It's difficult to imagine a better scenario than this for Tom Coughlin: After a late-season surge to save the season and win the NFC East, he leads the Giants to his second Super Bowl championship in four years, then walks off into the sunset, secure in his legacy.
Coaches rarely get a chance to go out on top, but Coughlin, 65, would earn that right by winning his next three games. That would erase any lingering questions about whether he's one of the great coaches not only in Giants history, but NFL history.
Only one thing: To those who know him best, chances are he won't be retiring soon, even if he does win it all next month in Indianapolis.
"Tom Coughlin was ordained to coach, and even if he hits the ultimate jackpot again, it would surprise me if he walked away," Ernie Bono, one of his closest friends, said by phone yesterday from Jacksonville, Fla. "He was born to coach, and he has so much energy. He has that same fire he's always had. Wherever he goes, he creates energy. He's energized me, and now I try to energize others."
Coughlin repeatedly has declined to discuss his future after the season, staying with his "take it one year at a time" mantra. He hasn't dropped any hints to his players, and Giants executives agree with Bono that it would be a surprise if he doesn't continue coaching.
A Super Bowl win could change things, but for now, Coughlin will keep living what Bono considers his destiny. And it's not just helping football players; it's helping those in need.
"He's a mentor," said Bono, also 65. "He has an ability to observe things nobody else observes. He'll come into a party, see someone and say, 'There's something wrong with that person.' And what do you know, five days later, you find out there really is something wrong."
Bono befriended Coughlin when he came to Jacksonville to run the expansion Jaguars in 1995. Bono eventually became involved with the Jay Fund Foundation, which Coughlin created in 1996 to honor Jay McGillis, who played for him at Boston College and died of leukemia in 1992. He wanted to give financial help to families with children who have cancer. It has raised millions of dollars, and Coughlin remains heavily involved.
Bono remembers a moment in December 2002, when he and Coughlin visited 2-year-old Lyla Buchnell, who had leukemia.
"The little girl is on the floor, and Tom gets down on the floor, gives her a candy bar and tries to get her attention because she was really ill. So then the little girl says, 'Mommy, I'm going to be OK.' Tom's crying. I'm crying. We found out the next morning she died. It impacted both of us and gave us tremendous resolve to fight leukemia. That's the intensity he has."
That intensity is channeled into his team, which has responded with a late-season surge to win the NFC East and rout the Falcons in a first-round game. They'll face the 15-1 Packers Sunday in the divisional playoffs in a rematch of the 2007 NFC title game. Coughlin braved the sub-zero wind chill, his cheeks beet red, as the Giants won, 23-20, in overtime before upsetting the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Another title run would put Coughlin in distinguished company. Only 12 coaches have won multiple Super Bowls, and six are in the Hall of Fame. Bill Parcells, who won rings in 1986 and 1990, is up for election this year.
Coughlin would take a step toward a potential place in Canton with another championship, joining his mentor, Parcells, and his idol, Vince Lombardi, as two-time Super Bowl winners.
"It would be great if we could see coach Coughlin go out on his own terms, and not leave before he wants to," Giants safety Antrel Rolle said. "He's made believers out of us, and we want to win it for him."
A Super Bowl win, and Coughlin would be hoisted atop the shoulders of his players. But they might not be carrying him off into retirement. Win or lose, it sure sounds as if he wants to come back for more next year.