giants had overcome enormous odds by winning three straight playoff games on the road. Little called Coughlin to share his vision, but they ended up playing phone tag. In the meantime, Little told a reporter about it, so, yes, there is documented proof.

A week after the Super Bowl, Coughlin and Little finally talked.

"He said, 'Son of a gun, I wish I had called you back earlier, I wouldn't have had to stress so much because you already had us winning it,'" Little said with a big laugh.

For the record, Little still hasn't experienced a premonition for next Sunday, but he does have a dream: to see Coughlin in the Hall of Fame. If the Giants beat the Patriots, the coach would certainly have a résumé worthy of consideration.

It would be unprecedented, having three players from the same college backfield in Canton. Only one other school besides Syracuse can boast two backs, according to the Hall of Fame -- Oklahoma State, which had Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas in the late 1980s.

"I would love to greet him, when his day is done, as a Pro Football Hall of Famer," Little said. "That's my wish, that's my hope, that's my goal -- for Tom Coughlin, to one day walk through the halls of Canton, with Csonka and me, his teammates, already in the Hall, waiting for Tom Coughlin. That's my dream."

Maybe, with another win over the Patriots, Coughlin will be able to walk into Canton one day, nearly 50 years after he walked into that elevator as a freshman.

This time, he'd be as big as the rest of them.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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