- Ashley Fox
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The texts always come back quicker when things are toughest. The messages are unfailingly positive.
It was dark after the New York Giants lost to the Washington Redskins in Week 15. The score was lopsided, and these were the Redskins, losers of eight of their previous nine games. Compounding matters was that with the loss, the Giants gave up first place in the NFC East to the Dallas Cowboys. The fickle New York fans were howling. Surely the head coach must go.
"Hang in there," Tim Coughlin texted his father. Tom Coughlin's oldest son, the second-oldest of Tom and Judy's four kids, had not seen his father after the game. He certainly wasn't going to call.
The reply was short and almost immediate: "We will be fine."
Coughlin never wavered this season, not after nearly every cornerback on the roster suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason, or after New Orleans torched the Giants 49-24 in Week 12, or after the Redskins game. It is silly to suggest anyone, including Coughlin, could have predicted these past five weeks, what Tim Coughlin described as "the run of a lifetime," that have led us to Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI and a discussion of Tom Coughlin's legacy.
At this moment, just weeks after wandering perilously close to the unemployment line, Thomas Richard Coughlin is on the doorstep of being very much in the conversation for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Win this game against the New England Patriots, and the 65-year-old Coughlin, a history buff and a man who is militaristic in his daily regimen, will likely be in, and deservedly so.
In the twilight of his career, Coughlin would be a two-time Super Bowl champion. One title is impressive. Two is Hall worthy.
There are 21 men in the Hall for their coaching acumen. The most recent inductee was Buffalo's Marv Levy, who went 143-112 in the regular season and 11-8 in the postseason in 17 seasons with Kansas City and Buffalo. As he stands now, Coughlin has two fewer regular-season victories than Levy and the same number of postseason victories. And, unlike Levy, Coughlin won a Super Bowl. Levy won four consecutive AFC championships but then lost four consecutive Super Bowls.
Bill Parcells is up for induction this year for his work with the Giants, Patriots, Jets and Cowboys. He distinguished himself in eight seasons with New York, where he went 77-49-1, 8-3 in the postseason and won three NFC East titles and two Super Bowls.
Coughlin's New York record: 73-55 in eight seasons, 7-3 in the postseason, two division titles, one Super Bowl title and another potentially to come.
If Parcells is considered the best coach in Giants history, then that has to make Coughlin, at the very least, 1A. If Parcells, with an overall record of 172-130-1 in the regular-season and 11-8 in the playoffs, is a finalist for the Hall in his first year of eligibility, won't Coughlin likely get there, too? Won't he be a lock with two Super Bowls to his credit?
Of course, the man with the perpetual game-day scowl and rosy cheeks is not in the mental place to evaluate his legacy. Asked last week what a second Super Bowl victory would mean to him personally, Coughlin talked about the significance for his players, some of whom were on the 2007 team that beat the Patriots and others who have lost Super Bowls.
When pressed, Coughlin said: "It's an opportunity to be in the biggest game again, and that's exciting. That is what you work for. That whole year is about planning and preparing for this opportunity, and for us, this team was pretty much written off at one point in time, and that makes it even more significant for all of us."
Defensive end Dave Tollefson, who signed with the Giants in 2007, perhaps had a more honest take of Coughlin's opinion of his legacy.
"I'm sure if you ask Tom, he doesn't give a crap about his legacy," Tollefson said.
What Coughlin cares about, Tollefson said, is his players. What did he teach them? How did they improve? What kind of men did they become? Did he have an impact on their lives on and off the field?
"I don't know how this all started that Tom's players don't like him, but I don't think there's a guy in here that doesn't play his ass off for him," Tollefson said. "I would think myself that he would do the same for us. If he had to put on some pads and go out there and run around, he'd do it."
What the players see in Coughlin in this most stressful and pressure-packed situation is steadiness, confidence and an unwavering belief that his game plan, his schedule, his coordination of every detail no matter how small, will work.
It was the same way in 2007. Coughlin had a detailed plan for how to navigate the perils of Super Bowl week because he had been on Parcells' staff in the 1990 season, when the Giants beat the Bills in Super Bowl XXV.
"He knew exactly what he was doing, exactly how he wanted to do it," said Steve Spagnuolo, who was in his first season as the Giants' defensive coordinator in 2007. "He took input from his veteran leadership group. He knew how we would handle the week, and you just got the feeling as an assistant and as a player that the man that was leading us knew exactly what he was doing. That comes from the experience of having been through it, and that was invaluable. You talk about what we were up against, can you imagine being up against that and being led by a first-timer in the Super Bowl? That was a huge edge for us."
Told that Coughlin said he would not deviate this week from his 2007 plan, Spagnuolo said: "I think that's a good move. I've got the same plan in my notebook."
The Coughlin family undoubtedly will follow the same plan as in Arizona for Super Bowl XLII. Coughlin's wife and four kids, plus his grandchildren, will arrive in Indianapolis on Thursday. In the hours before XLII, Tim Coughlin and his children (he had two then) visited with Tom in his hotel suite. Coughlin's game plan was spread out in front of him, and his grandchildren climbed all over him.
"I've never seen my father so relaxed," Tim Coughlin said. "It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I think this is similar."
And different. Tim Coughlin said he sees a peacefulness in his father that comes, in large part, from his unwavering confidence in quarterback Eli Manning. He totally trusts this team and its ability to beat the Patriots yet again.
"'07 was great, I mean, I'll never forget it, but I think this is a little more special," Tim Coughlin said. "This team, forget confidence. Walk into the locker room and meeting room, and everyone's on board. This is everything he's ever wanted as a coach. It's a testimony to him.
"My old man lives for someone to root against him; always been that way since I was a little kid. He doesn't flinch. He's as strong as an ox, has faith like no one I've ever seen. I think he's had it all year. He knows who he is, knows his plan works. He loves this team. He's been with Eli Manning for eight years. He loves Eli. He's believed it."
And here is Tom Coughlin, from 7-7 to the Super Bowl, with one game left to go for football immortality and a postgame celebration with his family like the last one, drinking wine and telling stories well into the night.
Maybe then Coughlin could let his mind wander, to consider his life's work and his legacy.
With a win, Coughlin should be in the Hall of Fame, right?
"Should be," Spagnuolo said. "Even if he doesn't win it, he should be."
"Because I know the man," Spagnuolo said. "I believe the coach is a Hall of Famer. I know the man is a Hall of Famer."
Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.
1dDoug Clawson, ESPN Stats & Information