8:55 am Sep. 26, 20122
Forget the Hall of Fame. It’s the myth-making treatment of NFL Films that turns the men of pro football into legends. And tonight is Tom Coughlin’s official bronzing.
Coughlin is the subject of tonight's installment of “A Football Life,” the NFL Network’s Emmy-winning, hour-long documentary series.
This will be enjoyable to Giants fans because it can’t not be: Seeing your team celebrated on an NFL Films production and seeing your team celebrate on the field are one and the same. Plus, the show puts forth Coughlin as a paragon of an old-school athletic morality, for which virtue isn't so much found in winning, as in the commitment and self-sacrifice that goes into it.
This notion of Coughlin as a man of integrity dovetails with the Giants’ brand, which is awash with nostalgia for a bygone era when men were men, and doing the right thing was simple, but not easy. That idea was reinforced two Sundays ago, when Coughlin reacted angrily to Tampa Bay’s attempts to hit Eli Manning, even after the game had been decided. Coughlin, offended on principle, stormed onto the field to find Tampa's upstart coach, Greg Schiano, and lecture him about football’s unwritten rules. Schiano didn’t do things the right way, and Coughlin couldn’t abide.
But this is well-trodden territory by now, and that’s the trouble with the show. The screaming sadist of Jacksonville in the late 1990s has long been excised from the public imagination, replaced by the cranky, but ultimately decent, grandpa of East Rutherford.
The show covers the old narrative of Coughlin’s 2007 “transformation,” during which he performed such humane acts as taking the team bowling after practice one day. He even loosened his autocratic grip on power by creating a player leadership council, which has since been disbanded.
Through anecdotes of old teammates and friends, and testimonials of former players like Fred Taylor and Michael Strahan, who hated him at first but finally came around, the show repeatedly makes the point that Coughlin’s a good guy underneath that ruddy scowl. But that’s something football fans have been hearing about for years.
To illustrate this “softer side,” the show gives a heavy treatment to Coughlin’s relationship with his wife, Judy. It’s a loving, mutually respectful relationship, though its traditionalism verges into near-uncomfortable territory: While Judy handles all matters of home and hearth, Tom is dedicated to his job to the point of absenteeism.
“I was a single mother nine to ten months out of the year,” Judy tells the camera. Her tone isn’t one of complaint, but rather acceptance. “You knew what you were getting into,” Tom had told her long ago, during one of their many moves in Tom’s peripatetic coaching life, and that was basically that.
While “A Football Life” is no masterpiece, it’s good enough. And there’s enough fresh archival and candid footage to make it worthwhile.
A clip of Coughlin as a running back at Syracuse University, wearing number 49, taking a handoff and breaking into the open field, is a relic of an era when football players were more rugged dudes than electrifying athletes.
There’s a priceless shot of Coughlin and Eli Manning, who is holding his infant daughter. “Hiii! Hiii!” Coughlin says in sing-songy, high-pitched babytalk, leaning down and in.
“Say, ‘Hi, Coach!’” Eli replies in kind.
There are plenty of shots of Coughlin the family man, but none more revealing than behind-the-scenes footage of when he threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium this past summer. While waiting to go onto the field, two of Coughlin’s young grandsons “got in a scrap,” as Coughlin recalls with fondness, in his flat upstate New York accent.
“You punched him in the eye?” he asks the aggressor, who admits that he did. Coughlin hesitates, as if searching for the right words to gently admonish the boy.
But then he says: “You hit him with your elbow or your fist?”
WISELY, THE SHOW FOCUSES ON THE OBSESSIVE SYSTEMATIC meticulousness that defines Coughlin as a coach. Larry Csonka, his teammate at Syracuse, recalled that he had notes on the proper way to do everything, including how far away to stand from the urinal. Quarterbacks who he coached, from Doug Flutie at Boston College to Randy Edsall at Syracuse, share similar stories about his minute attention to footwork; their feet had to be at an angle of 5:30, and not 5.
This obsession with detail as it relates to time is a central theme for Coughlin, whose meetings famously start five minutes before their scheduled time.
“What time does this 3:20 practice start? 3:15, right?” he says to a Giants assistant in an old clip. It underscores that to play for Tom Coughlin is to accept that you’re in his world, in which Coughlin Time applies and real time does not.
“Time is very important to me,” he narrates in the show. “I don’t wanna waste anyone’s time. And don’t waste mine.”
It’s a fitting fixation for a football coach, because coaching football is nothing so much as synchronizing 11 different parts in time.
Coughlin's other obsession is instilling competitiveness, and the two are of a piece. In being five minutes early to everything and requiring his team to do the same, Coughlin and his team are, in a sense, perpetually defeating the clock.
Coughlin’s most famous lesson in competition is now the stuff of football lore: During the last game of the 2007 regular season, with the Giants having already clinched a playoff berth, Coughlin eschewed the custom of resting his starters, and played his full squad against the New England Patriots, who were aiming to make history with a 16-0 regular season.
After the Giants’ narrowly lost that game, in a spirited performance, John Madden left Coughlin a voicemail, thanking him for honoring the spirit of competition that gives meaning to a football life.
“Anyway, I’m a little emotional about it,” says the former coach, choking up. “But I was so damn proud of what you guys did.”
Coughlin played the message for his team before the next practice. Everyone knows what happened subsequently. (The Giants ruined the Patriots undefeated season in the Super Bowl.)
The notion of “competitive greatness” was at the very top of John Wooden’s famous Pyramid of Success. Not surprisingly, like nearly every coach, Coughlin is a devout follower of Wooden’s teachings: “When I read about Coach Wooden and the principles that he believed in, I mean, to me it was like reading the Bible,” he says.
If the show has a transcendent moment, it comes with the revelation that Wooden, in his later years, wished he had knocked “Competitive Greatness” down a peg and replaced it with “Love.”
The show cuts to Coughlin the night before Super Bowl XLVI. In grainy, meeting-room footage, he tells his team for the first time that “I am man enough to tell you guys that I love you.”
Good stuff for Giants fans, and a little sappy for everyone else. But it works, actually, as a convincing moment of a man who realizes there’s more to a football life than competitive greatness.
“Tom Coughlin: A Football Life” premieres Wednesday night at 8 p.m. on the NFL Network.
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