For one last time, Tom Coughlin stood on the stage in the Giants’ meeting room. He offered his thanks for the privilege of coaching the Giants for 12 years and his pride at delivering two Super Bowl championships to this storied franchise. He spoke passionately about people he touched along the way and the coaching philosophy that carried him through the career of a lifetime.
He choked up in thanking his wife, Judy, who has been by his side all these decades, and he grew emotional when addressing the only starting quarterback he ever had with the Giants. Eli Manning’s eyes welled and his bottom lip quivered when the coach told him this failed season wasn’t the quarterback’s fault. Coughlin repeatedly pounded the lectern to emphasize how deeply he felt about team chemistry.
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“My contention is there is a higher ground, a greater purpose,” he said, channeling his inner Vince Lombardi. “That purpose is team. It is the team concept. Winning, losing, playing hard, playing well, doing it for each other, winning the right way. That’s what motivates and inspires us. Championships are won by teams who love one another, who respect one another, who play for and support one another.”
Coughlin provided a glimpse into what he told his players over the years, and his spine-tingling oratory hit home for anyone listening to the pride-filled speech he delivered upon his departure from his beloved Giants. It was one of the finest displays of class, dignity and passion you’ll ever see from a man who has walked the NFL sidelines. Or coached in any sport.
“It’s been an honor and a privilege for me to be the 16th head coach of the New York Giants,” Coughlin said. “You only dream about it as a kid. There’s no way it can possibly happen. I’m from a little town, Waterloo, New York, up the way here, five thousand people, black and white television when I was a kid, watching the Giants and the Browns. That’s about the only two teams we could get. So for me to stand here as the 16th head coach of the Giants, at the conclusion of a 12-year term, it’s quite an awesome experience, to say the least.”
Coughlin went out the way he came in: with head held high and with no misgivings about the message he imparted to so many players over the years. He gave the Giants 12 years of relentless work and delivered two more Lombardi Trophies that sit proudly in the lobby of the team’s handsomely appointed training facility. He knows the last three seasons weren’t up to his standards, and understood it was time to walk away.
But rest assured that whoever succeeds him will have an imposing legacy to deal with. Coughlin leaves behind a team that continued to play hard and support him despite underwhelming results since he last won the Super Bowl after the 2011 season. And if you heard him Tuesday, you understood why that loyalty persisted, even through the lean times.
He cited the legendary UCLA basketball coach to underscore his message.
“John Wooden said, ‘Reputation is what people think of you. Character is who you really are,’ ” Coughlin said. “Character. We try to develop the character of each man who walked through these doors. Character is what endures. Relationships have become the primary objective in my career.
“I still have a hard time when former players, guys who we battled together, they’ve been corrected, I’ve been mad at them, they’ve been mad at me, so on and so forth, after a year or two, sometimes not even that long, they walk up to me and say, ‘I love you, Coach.’ When that first happened to me, I didn’t know how to respond. I was like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. This is a big, old tough-guy business. We’re not supposed to be able to say that and do that.’ ”
But players understood once they left the game that Coughlin’s only purpose was to make them better, that his criticism was directed only for their good.
“They say they’ve become better men, better husbands, better fathers, better friends because of their experience having been a New York Giant,” he said.
Coughlin said he’s not sure what lies ahead, except that he’ll devote a good amount of energy to his charitable foundation, The Jay Fund, which helps families who have children with cancer. It’s a cause that’s been close to his heart since his former Boston College player Jay McGillis died of leukemia in 1992.
But Coughlin, who will be 70 in August, didn’t close the door on football. “I’m not necessarily done with coaching,” he said.
If he doesn’t pursue any of the five other vacancies around the league, there’s a chance he’ll stay with the Giants in an advisory capacity, something he and John Mara have discussed.
The team president and co-owner made it clear it was Coughlin who first approached him about stepping down, although there wasn’t any argument from Mara. “Twelve years is a long time to be a head coach in the NFL,” Mara said. “It’s just time. It’s just time. I think he realized it more so than anybody else.”
But Mara knows Coughlin leaves behind an indelible mark on his team.
“I believe it is the unbreakable bond between coach and player that defines me as a coach,” Coughlin said. “And any humble success we might have had here as New York Giant coaches. With that, I will see you all next time.”
The man, this coach, will be missed.