Friday, December 5, 2008

A Love Song For Tom Coughlin

Belichek is a master, one of the best ever. Mangini is "Mangenius." And Bill Cowher is "on everybody's Christmas wish list" according to Sportsline.com.

But no one ever speaks of Tom Coughlin in those terms. He's never been called a "genius," nor an "innovator." The only story we seem to get with him—when sports reporters choose to analyze the "unsexy" story that is Tom Coughlin—is that he's a disciplinarian. He's a hard case. Always working his, and others, butts off. Not that he's a winner.

Which he is. Before his pro coaching career even began, he took a Boston College team that went 9-24 in the 3 seasons prior to his being hired there, and led them to a 21-13-1 record for the three seasons he was there, including a huge win over #1 ranked Notre Dame. His quick turnaround of the BC football program led him to be hired by the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, where he performed his magic again. A noted tough guy, Coughlin took the expansion Jaguars, full of free agents and rookies, to the AFC Championship game twice, in 1996 and 1999, compiling the best record for a new team, ever. He won coach of the year in 1996.

But perhaps his best coaching in Jacksonville came after the Jaguars had to jettison a boatload of their best players. In the early 2000s, Jacksonville ran up against the salary cap and had to release/not resign/leave unprotected, a whole slew of their stars, including offensive tackle Tony Boselli, defensive tackles Seth Payne and Gary Walker, linebackers Kevin Hardy and Hardy Nickerson, defensive end Renaldo Wynn, wide receiver Keenan McCardell, cornerback Aaron Beasley and kicker, Mike Hollis. All of them starters.

Coughlin coached the Jags through these tough times and kept them competitive, getting castoffs and rookies to work hard, week in, week out,—even though he admitted they had more talent his first year as an expansion team than they did in those years. After taking over in 2003, current Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio reviewed the 2002 season—the last Coughlin coached in Jacksonville—and said it was one of the best coaching jobs he's seen.

Despite posting a 68-60 record in Jacksonville, Coughlin was canned and spent the 2003 out of football. He was then hired as head coach of the New York Giants in 2004—a move not popular with fans or especially with players, who didn't like his "disciplinarian" reputation. Coming off a 4-12 season, the veteran Giants squad immediately rebelled against Coughlin, publicly complaining about Coughlin and secretly leaking information to the papers in an attempt to undermine his regime. Jeremy Shockey publicly stated, after a loss that the Giants had been "out-coached." Tiki Barber stated, after a loss that the Panthers said they, "...knew what they were going to do before they did it." Michael Strahan as well, complained that practices were too tough and questioned if Coach Coughlin knew how to run a veteran team. Noth Strahan and Barber criticized that Coughlin worked (there's that word again) them too hard. "...we were in full pads for 17 weeks...." Barber complained after he retired.

Add to this was the fact that Coughlin chose to take his lumps early—by benching Kurt Warner and starting Eli Manning 5 games into his rookie season—a move not popular with fans or veterans, both of whom felt that Coughlin had given up on the season.

When it rained.... Tiki Barber's public announcement of his pending retirement at the end of the 2006-2007 season led to constant media speculation that Barber's dislike for Coach Coughlin led to his early retirement—which it did. This despite the fact that Coughlin's adjustments of Barber's running style led to Barber having the best seasons of his career.

Despite all the criticism, complaining and backstabbing from his veterans; despite mentoring a very young under-confident quarterback, Coughlin continually got the Giants to succeed and improve—leading them to a 19-13 record, one NFC East championship, and playoff berths in the 2005 and 2006 seasons. However, despite the improvement, Coughlin was figured to be out of a job after the 2006 season. The Giants brass however, gave Coughlin a one-year extension to his contract.

And what did Coughlin do with that lame duck one-year contract? Well, all he did was teach his young, skittish quarterback to grow up and become the quarterback everyone knew he could be. He left Tiki Barber in the dust and gave a young, unheralded, running back trio of Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward the reins—and they complimented each other beautifully. The offensive line—a worry coming into the season—through continual practice and work, gelled wonderfully and is now heralded as the bedrock of the team.

Oh yeah, something else Coughlin did......pull off the greatest comeback and upset in Super Bowl history. While on the road for the entire playoffs. As underdogs in every game.

Sure, ok. Now, what do you do, Tom, for an encore? When the adrenaline wears off? When complacency sets in? When Jeremy Shockey is complaining the entire off-season? When Plaxico Burress wants a new contract? When Michael Strahan retires and Gibril Wilson leaves in free agency?

Just do your work. Keep your players focused. When Shockey shoots his mouth off to ESPN the Magazine, when Plaxico shoots his leg—just keep your players focused. And go 11-1, the best 12-game start in Giants history—better than your mentor, Bill Parcells ever did.

So what if Belichek gets all the praise and love from ESPN? So what if every one waits with baited breath for Cowher to announce who will be gifted with his coaching? You don't mind, do you Tom?

No, you got a game Sunday, and it's time to go back to work.

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