This is the storybook ending that any coach in any sport in any era would ask for: You spend a lifetime building up to this moment, with a chance to win a championship when the odds are stacked against you and a chance to finish your career the way only a handful ever do: on top of their sport.
For Tom Coughlin, that moment has arrived. At 65, he is one win away from his second Super Bowl title and an opportunity to leave the sport at his highest point and achieve his legacy as a potential Hall of Fame coach.
Except for one thing.
As Coughlin prepares to take his team to Indianapolis Monday for a week of preparation leading up to Super Bowl XLVI, ending a terrific career as an NFL coach is the furthest thing from his mind. And as for that storybook ending, you might as well find another story and read another book, because that's not for him.
"I go back to John Wooden," said Coughlin, referring to the great UCLA coach, a role model and mentor for the Giants' sideline boss. "He always said, 'You'll know when it's time.' And I will tell you this. I really don't feel that way right now."
Wooden himself retired at the same age as Coughlin is now, and Coughlin recalled the story of the Hall of Fame college coach's final game. Shortly before the 1975 title game against Kentucky, he told his players that this would be it.
"Regardless of the outcome of the game, I never had a team give me more pleasure," Wooden said in an interview with UCLA magazine. "I'm very proud of you. This will be the last team I'll ever coach.''
But Coughlin said there will be no such speech to his players before the Giants face the Patriots and Bill Belichick, with whom he coached on the Giants' staff under Bill Parcells in the 1980s and 1990, the team's second Super Bowl season.
"Don't forget, I got started in this thing a little bit later than some in terms of my first head- coaching job," said Coughlin, who took over at Boston College as head coach in 1991 but didn't join the NFL head-coaching ranks until 1995 with the expansion Jaguars. "It's a hard business, but it's not hard when you get on that rise and your team is doing well."
And Coughlin feels as invigorated now as ever. I asked if he has as much energy as he did when he was an NFL assistant with the Giants. "Right now, this moment?" he said as his eyes grew wide, his smile broadened and his voice rose. "I got more."
Coughlin can become the oldest coach to win a Super Bowl, surpassing former Rams coach Dick Vermeil, who won Super Bowl XXXIV at age 63. Coughlin was 61 when he led the Giants to victory in Super Bowl XLII after the 2007 season. But take it from Vermeil, one of Coughlin's closest friends: Going out on top isn't all it's cracked up to be.
He retired from the Rams after Kurt Warner led the team to the Super Bowl title.
"I made a mistake by retiring, and I went back for five more years with Kansas City," he told Newsday. "I realized I still wanted to coach. But Tom has a great amount of energy, and he has got as many years left in him as he wants to invest."
And with a roster loaded with talent that includes such stars as Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks, Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, Coughlin may want to enjoy this ride for quite a bit longer. "When you're riding this way," he said, "there's nothing like it."
It's stunning to think that Coughlin was fighting for his job just last month, when the Giants were struggling to emerge from a four-game losing streak before making the playoffs in Week 17. The run is reminiscent of Coughlin's 2007 season, when the Giants qualified for the playoffs in the next-to-last week of the regular season and then won three straight road playoff games before beating Belichick's undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
"Tom is just what New York needs," said Vermeil, who led the Eagles to a Super Bowl berth after the 1980 season, then retired from coaching in 1982 because of burnout before returning with the Rams in 1997. "He can handle the external pressures and keep the team in proper perspective and still operate and function as a great leader. Someone not as stable within their own personality may not be able to handle the constant bombardment when you're in New York."
Vermeil grew close with Coughlin when he was the head coach at Boston College in the early 1990s and Vermeil was a television analyst. "I saw him take slightly above-average talent and beat teams that had superior talent at Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan," Vermeil said. "I was on his practice field. You can see it in him. You can feel it. Tom is a very loyal individual and he really cares about his coaching staff and his players."
From being on the hot seat to now being mentioned as a potential Hall of Fame candidate, Coughlin remains unaffected by it all. "I just put the blinders on, go to work and be the best you can possibly be," he said. "Once you've done everything that you possibly can, you've put forth your greatest effort, I can live with whatever's next."
He's hoping what comes next is a second Super Bowl title. And maybe some more later on. Getting to the top is what's on his mind, not going out that way.