One of the best things about Tom Coughlin: He is never, ever about Tom Coughlin.
Even now, as he prepares for what could be the final game of his 12-year run with the Giants, he refuses to let this be about him. This, despite the fact that this is all about him.
With speculation swirling that the Giants are ready to move on after four straight seasons without a playoff berth, Coughlin prepared for Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Eagles at MetLife Stadium the same way he always has: with great resolve, with all the attention on his players and with not a peep of self-indulgence — even if the moment screamed out for the coach to at least acknowledge that this could be it for his potential Hall of Fame career.
“[The speculation] is not going to affect anything in terms of how I go about my business this week,” Coughlin said Monday. “I will tell the team not to be distracted by it . . . The situation is not about me.”
He said essentially the same thing on Wednesday.
“Basically I said [to the players], ‘Don’t worry about me or my situation. Let’s prepare ourselves to play an outstanding football game.’ ”
And again on Thursday.
“What I want to do is win a game on Sunday. That’s the bottom line for this group right now,” the 69-year-old coach said. “I always have the competitive spirit. Sometimes it takes me a day or two to figure it all out when it’s over. Right now, let’s stick with the game and let’s go win a football game.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever been around a coach with less ego than Coughlin, whose relentless attention to detail, preparation and straight-shooting style make him one of the most upstanding people you will ever come across in sports.
His dignified manner has earned him the respect of countless players he has coached and all of the people he has come across in the course of his career. Team owners. Team executives. Employees at every level of the Giants’ organization, including security guards, secretaries and equipment managers, along with the families of everyone who helps prepare the Giants to win football games.
Even reporters, whose job includes questioning his strategy and performance.
Coughlin has never flinched in the face of adversity; in fact, he has done some of his best work when circumstances have appeared the bleakest.
The Giants staggered at various points in each of his two Super Bowl championship runs, but he set the example for two teams that eventually gathered themselves, got hot in January and defeated the seemingly unbeatable Patriots in the Super Bowl.
He is the only coach to ever beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, and you will never hear either man say one negative thing about Coughlin. Such is the respect he commands.
So as he nears the end of a week in which he clearly was the center of attention among the fans and the media, he has done everything within his power to make this as normal a situation as possible for his players — even though he understands they will be swept up by the storyline at some level.
But Coughlin has never been about Coughlin, so he will coach a meaningless regular- season finale with the same gusto as he would a Super Bowl, and he will do so with the single-minded purpose with which he has coached every game and every practice in his long and distinguished career.
With most signs indicating that the Giants are leaning toward making a change, Giants fans ought to appreciate all the good that this man has brought to the organization.
He has coached for an eternity in the toughest town in pro sports, spending a dozen years inside the crucible of New York in a league in which patience is hard to find among demanding owners and fans.
Coughlin first came to the Giants in 1988 as a taskmaster receivers coach, getting every last ounce of talent out of a middling group of wideouts. He was part of Bill Parcells’ staff that won Super Bowl XXV, with backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler throwing a touchdown pass to a diving Stephen Baker, one of Coughlin’s charges.
Coughlin then went to Boston College, where he previously worked with Doug Flutie as BC’s offensive coordinator and revived the program as head coach from 1991-93. Coughlin’s crowning achievement was a 41-39 win over No. 1-ranked Notre Dame in 1993, the first time Boston College had ever beaten the Fighting Irish.
Coughlin went on to coach the Jacksonville Jaguars to the greatest success by an expansion franchise in NFL history, leading the team to the AFC Championship Game in only its second year of existence and returning the conference title game three years later.
And after a year off in 2003 following his firing in Jacksonville, Coughlin took over the Giants from Jim Fassel and eventually transformed them into two-time Super Bowl champions, matching the accomplishment of Parcells, his NFL mentor.
He and Eli Manning conquered the mighty Patriots to win both Super Bowl titles, the first a colossal upset of 18-0 New England in Super Bowl XLII, a game whose signature play was David Tyree’s spectacular one-handed catch in which he pinned the ball to his helmet. The second came four years later in Indianapolis.
The parades down the Canyon of Heroes paid tribute to Coughlin and his two championship teams the way only New York can, and Coughlin earned well-deserved praise for the extraordinary jobs he did. And, of course, he deflected all the attention to his players, living by the credo he often has espoused over the years: “When we win, it’s the players. When we lose, it’s my fault.”
If this is truly it for Coughlin, what a career it’s been. And what a celebration he deserves from every Giants fan who has benefited from his long and distinguished stewardship.
The end may be near, but there’s one more game for Coughlin, a coach for whom pride still matters. Everyone who shows up at MetLife Stadium for what could be his finale ought to stand up and cheer for a great coach and a great man.