Giants stick with Coughlin, the coach who doesn’t want the back page

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Tom Coughlin. (Photo via Giants.com)
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Several weeks ago, during his regular post-practice media session, Giants coach Tom Coughlin was asked by a reporter if a certain player’s history of back injuries “concerned” him.

“The fact that you’re standing on my grass concerns me,” replied Coughlin, but with a smile, and the fifteen or so reporters surrounding him laughed in that peculiar staccato bellow unique to assembled sports media. “Yes, everything concerns me.”

It was a representative moment of the progress Coughlin and the New York press corps have made in their relationship since he became Giants coach in 2004. Since then, Coughlin’s persona with reporters has gone from grouchy, dour, and unrevealing to… well, at least able to joke about being grouchy, dour, and unrevealing. For their part, owing in no small measure to the Giants Super Bowl victory in 2007, reporters have mostly stopped excoriating Coughlin for what he isn’t —a compelling, media-friendly personality—and have acknowledged what he is: one of the league’s better coaches and fair-minded man, albeit with some rough edges.

Still, Coughlin—who, the team announced this week, is being kept on for at least another season— is far from canonized. He is respected but not beloved, a fixture in New York but not a legend. All it will take is one bad stretch—one like the Giants just suffered, losing two straight games to squander what once seemed a near-certain playoff berth—for the vultures to start circling again. Some of this has to do with the New York media, to whom anything less than unqualified success is tantamount to total failure. Some of it owes to the Giants’ recent history of poor play in December, the season’s final month, which has reinforced the narrative that Coughlin’s hard-driving, drill-sergeant methods are ill-suited to the long-haul demands of an NFL season.

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But some of it, surely, has to do with Coughlin’s personality and how it comes across through the media. Pro football coaches are more than the sum of their won-loss records. Along with quarterbacks, they are the front men for their organizations. To a public rabid for information about football but largely precluded from analyzing the game’s details by the opacity of the game—does anyone really know whose fault that stuffed run was?—the personas of these front men take on a disproportionate importance.

In this regard, as a personality and not a football coach, Coughlin doesn’t fare especially well. At least not if Q Scores—those market-research measurements of a public figure’s appeal—are to be believed. In early 2008, almost immediately after leading the Giants to a David-versus-Goliath upset of the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl, Coughlin’s positive Q-score was 10. Compare that to an average for coaches and managers of 19, and it’s hard not to wonder why Coughlin can’t catch a break. That year, his negative Q-score was 21 (compared to an average of 23), meaning that at his peak professional moment, more than twice as many sports fans had a negative opinion of him than a positive one. Still, the negative Q-score of 21 represented a large uptick from his score at the sour end of his uneven tenure as the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, when his negative Q-score was an off-the-charts 30.

“A lot of it has o do with what I call ‘the personality of the personality,’” said Henry Schafer, Executive Vice President of the Q Score Company. “He’s a hard-nosed, straight-on guy. He’s not one to be loose with the public.”

Of course, Coughlin would be first to point out the absurdity of discussing Q-scores in an article about a football coach. One of his defining qualities is his aggressive refusal to play the media game, for better or worse. As Neil Best, a veteran Newsday sports columnist who has written about the Giants since the 1990s, said, “Tom Coughlin lacks the vanity that many public figures and pro coaches have. He doesn’t care about his image in terms of being a character or a marketable figure, or going to ESPN when he retires.”

This quality contrasts Coughlin with more celebrated New York coaches who relished their dealings with the media. Casey Stengel would spin yarns for reporters at hotel bars. Bill Parcells invited reporters into the bowels of Giants stadium for off-the-record bull sessions after practice, where he commanded the room with the same seductive, manipulative charisma he used on the field to extract maximum effort from his players. Joe Torre’s ease with the media and comfort in his own skin made the jobs of reporters easy and comfortable. Rex Ryan, Coughlin’s counterpart with the Jets, is a beat reporter’s dream who spews back-page fodder.

