Commentary

Tom took lickin', but keeps on tickin'

Coach escaped surgery after Christmas Eve injury, now looks like he'll outlast Rex

Updated: August 17, 2012, 4:55 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tom Coughlin still feels that Christmas Eve pain, the shot he took in the left leg from his own running back, D.J. Ware, who was sent reeling on a late hit delivered by -- who else? -- one of Rex Ryan's guys.

Coughlin never wanted to discuss what Aaron Maybin's mayhem did to his leg last season, not while there was a second Super Bowl with the New England Patriots out there to be won. But in an interview with ESPNNewYork.com on Thursday, Coughlin revealed that he nearly required surgery on his left hamstring, and that Ryan's New York Jets had left their mark in vain.

"The confluence of muscles attached to the hamstring were pulled off, all three of them at the top," Coughlin said, "and if it was more than an inch they would've done surgery. I didn't go for the MRI until after the thing was all over, but when I went it was at the three-quarter-inch mark.

[+] EnlargeTom Coughlin
Douglas Jones/US PresswireNever one to rest on his laurels, Giants coach Tom Coughlin is forever planning ahead.

On his own medical version of fourth-and-short, Coughlin punted.

"It takes forever to get this thing back," he said of his leg, "and it's not back yet. … But as long as I was able to stand on the sideline it was great. And the players looked at it and respected it, too."

Yes they did. Ryan had disrespected Coughlin and his 7-7 Giants in the days leading up to that win-or-else game, blustering about his Jets being this and that in the marketplace, and the Giants responded by wrecking Ryan's season, by shutting his big mouth. Coughlin had absorbed the brutal hit in the final minutes, and had retreated to the bench after staggering around the sideline as if ready to faint.

But nothing short of an emergency amputation would've stopped Coughlin from making it to midfield to force Ryan to shake his hand. As it turned out, Rex couldn't knock Coughlin out of the ballpark, or talk him out of town.

Coughlin's first baby steps toward Super Bowl XLVI and, perhaps, a future home in the Hall of Fame came in the form of an old man's hobble. "First of all, it's Christmas Eve and after the game everyone wants me to go to the hospital," Coughlin recalled. "I said, 'You're going home to be with your families, you're not going to sit with me at the hospital, and I'm not going to the hospital either.'

"Then I drove to my daughter's, where we had Christmas Eve. I got out of the car and said, 'Oh, this may not have been a great idea.'"

Somehow Coughlin made it through another wildly improbable postseason, another wildly improbable parade, and meets Ryan in MetLife Stadium on Saturday night as the more likely head coach to still be around in 2015, the next time the Giants and Jets play for real.

Ryan is 49, and Coughlin turns 66 at the end of the month. But Coughlin still has as much energy as he always did, not to mention a more stable and consistent program, near-lifetime security with the Giants and, oh yeah, a much better quarterback and team than Ryan's got.

Coughlin won't guess his likely retirement age, but he believes he can coach into his 70s. "My time clock is still exactly the way it's always been," he said. "A quarter to 5 in the morning, up and going."

Coughlin allows himself to sleep in on game days, if a 6 a.m. wakeup call counts as sleeping in. He gets to bed a little earlier than he did 10 or 15 years ago, turning out the lights between 10 and 10:30 p.m., and he admits that his advanced scheduling isn't quite as detailed as it was during his days at Boston College, where he once assured a visitor he could pull a chart out of his desk that would account for every hour of every day of a full calendar year.

"I don't do as well speculating in the offseason anymore," Coughlin said. "Now I can tell you the next seven months."

But the Giants coach concedes nothing else. He badly wants to win a third Super Bowl title, something his mentor, Bill Parcells, failed to do. He badly wants to recapture what was lost in 2008, when Plaxico Burress shot up his leg and blew up the Giants' chance to repeat as champs.

"What I said to our team, and why it's so important that they believe in team, is that all it took was one selfish act," Coughlin said. "We overcame it that Sunday and won a big game in Washington, but eventually it caught up to us, losing a player of that magnitude.

"We were 11-1, and I thought we were the best team in football, and then all of a sudden we're out in one playoff game. … So I think this group gets it and understands it when we talk about team and the sacrifices that have to be made."

Thursday afternoon, while wearing a whistle around his neck, Coughlin ran a precise practice short on extraneous movement and noise. Even the one fight that broke out between Bear Pascoe and Tyler Sash met something of an orderly end as Coughlin walked briskly toward the pile.

"I didn't like it," Coughlin would say in a post-practice briefing that was, you know, brief -- just the way he likes it.

But he stopped on the side to field some questions on his ambitions and his drive. And when Coughlin talks about his drive, his quotes come ripped out of Vince Lombardi's frayed playbook.

"I always wanted to take a group of young men," he said, "to teach them, motivate them, inspire them, and then to accomplish great things in terms of wins on the field."

Only the Giants coach never gets too caught up in those wins on the field, not when there's always another opponent to silence and another trophy to claim.

"We don't think a whole lot about yesterday," Coughlin said. "And maybe one day I'll regret that."

He doesn't regret it now, his refusal to bask in his own glory. Coughlin is only staring down this mulligan on 2008, this second crack at a two-peat, while his noisy neighbor tries to regain control of a team he lost for good on Christmas Eve.

"That one stung," Ryan said of the Giants' conquest. This time around, Rex said he'll offer no guarantees of anything in the market, in the division, in the entire sport. Early in training camp, the Jets coach actually said he was ready to embrace Coughlin's talk-is-cheap, play-the-game dogma.

Coughlin's face tightened when told of Ryan's remark. He didn't mention Rex's name in his response. "When you first come into the league," he said, "you may try to be somebody that's not you, but it doesn't work. You've got to be true to who you are."

Way back when, Coughlin remained true to his core values while loosening up a bit and humanizing himself to his team. Now he's got two championship rings, a new three-year, $20 million contract, and this humble approach to the rest of his career:

"You better make sure they still want you."

The Giants still want Tom Coughlin, and the smart money says they're going to want him longer than the Jets want Rex Ryan.

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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