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Tom Coughlin lightened up, just a little, and his Giants have responded.
By JOHN ROMANO, Times Columnist
Published January 20, 2008
[Getty Images (2006)]
GREEN BAY, Wis.
The petty tyrant is smiling. Not a malevolent smile. Not even a slightly evil smile. It's hard to be certain, but this looks like a completely harmless, relatively human smile.
The grumpy taskmaster is ordering a recess. Right in the middle of training camp. Blowing off a meeting, and bringing 70-some players to a local bowling alley for a night of relaxation.
The old man is going wiggy. Has to be, right? Because, surely, this isn't the same Tom Coughlin we knew and loathed for all of those years in Jacksonville.
Yet, here that familiar coach is, back in the playoffs, back in a conference championship game. And with a supposedly reinvented version of his old self.
Where do you go, at 61, to find your inner child? I mean, is he hiding behind the inner bully? The outer grouch? And is an inner child allowed to use all those four-letter words?
Or maybe this has nothing to do with some practice field pyschobabble. Maybe Coughlin just got nervous. Maybe he realized his job, his reputation, his entire legacy was on the line.
Maybe he knew he had no choice.
Of course, if you were looking for that type of reflection from the Giants coach last week, you didn't have a prayer. He might have gotten gentler, but he hasn't gone completely gooey.
"This is not about me, it is about our team, it is about the New York Giants, it is about our players and our coaches and the challenge that you get each week in the National Football League," Coughlin said at a news conference last week. "That is what this is all about, it is not about me."
Still, others say the change is obvious. The signs are all there. And the proof is on the scoreboard.
The Giants went from chokers last season to stormers of the castle this season. They are only the second wild-card team to reach the NFC Championship Game in the past 15 years.
So how did this happen? How did a team of turmoil become one happy, Giant family? And how did Coughlin go from nearly curmudgeon to practically cuddly?
You have to remember, this is a coach with zero tolerance for anything other than his own despotic commands. He used to forbid his assistant coaches from wearing sunglasses on the practice field - in Florida. He had rules about what types of socks his players could wear - on airplanes.
He decreed clocks be set 10 minutes fast so players who dared show up only a few minutes before meetings would actually be late.
This was the type of silliness that drove some players to distraction during Coughlin's eight years in Jacksonville. And it was the type of ridiculousness that drove some players to loudly complain in New York.
Jeremy Shockey once complained the Giants were outcoached after a disturbing loss to Seattle. Tiki Barber said the same sort of thing after a playoff loss to Carolina. Whether they were truly questioning Coughlin's acumen or just rebelling against his tyranny is open to debate.
But by the time the Giants limped home with seven losses in their final nine games of last season, it was clear Coughlin's act had grown stale. For several days after a playoff loss to Philadelphia, Giants ownership met with Coughlin to discuss his future. Or, lack thereof.
Finally, it was announced Coughlin would get a one-year contract extension to avoid the appearance of a lame-duck coach in the final season of his contract in 2007. Team owners also suggested he lighten up.
To Coughlin's credit, the message got through. Training camp was noticeably softer. Not as many two-a-days. Rules were loosened. A casino night was held after a minicamp, and the bowling outing shocked many in training camp.
"I think he made more of an effort," receiver Amani Toomer said this week. "And I think making an effort was enough to win over most of the players."
Naturally, this is all relative. Compared to most coaches, Coughlin is still a hard case. He isn't glib, and he doesn't stand for much foolishness. He is still straight out of the Bill Parcells school of coaching.
And that, by the way, is a relevant point today. The Giants are two victories from winning their first Super Bowl since Parcells was on the sideline in 1990, with Bill Belichick as defensive coordinator and Coughlin as receivers coach.
Coughlin has accomplished much since then. He had a successful run as coach at Boston College, and he was looking like a genius when he took expansion Jacksonville to a pair of AFC Championship Games in the franchise's first five seasons.
But his reputation had faltered considerably in the new millennium. He was fired after three consecutive losing seasons in Jacksonville, and he was 25-23 without a playoff victory in his first three years in New York.
A lifetime of work was threatening to go up in a puff of discontented smoke. Had he been fired after all of the player complaints last season, it is hard to imagine Coughlin would have gotten another chance to be an NFL head coach.
So he changed. He adapted. Coughlin got softer and, ironically, his grip grew firmer.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified January 19, 2008, 20:19:09]