Coughlin isn’t like that. While these other coaches embraced that part of the job description, Coughlin can’t wait to get through with these media sessions so he can get back to his job. As Best said, “He doesn’t view it as part of his job to entertain us. A guy like Rex Ryan, you get the bonus of entertainment value. Parcells, he was such a charismatic figure that fans and media had stronger feelings about him. But Coughlin doesn’t share anything of himself with us and the fans. He’s just the guy that shows up to work and goes home. To us, his only priorities are winning football games and playing with his grandkids.”

All this doesn’t mean he’s indifferent to how he’s perceived, (despite his insistence to the contrary). Pete Prisco, who covered Coughlin in Jacksonville for the Florida Times-Union, remembered, “He read every word, and would confront me about everything. Think about it. The guy is a total control freak, and the one thing he can’t control is the media. And he always resented that.”

(Coughlin’s controlling coaching style is well-documented. His lengthy list of rules for his players—including mandating attendance at meetings five minutes before the scheduled time, prohibiting white socks in the hotel lobby and crossing one’s legs during team meetings—is probably the biggest contributor to his reputation as an ogre.)

Still, Prisco has fond memories of Coughlin. He articulated the central irony about Coughlin: For all of his on-field severity, he’s actually a good guy. To a man, everyone I spoke to for his story mentioned his heartfelt commitment to the Jay Fund, his charity dedicated to children with cancer. Coughlin launched the charity after the death from leukemia of Jay McGillis, who played for him at Boston College.

“The thing is, he’s a dick, but he’s not really a dick,” Prisco said. “Deep down, there’s a good guy in there. Of all the coaches out there—including some coaches who are revered in New York—that guy’s moral fiber is through the roof. He’d show up on his own time and talk to sick, dying kids, and he never wanted us to write about it. He was all about family, first and foremost.”

Each source I spoke to mentioned this on-field-off-field dichotomy. Tony Boselli, a star offensive tackle for the Jaguars when Coughlin coached there, was neighbors with Coughlin in Jacksonville.

“What most people don’t realize about Tom is that he’s a really good man,” Boselli said. “I’d come home every day and I’d be so mad about him, and my wife had no idea what I’d be talking about. She saw him in the neighborhood, and all she knew was that he was really kind and friendly.

“I think he could have let down his guard a little [in the workplace], but that wasn’t his personality. You can’t do that too much. There’s a mentality, there’s a toughness, there’s a nastiness and an edge that you need in football. As a player, I couldn’t have acted on the field like I did at home and in the community. That’s part of the game, and as a coach you have to have that too.”

By all accounts, the workplace version of Coughlin has softened in recent years. Stories of his showing his “human side” to players started surfacing in 2007, the year he made a commitment to modify his style after nearly getting fired in 2006. Since then, the meme of a “kindler, gentler” Coughlin has gained some traction.

“These guys are getting the G-rated version,” said Leon Searcy, a Pro Bowl offensive tackle who played for Coughlin in Jacksonville. “We got the R-rated version. The straight drink with no chaser.”

Reporters, who Coughlin reached out to individually before 2007 to establish a clean slate after a tug-of-war during the tumultuous 2006 season, have seen a more patient Coughlin as well.

Best was the first reporter Coughlin spoke with following the 2006 season.

“I told him that we’re not out to get you, and that we’re like you. We’re looking to do a good job and get through the day,” Best said. “The reality in New York is that your team’s life is easier when there’s not media brushfires around you all the time. I think he came to realize that dealing with the media, no matter what you think of them, is ultimately important to your team’s success.”

Now, reporters have reached a satisfactory arrangement with him: They won’t get that much color, but because he adamantly doesn’t play favorites, they won’t get scooped either.

In seven years, Coughlin has gained begrudging acknowledgement that he’s a good coach. But his legacy, considering the time he’s spent here, is still remarkably unfinished. Another year out of the post-season will probably get him fired. If he manages a great year, the New York press will be mentioning him in the same breath as some of the best coaches in New York sports history.