Once Michael Strahan saw Tom Coughlin in action — his autocratic, Grinch Who Stole Football approach to coaching the New York Giants — he was convinced they couldn't coexist. This was in 2004, when Coughlin replaced Jim Fassel, a spare-the-rod type who was much more popular with the players.
Strahan couldn't do anything about the situation at first, not with a year still left on his contract, but when he became a free agent ...
"I can't play for this man," he told himself. "He's crazy."
He was hardly the only one who felt that way. Even Antonio Pierce, who joined the Giants in '05 after a season under similarly strident Marty Schottenheimer in Washington, found Coughlin hard to take.
"His first two years here," he said yesterday at the team's hotel, "nobody could get along with him. Everybody pretty much hated his guts."
And yet here the Giants are at the Super Bowl, gearing up for their game-of-a-lifetime against the 18-0 New England Patriots. How'd that happen?
Two reasons, mainly. One, because it is possible for a veteran coach to change his ways — especially when facing unemployment and perceived obsolescence. And two, because there's still a place for old school football in the modern NFL.
Make no mistake, said Strahan, this isn't some act Coughlin is putting on. "His demeanor in the locker room is much more at ease. He's smiling. He uses the words 'fun' and 'enjoyment' — and it blows my mind. He's definitely changed, and it's for real and it's for the better."
To look at Coughlin on the sideline in recent seasons — cheeks ablaze, mouth in a seemingly perpetual frown — was to look at a clenched fist. Twice in Jacksonville he had taken his club to the AFC title game and come up short, and now he was failing on the biggest stage of all, New York. His first-pick-in-the-draft quarterback, Eli Manning, was developing uncertainly. His players were questioning, quite publicly, his methods. And after the no-show in the '05 playoffs against Carolina, the 2-7 unraveling at the end of last season, the early retirement of Tiki Barber (not a big Coughlin fan) and the slow start to this season, the media was continuing to wonder: How much longer can this go on?
At halftime of the first Giants-Redskins game four months ago, team president John Mara was wondering the same thing. The Giants, already 0-2, were down by 14 points at FedEx Field, "and I was thinking we'd wind up with the first pick in the draft," he said. "I went to the locker room and told [general manager] Jerry Reese I wasn't sure I wanted to watch any more.
"But Jerry, he's so positive. He said, 'We're better than this.' And then we turn it around in the second half and make that goal line stand at the end [to hold off the Redskins 24-17]. Years from now, that's what I'll remember most about this team."
If Coughlin hadn't been working for one of the NFL's founding families, he probably would have been fired well before then. But the old-fashioned Maras operate differently from most owners. They show a little more patience with their employees — and often have been rewarded for it. By sticking with Bill Parcells, for instance, through his 3-12-1 first season as an NFL coach, they were able to enjoy two Super Bowl championships.
"Stability is a good thing," Mara said. "Tom was supposed to be a lame-duck coach the last couple of years. Every week it was: Are they going to fire him? Are they going to keep him? It's hard to deal with. Sometimes you just have to believe in what you're doing, give people a chance to do their jobs and hope it works out. Sometimes it doesn't."
This time, as with Parcells, it did. The Giants went on to post a 10-6 record and win their last seven road games. Then the playoffs began and, improbably, they reeled off three more victories away from home — at Tampa, Dallas and frigid Green Bay.
But not before Coughlin made one of the season's most fateful decisions: With little to gain, he had his team go all out in the final week against the history-chasing Patriots. A younger coach — a Jon Gruden, say, or a Tony Dungy — might have rested his regulars, particularly with the playoffs starting in just eight days. But Coughlin, being a tough old coot, went for the "W," and the Giants nearly pulled it off, building a 12-point lead before the Pats rallied for a 38-35 victory.
"Playing hard like that, coming off a game of that nature, was a good way for us to go into the playoffs," he said.
So it wasn't just Coughlin's willingness to communicate more with his players — to form a "leadership council" and allow it input on rules, practice schedules, etc. — that got the Giants to Arizona. It was also Coughlin being Coughlin.
Some players rebel against the fierceness of his regimen, he said, "but that's the way the game is. You have to spend a certain amount of time on the practice field, working on things until you get them right. My principles — how we go about winning — haven't changed and aren't going to change."
No, in many respects, Coughlin is still the same coach he was in 1969, when he was getting the football program going at Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology. He was only 23 then, just two years removed from his glory days as a Syracuse wingback, but there was nothing he wouldn't do to win.
Of course, that's because the coach at RIT back then did everything — oversee the offense, the defense, the ankle taping. Even the field maintenance.
"I'd pound the stakes in, run the string from one stake to the other, line the field," he said. "I remember Bob Ford of the University of Albany [then Albany State] showing up one day with three or four buses full of players. And I've got 32 or 33 on my roster — and I'm out lining the field before the game."
Fortunately for him, somebody else will handle that chore before Sunday's Super Bowl. You get the feeling, though, that if the job needed doing, Tom Coughlin would roll up his sleeves — and see that it was done right.