INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Tom Coughlin’s pinched face, ever present on the New York Giants’ sideline during his eight seasons, gives way to a smile more often now. He’ll even crack a one-liner or two.
Funny how a second trip to the Super Bowl in four years can mellow a guy.
In reality, though, the 65-year-old Coughlin is still basically the same coach on the field and definitely the same man off the field.
Discipline, preparedness and execution are his trademarks at the office; family, church and charity work have his attention at home.
”He is who is he is,” Keli Coughlin, the coach’s daughter, said in a telephone interview Friday, two days before the Giants faced the New England Patriots for the NFL title. “I don’t know if that has ever changed. You know exactly what to expect from him and what he expects from you in return. Everybody can appreciate that or being comfortable because you know where you stand.”
“Have I changed?” Coughlin asked rhetorically. “Probably, but I think it’s important as the process of learning. You learn, develop, and change every year. You have to bring a fresh approach each year to your team, especially when you’ve been doing it a few years in the same place. If I’ve changed, it’s been an attempt to motivate and put us in the best possible chance that we can be.”
A history buff, especially military history, Coughlin acknowledges he’s more patient now than earlier in his career. When a player did something wrong, the coach would be all over him immediately. Now, he picks his spots.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is his open-door policy.
Have a problem? He wants to know about it and talk about it.
That’s what he did when safety Antrel Rolle was unhappy with the defense earlier this season and when defensive captain Justin Tuck struggled with shoulder, toe and groin injuries.
Coughlin simply told Tuck to stop focusing on them.
“I think it was, more or less, him seeing that I wasn’t mentally where I needed to be as a football player,” Tuck recalled. “He knew what I’d been going through the whole year as far as the injuries, family issues off the field and things like that. It was more of one of those father-figure things where he called me in his office and just had the conversation like a man-to-man type thing. It wasn’t necessarily about football, but just about how he wanted me to be perceived in the locker room.”
The outspoken Rolle questioned much of what the Giants did in 2010, and felt Coughlin was trying to turn players into men when they were already men. And he resented it.
“Once I matured enough … I took a step back: He is not trying to turn us into men, he is trying to help us become better men,” Rolle said.
Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has worked with Coughlin 10 years, in Jacksonville and New York, and laughs when asked about the “new” Tom Coughlin..
“I think the thing that is his greatest strength is his consistency of his message,” Gilbride said.
“He does some things a little differently, there is no question, but he has always been about what is best for the team. How do we go about our business preparing to win? When you’ve got the right kind of guys they respond to it. When you’ve got guys that are not the right kind of guys, they are resentful and they feel like their personal liberties are being taken away or something. But we’ve got a group of players, and they are responding very well.”
Salsa sensation Victor Cruz knows exactly what Gilbride is talking about. A few months ago, the second-team All Pro wide receiver was attending a birthday party at a New York City supper club when shots were fired and a man was killed.
Coughlin brought Cruz into his office and spoke to him as a father would to a son.
“I don’t know what good happens at 2:30 or 3 in the morning,” Coughlin said. “I’ve never been able to figure that one out. Beyond that is between he and I.”
Typical Coughlin: What happens in the family, stays in the family.
“He is still very disciplined. He wants his players disciplined,” quarterback Eli Manning said.
“Everything is still five minutes early. He wants guys to be on time and to take great pride in their work, be totally committed to the preparation side of football also. You’re out there on that practice field giving 100 percent, being totally focused on what you have to do to get prepared for Sunday. When he sees a team that does that, when he sees a team that has players that expect that from each other, he can relax a little bit.”
That’s what is happening now. The Giants (12-7) are playing their best football heading into the Super Bowl, having won five in a row, including the last two on the road.
“Warmer? Fuzzier? I don’t know if I’d use those adjectives, but he’s lightened up a lot and we made reference to that four years ago when we were here,” said guard Chris Snee, the coach’s son-in-law. “How he kind of changed in that regard, getting to know players more, getting players to know the softer side of him, the side that family members see. He shows that, but then again he still has his beliefs that he sticks to. That’s what makes him more successful.”
A strong devotion to his family does that, too.
“There is nothing that makes him more happy than to have his family around. I know he is thrilled to be here this week with all 10 of his grandchildren,” daughter Keli said. “They all won’t be necessarily at the game, but they will be sharing in the experience, so that is special.”
Aside from the Giants and the Coughlin Clan, there’s also another group near and dear to the coach: members of the military.
He traveled to Iraq in 2009 to visit the troops and he has had a close relationship with Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, an Army officer who lost his legs in combat.
Whenever Coughlin notices military personnel in the stadium or on the road, he never hesitates to stop and say hello; his players usually follow his lead and do the same.
In the offseason, Coughlin devotes to his Jay Fund Foundation, a charity that helps families deal with childhood cancer. He founded it to honor one of his first Boston College players, Jay McGillis, who died of leukemia, and serves as president of the board.
Visiting sick children is part of the job.
“He relates to them, whether it’s a sick child who is working with the fund or a family member,” said Keli, who serves as executive director of the fund. “He is always concerned how people are doing. He is a caretaker. Maybe that’s just his personality.”