Chris Mara was only 12 years old when he stood on the sideline for the first preseason meeting between the Giants and Jets at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Conn. He'll never forget the look on his father's face after the Jets, who had won Super Bowl III only seven months earlier, walloped the Giants, 37-14, in front of more than 70,000.
"He was absolutely livid," Mara, now the Giants' vice president of player evaluations, said of the reaction from his father, former Giants president and co-owner Wellington Mara. "Just seeing his face in the locker room, you could tell. Both teams were fighting for New York in terms of who was more relevant, and it was very important to him."
Wellington Mara didn't say much after that game, but it didn't take long to realize the depths of his outrage. Even though it was only a preseason game, Mara couldn't contain himself much longer. After two more preseason losses, he fired coach Allie Sherman before the start of the regular season, replacing him with former Giants running back Alex Webster.
With the teams now set to play the most important game in the 43-year history of the Giants-Jets rivalry, and the stakes even higher, another loss to the Jets on Saturday might have similar ramifications. If Tom Coughlin can't beat the Jets and outspoken coach Rex Ryan -- whose father, Buddy, was on the Jets' coaching staff in 1969 -- the oldest of Wellington's sons could very well have the same reaction in response to a loss.
With plenty of talk coming from both sides in the most widely anticipated Jets-Giants game ever, one man who hasn't said a peep in public is John Mara, who succeeded his father as the team's president and co-owner. He declined a request for an interview about the game earlier this week.
But having watched Mara during his tenure as the team's chief executive, as well as the many years before that when he was the team's lead attorney, my sense is that these next two games will decide whether Coughlin will continue next season or whether his run -- which began in 2004 and featured the team's third Super Bowl championship in February 2008 -- will come to an end.
If the Giants lose to the Jets and eventually fail to make the playoffs, I believe Coughlin is out. The only way he can save his job now is if he can somehow get into the postseason. And even then, there are no guarantees, especially after the team got to the halfway mark at 6-2 and went through yet another second-half slump.
There is plenty on the line for the Jets, too; a win here, and their hopes of a third straight playoff run remain intact. But regardless of the outcome of Saturday's game, this much is certain: Rex Ryan's fate is not in doubt. Win or lose, he is back next season.
Coughlin, though, clearly is fighting for his job. The fact that he's doing it in a late-season game against the Jets makes the backdrop all the more dramatic. Facing Ryan's Jets, who have captured this city's imagination in much the same way as Joe Namath's Jets wrested attention away from the Giants more than four decades ago, Coughlin is fighting against a worthy opponent and is fighting against history.
"The Giants were the main team in town until we won the championship ," Namath recalled of the buildup to the 1969 preseason game, in which he threw three touchdown passes. "So this was the first time things could finally be settled on the field. There was a lot of pride at stake on both sides, and as corny as this sounds, it was for bragging rights. Back then, Jet fans took a lot of crap from Giant fans because they'd won championships. So it was very important to us. I think the fact we beat 'em so badly turned out to be the final straw for getting Mr. Sherman out of there."
And if Namath's beloved Jets pull off another win Saturday at MetLife Stadium, the ramifications could be the same for Coughlin. It's that big a deal to the Giants. It's that big a deal to the Maras, now in their third generation of owning the franchise.
Giants-Jets 2011. The biggest one yet. Especially for the Giants' head coach.