|David J. Phillip/AP|
|Tom Coughlin loosened up a little bit in 2007, which helped turned the Giants into Super Bowl champions.|
Tom Coughlin is still riding high on the crest of a congratulatory wave.
"The amount of mail, the amount of e-mail, the amount of voice mail has been overwhelming," he said. "We spend an awful lot of time trying to respond to people. It takes a lot of time."
These days, almost nothing moves quite as quickly as it once did for the coach of the New York Giants. It seems everywhere Coughlin goes -- whether it's New York or Indianapolis, for the NFL Scouting Combine, or South Florida, for the NFL Annual Meeting -- someone is stopping him to offer a handshake or a pat on the back. Pose for a picture, Coach? Sign my hat? Would you make it out to "the greatest Giant fan in the world?"
During the recent league meeting at Palm Beach, Fla., Coughlin could barely take a step anywhere in or around the hotel hosting the event without a club owner, front-office executive, or fellow coach wanting to tell him what a great job he did in leading the Giants to victory in Super Bowl XLII. But it wasn't just that his team had won the league's biggest prize two months ago. It wasn't even that the Giants had spoiled the New England Patriots' bid for perfection, although that was a large part of it.
More than anything, it was admiration of what Coughlin had achieved -- going from the brink of being fired to the top of the football world -- and recognition of his ability to make all of the right moves that helped produce a miraculous finish.
"I think most people in the league took pride and enjoyment from the accomplishment," he said.
They also took a valuable lesson -- that it's never too late to try something different.
Approaching his 61st birthday, Coughlin made major adjustments in the way he had gone about his business during his 12 previous seasons as an NFL head coach and three years of guiding Boston College's football team. He didn't have any choice, of course. Last offseason, the Giants' ownership essentially told him he needed to do something to make himself more approachable to his players and more likeable to the media. It was either that, or lose his job, which was likely if the Giants made yet another early exit from the playoffs or, worse, failed to reach the postseason.
Until now, Coughlin had mentioned very little publicly about the subject, choosing instead to talk in terms of the team rather than discuss his specific role in the Giants' remarkable season.
While in Palm Beach, he revealed, among other things, that some of the best advice he received in how he should deal with his players came from members of his family. Their message: Let your players see you the same way your grandchildren do.
"I don't know if that can be accomplished (in the world of a football coach)," Coughlin admitted. "But one of the things that came along with that was, 'Let the players see that you do you care about them.' I'd always cared about the players, but had never really thought about how I was going to demonstrate that.
"You walk a fine line with everything you do, but one thing I did say was, 'If this is the last year that I'm going to coach, I'm going to have fun with it. I'm going to enjoy it, I'm going to enjoy the players, I'm going to extend to them in a way that I think that they can understand that I do have great appreciation for what their jobs are, what their roles are.'
"My demeanor was different. I bit my tongue a few times. But I was also a little bit more able to let things play out, listen to what was said. I communicated better with them."
The first step was recognizing that he came from the "dinosaur era," while also understanding that today's players are from a different generation with a different way of thinking. As a result, just before the start of the 2007 season, Coughlin formed a "Leadership Council," consisting of 11 veteran players whose primary role was to help him communicate with the entire squad.
The next step was establishing a team concept. Coughlin took advantage of what he considered a perfect opportunity when former Giants running back Tiki Barber made some disparaging remarks about him during a news conference announcing that he had joined the NBC television network. Coughlin showed a videotape of Barber's comments to the team, and pointed out that "isn't the way family members treat each other. And, above all, we're a family."
Other examples of Coughlin's key moves on the way to winning it all:
» He began talking with his players about their regular-season game in London, against the Miami Dolphins, three weeks beforehand. He understood that, because of the special circumstances involved, it was necessary to eschew the one-game-at-a-time mentality so his players would be ready for an experience that would be a far cry from their normal routine. The Giants won a close, sloppy game in the mud of Wembley Stadium.
» He began talking with his players about the regular-season finale against the Patriots two weeks beforehand, because he did not want them to feel like as if they were "being hit with a sledgehammer" when they found themselves practicing on Christmas afternoon.
» Although the Giants already had clinched a playoff spot, Coughlin decided to play his starters in Week 17 against New England. The Patriots won, to finish the regular season 16-0, but the Giants played well enough to gain valuable momentum that carried them on the greatest four-game winning streak in the history of the franchise. Afterward, Coughlin received a voice-mail message from John Madden that he played for his team. In it, Madden said: "There's only one way to play, and that's to win. And there's only one way to prepare, and that is to prepare to win. And there's only one way to take the field, and that is to play all-out and to give everything you have to try to win."
» Before the Giants' wild-card game at Tampa Bay, Coughlin told his players that teams that don't turn the ball over in the playoffs win 86-87 percent of the time. The Giants didn't have a turnover until the Super Bowl, when Steve Smith's tip of an Eli Manning pass was intercepted.
Coughlin insisted he wasn't surprised that the Giants were able to rebound from a 0-2 start. He wasn't stunned that they won 11 consecutive road games.
|Harry How / Getty Images|
|Tom Coughlin pushed all the right buttons down the stretch for the Super Bowl XLII champion Giants.|
"It's always been going forward for me," Coughlin said. "When we started playing well, we were playing very physical, we were winning the physical battles. They were all good games, they were tight games. We were finding a way to win and we weren't turning the ball over.
"When all of those things started to take place, it wasn't, 'Wow! I'm surprised about this.' It was more or less that we were doing the things we thought, if we would play well and accomplish, that we would have a chance to win. And it was happening."
Coughlin isn't bothered by the notion that, despite all of his years of experience, his validation as a top coach didn't come until Feb. 3, when he was hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the middle of University of Phoenix Stadium.
And he shouldn't be. Coughlin was a very good coach before he won a Super Bowl. Yet, his ability to identify and carry out what he needed to do to become a better one has clearly elevated his stature.
Make no mistake. Coughlin is extremely proud of his zero-to-hero story.
"Everybody chases the ultimate goal and what comes with the ultimate goal is the idea of a job well done by everyone involved," he said. "I've always done whatever I was capable of doing to the best of my ability. No matter what year or when, you go as hard as you can.
"But, to be honest with you, you go back in time, whether you go back to '96 or '99 (the two seasons he led Jacksonville to the AFC Championship Game), they were all years in which pretty darned good jobs were done by a lot of people but we just didn't get the ultimate prize. In this situation, it is the ultimate goal that has been accomplished. And that's a wonderful thing."
Even if it means making a lot of unscheduled stops.
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