EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In the end, it turned out to be the most telling scene of the New York Giants' season, the story of the distance this franchise has come under Tom Coughlin. They were winning the NFC East championship on New Year's Eve in Oakland, and there was the most improbable of players grabbing the Gatorade bucket, sneaking across the sideline and delivering the coach a celebratory shower.
"It would've been far-fetched," Michael Strahan confessed later, imagining this circumstance just a season ago, when the coach and superstar wrangled in a power struggle for the soul of the Giants' locker room. He couldn't believe Coughlin would fine him for failing to be five minutes early to team meetings, a saga that played out for weeks in the papers and on air.
Last year, they were locked in a death grip that threatened to tear apart a fragile team, but eventually Strahan started to understand something about Coughlin. He was good. No, he was very good. And here was Strahan, advancing in age, still searching for a Super Bowl championship, and ultimately doing what a star is supposed to do: He bought into the program.
"The first year felt like at some points we were more worried about the rules than some other things," Strahan said. "This year, nobody worries about the rules. If guys are late, they understand they're late. This year, there are no complaints. You go ahead and do it, or you don't. If you don't, you just take the fine.
"At the stage that I am in my career, where winning is the only thing that matters, you go by that system. You trust that system. If that system doesn't work, it's not on me. I've done what I can do and tried to give him everything he wanted within the system.
"And the good thing about it is this: His system does work."
Here's a story: The clock would hit 7:40 a.m., at the Sunday morning hotel Mass, and the most impatient of parishioners on game day for the New York Giants had developed a habit of speaking out and saying, "Let's go, Father."
Catholic Mass hadn't been scheduled to start until 7:45, but everyone was there, time was wasting, and well, there was Coughlin prodding the priest to start. "Let's go, Father," he would say. It was time to get Mass moving.
It was Coughlin to the core, as relentlessly consistent on his five-minute early rule with the chaplain as he was with his superstar, Strahan.
"Now, everybody is there at 7:40," Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi says, laughing.
Coughlin has had that influence on the Giants, transforming the cartoonish military caricature that accompanied his arrival to the franchise two years ago into a substance and stability that has resonated within his locker room. From a turbulent beginning, when Coughlin constantly clashed with his players, the Giants' coach has won his team over with consistency and competence.
Finally, they understood that they weren't going to change him. Yet they found out something else, too. He was relentlessly fair, as determined to punish the superstar as the 53rd player on the roster. The Giants wanted a kick in the pants of a coach and delivered Coughlin the clout to rule with an iron fist.
Discipline and structure are making a comeback in sports. It isn't just the NFL, but everywhere. Franchises are desperately trying to restore power to front offices and coaches. With the Giants, 11-5, NFC East champions and meeting Carolina on Sunday in the Meadowlands, Coughlin made everyone sit straighter, listen closer and ultimately perform at a higher level. That's the object with the tough-guy coach.
"It took them to know him," Accorsi says. "[At first] they didn't know him. They had reacted to what they had heard. But the one thing about him is this: You can trust him. There's no guile to him. What you see is what you get. He looks you in the eye and tells you the truth.
"He's not what the first impression is, General Patton. He said something to me when I questioned him in the beginning, 'I want it to mean as much to the players as it means to me.' I saw another side of him, but what I used to say to myself was that, 'Maybe he doesn't want them to see what I see.'"
A decade ago, Bob Hurley had never met Coughlin, but the letter written on Jacksonville Jaguars stationery arrived for the legendary St. Anthony High School basketball coach with the warmest of words. There had been a brief on St. Anthony in the national boys basketball rankings of USA Today, describing how Hurley had thrown his best player, a 7-foot junior, off the team. The decision cost his Jersey City powerhouse a game and a dropped it in the polls.
"You can't have separate rules for different players," Hurley had been quoted. "You have to have the same rules for the No. 1 player as you do for the No. 9 player."
After reading that, Coughlin felt compelled to write Hurley and tell him how much he admired his coaching convictions.
Most of all, Coughlin has been furnished with the talent that was missing in his final losing seasons at Jacksonville. Accorsi has stocked Coughlin's locker room with terrific talent, the most offensive weapons co-owner John Mara says he has seen in his lifetime.
When Mara and Accorsi interviewed Coughlin for the job, the issue of control was raised. Back in the early 1990s, Coughlin had turned down the Giants' job, in part, because of the traditional NFL front-office structure that existed. After taking the expansion Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game within two seasons, things unraveled with the salary cap there, and Coughlin had lost the luxury to demand complete control as an NFL executive and coach.
Nevertheless, his relationship has worked with Accorsi. They don't always agree, but then, John Mara says, "My father [Wellington] always said that if you both agreed all the time, then I wouldn't need one of you."
The GM delivered his coach a rookie quarterback in 2004, Eli Manning, and Coughlin never flinched. He had come to the Giants for the long run, and he bought into the No. 1 pick as the future of the franchise. Manning has made strides, but Coughlin constructed a division champion on the running game of Tiki Barber and a defense restored to respectability.
The Giants don't love Coughlin, but they respect him. They found out that he could help them win, and ultimately, that's what makes rigid rules and regulations work in the pros. Strahan still doesn't love Coughlin, but he needs him. He wants to win. The coach gives these Giants a shot. They'll live with the rest of it.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His new book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, is available nationwide.