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Kinder, gentler and now a champion - Coughlin makes his mark

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It might be time to dump all those unflattering images of Tom Coughlin yelling at people.

Replace them with pictures of him holding up the Super Bowl trophy.

So long portrayed as an unkind, unbending caricature of himself, Coughlin got recognized as something different Sunday -- a champion after leading his New York Giants to a stunning 17-14 upset of the no-longer-undefeated New England Patriots.

"Other than family," he said, "the greatest feeling in the world is when, all of the sudden, you realize you're a world champion."

His wife, Judy, was standing outside the locker room shedding tears of joy. "Unbelievable," said the wife who has spent the last four decades following her husband through his overworked, somewhat under-appreciated career.

Coughlin has spent 12 of those years as an NFL head coach, and that he outcoached Bill Belichick in his biggest game of all is no huge surprise -- he's always had the Xs and Os down pat.

That he was able to keep his job this long, change his approach to players and get an entire team moving in the right direction took a little more doing.

Coughlin came to New York four years ago with some baggage from his first stint as a head coach in Jacksonville, where his rules and regulations, insistence on practicing in pads, flare-ups with quarterbacks and bad locker room chemistry seemed to override all the good things he accomplished.

He did nothing to dispel the reputation over the first three seasons in New York, and came into this season on the hot seat, one made hotter by the fact that he was in the most critical of markets, and that his record (25-23, no playoff wins) and temperament were less than stellar.

He didn't change his message, so much as he reinvented the delivery -- creating a "players leadership council" -- a small group of veterans who could get the low-down from the coach, then pass it on to teammates.

While Belichick fielded questions about "Spygate" all week, the best story on Coughlin was his supposed transformation.

The Giants opened the season 0-2 and the plan looked like a loser. Then, Coughlin sent a new message: That there was no group of guys he'd rather have there with him.

Soon after, the winning began. Six straight games to become a contender, then a steadily rising arrow for the rest of the year, though not without a few dispiriting setbacks. The defining moment -- and maybe Coughlin's most critical decision -- resulted in a loss.

He played the starters in the last regular-season game against New England even though the Giants had nothing to gain from it.

"The best way to prepare for a difficult challenge is to go through a difficult challenge," he explained again and again during Super Bowl week.

"I should have just printed it out and passed it around," he said after fielding the question for the umpteenth time. Kinder and gentler or not, he admits his pet peeves are "redundancy and wasting time," and sometimes he just can't help lashing out a bit.

But after dealing with the mandatory silliness of Super Bowl week, he headed back to the office, crafting a pretty good game plan along with coordinators Steve Spagnuolo and Kevin Gilbride, a longtime friend and confidante back from their days in Jacksonville.

It was the game plan that finally made Tom Brady look human, that made Eli Manning look great, that put the Giants in a position to win with 35 seconds to go.

It was the coach who made his team believe.

"Every team is beatable. You never know," Coughlin said. "The right moment, the right time, every team is beatable."

On the day that counted the most, the Giants proved it.

And Coughlin -- the changed Coughlin -- showed you don't have to be perfect to be a champion.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.

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