By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, December 22, 2005
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
I don't know about you, but just looking at Tom Coughlin makes me cold, with his ice-box face, and that freezing stare behind those steel rims. He's got his Giants team jacket on and it's zipped straight up to his stiff neck. Meanwhile, I'm shivering.
You want warmth? Get a kitten. It's not warm around Coughlin. Down in the dungeon-like basement of Giants Stadium, the wind is whipping through the tunnels, flapping at his tightly-pressed khaki pants as he walks away from another deadly-chilly news conference in which he has barely opened his tight-lipped mouth. Coughlin doesn't do warmth, and he won't make it onto anyone's list of most popular men in the NFL. Sometimes, Coughlin tries to lighten up, and make a joke. "Guys just look at him, and don't know if they should laugh or not," Chad Morton says.
But Coughlin has joined a more important list this season, and that's the list of the best coaches in the NFL. Two years ago, the New York Giants were a 6-10 team and on the verge of revolt under Coughlin's cold, martial leadership. Now they're 10-4, and true believers in him. In the last two weeks, they've beaten Philadelphia and Kansas City despite the loss of four key starters to injuries, with Coughlin pasting together reserves and stalking up and down the sideline in a grim competitive fury. He's schooled a young quarterback in Eli Manning, who has barely played a full season, into a major factor, and toughened the formerly fumble-prone Tiki Barber into a contender for the league's most valuable player.
Ask Coughlin what accounts for the Giants' turnaround, and he says, in a voice that sounds like a bark from a hound, "Perseverance."
But Barber says: "It's also a testament to our coaching. I've been here when we had backups who didn't know what they were doing. Coughlin had the antidote."
Coughlin's unsmiling demeanor and reputation as a Patton-like, megalomaniac throwback tend to obscure the fact that he is a superb team builder. Last season, the TV talking heads excoriated him. Shannon Sharpe of CBS said he'd rather "die in an abandoned building" than play for Coughlin. His own players filed union grievances against him. Sports Illustrated took a poll of 354 players -- Coughlin was voted least-liked in a landslide.
Remember how the Giants almost mutinied? According to Coughlin's rules, if you aren't five minutes early to a meeting, you're late. Defensive end Michael Strahan was fined $1,000 by Coughlin for arriving only two minutes early, at 8:23 a.m. Four different players filed appeals with the players' union for similar fines.
His dress code is strictly coat and tie, proper attire required even in the hotel lobby, and absolutely no white socks. No TVs in the trainer's room, weight room or equipment room. Team-issued workout gear only in the locker room and at every practice. No towels hanging from the waist. Socks must be mid-calf. No hats or sunglasses in meetings, and no slouching. Players must sit straight up in meetings, feet on the floor, no folded arms or crossed legs.
"The coach and the players, it's taken awhile to get to where we know each other, and what to expect," linebacker Nick Greisen says. "There was a lot of talk last year about guys not being happy. It's been a big process of the leaders saying, let's meet halfway. That's been the biggest thing this year. Guys are taking ownership."
But the Giants' performance has ratified Coughlin's methods. As it turns out, the rules are for a reason. They aren't arbitrary regulations set by a control freak for his gratification; they're a proven technique, whether you like him or not. With the Jacksonville Jaguars, Coughlin built a team from scratch and took them to three playoff appearances in their first four years, playing for the AFC championship in 1996. A classic Coughlin moment came in 1998 when rookies Cordell Taylor and Tavian Banks got in a car accident before their playoff game with the Patriots, on their way to team meetings. The players were so afraid of Coughlin they went straight to the hotel instead of to the hospital. Coughlin still fined them $500 each. For being late. His point was that if they'd left early enough for the meeting, they might have driven more slowly and avoided the wreck.
"He said he did it to be consistent," one unnamed player told Sports Illustrated. "If they had died, I guess he would've fined their estates."
Coughlin's insistence on dress codes and sitting up straight seems petty at first -- until it starts to pay off. In New York, Coughlin has done it again. When Coughlin marched into New York and implemented his sheaf of nonsensical-seeming rules, there was plenty of "squealing," as Giants GM Ernie Accorsi put it. But anyone who saw the Giants pathetically surrender in 2003, losing their last eight games by an average of 27-10 to finish 4-12 -- knew that a dose of Coughlin's discipline was exactly what they needed.
Coughlin's insistence on military tactics and his meticulous attention to detail can no doubt be aggravating. His daughter once bought him a Dustbuster because of his habit of cleaning up lint wherever he goes. But his meticulousness also means that Coughlin coaches all the way down the roster, leaving no player or position unexamined. It paid off last week in the Giants' 27-17 victory over Kansas City. Their defense was without two starting linebackers and a tackle -- Carlos Emmons was unexpectedly deactivated just hours before the game with an aggravated pectoral injury. Both offensive tackles were injured. But as Coughlin said, "We competed like heck."
Greisen practiced all week at middle linebacker and then spent the whole game at weak-side linebacker, and called all of the signals. Offensive tackles Luke Petitgout and Kareem McKenzie did not play -- which meant Coughlin had to reshuffle his entire line, starting David Diehl at tackle for the first time all season, while left guard Rich Seubert was starting for the first time in two years. Barber nevertheless ran for 220 yards behind them.
What you hear now in the Giants' locker room is respect, if not affection. "I love playing for him, and the thing I respect most is he's so knowledgeable about everything," Morton says. "He knows everything about everybody, including the refs. His attention to detail is incredible. He'll break down every single player. If you do what you're supposed to do, it's not hard to play for him."
It's not easy, either. But the proof is in. Those who do play for him tend to win.