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Jaguars still hold Tom Coughlin in high regard

Giants head coach Tom Coughlin looks on against

Giants head coach Tom Coughlin looks on against the Arizona Cardinals at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014 in East Rutherford, N.J. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Tom Coughlin is back where it all began.

Not just for him, but for a whole NFL franchise.

Coughlin was the first head coach of the expansion Jaguars, hired in 1994 to set the foundation for the team and finally lead it onto the field for the start of the 1995 season. It was his first tenure as a head coach at the professional level, too. In that way, he and the Jaguars share a symbolic birthday.

Sept. 3, 1995. The Jaguars lost to the Houston Oilers, 10-3.

"I remember the tremendous buildup for the first game, the excitement of the fans,'' Coughlin said this past week. "I remember the flyover. I remember they had the entire stadium carded. It was magnificent the way it went around. It was all keyed at the right time. It was beautiful. It was a great thing to watch. You could feel the excitement. The fans were incredibly into it, and that's what I remember.''

Well, not the ONLY thing.

"We had a chance to win, too,'' he said of a loss that still rankles him 19 years and two Super Bowl victories later. "We had a chance to win. It was against Houston but it was close. We missed a ball up in the corner of the end zone that could have tied it. But we obviously played outstanding defense. We just couldn't score.''

Sunday most likely will be Coughlin's final game in Jacksonville. His future with the Giants is uncertain, thanks to missing the playoffs for a third straight season, but even if he does stick around for a few more years, the Giants aren't scheduled to return to play the Jaguars until 2022. At that point Coughlin will be 76 years old. And the Jags? They may be in London or Los Angeles or, by that time, Las Vegas.

Sunday also happens to be Coughlin's 300th game as an NFL head coach.

"For a young guy, it's hard to believe 300 games,'' he chuckled. "I must have started when I was 15.''

What does that milestone mean to him?

"Right now,'' he said, mired in a six-game losing streak, "not much, to be honest with you.''

It means something to the people of Jacksonville, though. Coughlin hasn't coached the Jaguars since he was fired after the 2002 season, but his Jay Fund still operates from the city and he still casts a long shadow on the franchise.

He took the Jaguars to the playoffs four times in nine seasons, winning four games and playing in the AFC Championship Game twice. Since he left, the team has made the playoffs twice in 12 seasons. The Jaguars have won only one postseason game and have not advanced past the divisional round.

"I know at some of the events I go to, he is held in very high regard,'' current Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said. "We have a lot of people in our building right now that were here when Tom Coughlin was here. A guy like Mike Perkins, our video guy, holds him in high regard. You just never hear anything other than great things about the man. I know for me personally, the time he spent with me and the wisdom he has shared, I really appreciate our relationship.''

It's no coincidence that the Jaguars are holding their annual Alumni Weekend when the Giants and Coughlin are in town. Former Coughlin players such as Tony Boselli, Jeff Lageman, Mark Brunell and Fred Taylor are among the 47 former Jaguars who are expected to be in attendance at the game.

Coughlin tried to downplay the significance of it all, but it's clear that the Jaguars always will hold a special place in his heart.

"We've traveled to Jacksonville before. I've been very appreciative. The fans have been great when we return back there,'' he said. "It will be the same; my family will all be there at the game. I understand it's alumni day, so it's obviously a day of a lot of emotion going back there. I will certainly be appreciative of all those things, but just as the Jaguars will be, our full intention is to get ready to play a game and win a game.''

Neither of the teams has had much success with that lately. And just as the first loss in Jacksonville still gnaws at him, the recent ones with the Giants have Coughlin grumbling.

Then again, it wouldn't be Coughlin in Jacksonville if he weren't cranky and cantankerous and in less than a playful mood. Perhaps that's the best way he can pay homage to the city in which he became an NFL head coach and developed his style of no-nonsense gruff.

"Not nostalgia,'' he said when asked if he had any emotional pangs about the return. "We're hungry to win. That's all.''

It's just one of the many ways that numbers 1 and 300 are identical.

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