Jerry Reese called Tom Coughlin into his office on Jan. 16, 2007, telling the coach to close the door behind him. This was the first conversation for the Giants' newly-named general manager and the head coach, and Reese wanted to let Coughlin know right from the start where he stood.
"The first thing you need to know about me is this," Reese said. "Losing is not an option."
Coughlin smiled broadly as he heard the words come out of Reese's mouth. "You're my kind of guy," Coughlin told him.
"We probably spoke for an hour and a half, two hours," Reese said the other day, recalling that initial conversation. "We talked about everything. I said, 'Coach, I'm forthright, I talk out loud, I don't talk in a disrespectful way but I call it like I see it. We have to fix what's wrong and figure out how we win the next game and get into the playoffs."
A little more than a year later, the two men would celebrate their first Super Bowl title, and the first for the Giants since the 1990 season, when George Young and Bill Parcells were the general manager/coach combo. And last February, Reese and Coughlin matched the two Super Bowl championships of the Young/Parcells era, as the Giants beat the Patriots for a second time in the Super Bowl.
In a sport where the coach-general manager relationship is vital to a team's success, yet potentially hazardous when it comes to coexisting when their priorities are at odds, Reese and Coughlin have had a seamless relationship. It is built around the trust that two men from vastly different upbringings and different generations so quickly developed for one another. It was a major component of one of the Giants' most successful runs in team history last season. This year, the two will attempt to combine for the franchise's first-ever Super Bowl repeat. The partners
The Young-Parcells relationship eventually deteriorated over their eight seasons together, and Parcells left the organization after his second Super Bowl title. But the Reese-Coughlin partnership is as strong as ever, with no hint of discord. This despite the fact that both men come from divergent backgrounds, with football as their common denominator.
Coughlin, who turns 66 on Aug. 31, grew up in the tiny upstate New York town of Waterloo, where he was a three-sport star. He attended Syracuse University and played a position whose name -- wingback -- is not even used as part of the football vernacular. A backup to Larry Csonka and Floyd Little, Coughlin opted to remain at the school despite his reduced role behind the two future Pro Football Hall of Fame runners. A great admirer of Vince Lombardi's demanding style of coaching, Coughlin worked his way up the coaching ladder, first as a graduate assistant at Syracuse, then as head coach at Rochester Institute of Technology and then as an NFL assistant who eventually worked under Parcells during the Giants' Super Bowl run after the 1990 season.
Reese, nearly 20 years Coughlin's junior at age 49, grew up in the small town of Tiptonville, located in the extreme northwest corner of Tennessee. An undersized quarterback for his high school team, Reese won the 1980 1-A state championship for the Lake County Falcons, and then played at the University of Tennessee-Martin. Reese was an assistant coach there from 1986-93, and actually had designs on becoming the team's head coach. But he was convinced by Giants scout Jeremiah Davis to join their scouting department. Reese was promoted to director of player personnel in 2004, and was selected as the successor to the retiring Ernie Accorsi after the 2006 season.
He became the first African American general manager in the team's history, and was one of only two black GMs at the time; Baltimore's Ozzie Newsome was the other. Giants president and co-owner John Mara, who selected Reese as GM, said he wasn't concerned about the differences between his coach and top personnel man.
"I knew both of them were professional enough that they'd be able to deal with each other in a respectful manner," Mara said. "Tom respects Jerry's opinion, and Jerry respects Tom, so I think they interact very well. They meet all the time and they both are usually on the same page."
Reese explains their unique bond this way.
"In a lot of ways, opposites attract," he said. "I have a perspective where I come from and what I see with my eyes, and we try to match them together along with everybody else in our front office."
Clash of the titans
There have been some trying moments, though, particularly on personnel issues. Two moves in particular led some people outside the organization to perceive a rift in their relationship: wide receiver Steve Smith's decision to sign with the Eagles as a free agent last year and the loss of injured tight end Jake Ballard, who was claimed on waivers in the offseason by the Patriots.
But Reese takes issue with the suggestion that he and Coughlin butted heads on either move. He called any controversy about the Smith move "ridiculous." "Nothing happens personnel-wise that I don't talk to the owners and the coach about," Reese said. "That stuff is great fodder for you guys to write and it made it look like there was some contention between Tom and I and the owners. That's b.s."
Coughlin initially seemed miffed that the Giants had lost Smith, but now believes Smith simply didn't want to return. "Quite frankly, the more I learned about it, the more I felt that Steve was headed in another direction," Coughlin said.
The coach admits frustration about losing Ballard, but it is not aimed at Reese. "It's no one's fault, but it's just disappointing at the time," he said. "It's something you have to get over."
Reese knew the Giants were taking a gamble by exposing Ballard to waivers, but felt no team would claim him because he will miss the entire 2012 season with a knee injury. "We didn't think it would happen, because he had ACL and microfracture surgery in February. We sure wouldn't claim anybody like that. But to say that Tom was upset with me, that's ridiculous."
Reese has been especially astute in the draft, acquiring players such as All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and the undrafted Victor Cruz, and unrestricted free agents such as safety Antrel Rolle, linebacker Michael Boley, and defensive tackle Chris Canty. All were major contributors in the Giants' most recent Super Bowl run. Overall, there have been many more personnel hits than misses.
And Coughlin has put together some extraordinary seasons on the sidelines, often in difficult circumstances. Both Super Bowl runs required four playoff wins, and the team had only one home playoff game. In both Super Bowls, the Giants beat the favored Patriots, including their 18-0 team in 2007. In last year's Super Bowl run, the Giants overcame numerous injuries.
"I admire his will to win and his preparation to win," Reese said. "Put his record up against anybody. Anybody."
For better or worse
There have been some low moments, too. The Giants started 11-1 the year after they won the first Super Bowl in the Coughlin-Reese era, but lost their first playoff game just weeks after Plaxico Burress shot himself at a New York nightclub. The following year they went 8-8 -- before the season, Reese felt it was his most talented team. And in 2010, the Giants blew a 31-10 fourth-quarter lead to the Eagles and missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record.
After the game, Coughlin said he sat at home in a darkened room for hours, thinking about where it had all gone wrong. Reese was one of the few people in the organization Coughlin drew solace from. Yes, even the strong-willed coach needs support, and a lot of it comes from his general manager.
"He knows exactly when to boost me up, and he does a great job of that," Coughlin said. "He'll come in during the worst of circumstances and . . . create some kind of a positive picture, that it's all in front of us, put that one behind us. Let's move on. He's really done an outstanding job of that with me personally."
Their partnership continues, as both men seek to match last year's championship run with another. Not only would the Giants become the first team in franchise history to repeat, but they would win a fifth Super Bowl title. Only the Steelers (six), 49ers (five) and Cowboys (five) have as many or more. "We both believe that it's not about who's right," Coughlin said. "It's about getting it right and getting it right for the New York Giants."