And if there’s a better lesson in faith in a man, as the Giants’ ownership showed in Coughlin; in redemption, and in the ability of even an old dog to learn new tricks without giving up what made him good at his job to start with, I don’t know of it.
I don’t know that anyone will ever call Coughlin’s the feel-good story of the year; he’s not the huggable sort of fellow who inspires such tales — unless you’re partial to hugging porcupines wearing prickly pear overcoats. Just the same, what he’s done is the sort of accomplishment you can hold up to your kids as an example of never giving up, believing in yourself — all those good things we look to sports to teach us.
He’s taking his Giants and their 8-1 record on the road to Green Bay to play for the right to go to the Super Bowl. And if you’d thought to lay a bet on that last year at this time, you’d have gotten odds that were off the charts.
That’s because back then, to have called the Giants’ coach a dead man walking would have been an insult to dead men. Your great-grandma’s ashes on the mantle had more life in them than he did.
He had just finished his third year as coach of the Giants, a disappointing 8-8 season in which the team somehow made the playoffs after finishing the year 2-6. Somehow, he squirmed into the playoffs with that mediocre record, but any hope was quickly snuffed in a first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia. It was his second straight trip to the playoffs and second straight first-round loss.
At that point, his regular-season record was 25-23, and that was probably the best of it. His star running back, Tiki Barber, quit after the season rather than play another year for a man he accused of sucking the joy out of football.
In his three years of non-accomplishment, he had been called a martinet, a tyrant and a petty dictator who made Attila the Hun look like a yoga instructor. His players were questioning his leadership, his strategy, his methods and probably the brand of soap the team used to do its laundry.
Coughlin had never been what Giants fans wanted. When Jim Fassel was tossed overboard after a 4-12 season in 2003, they were hoping for someone young and charismatic. Instead, they got an old crab who had been run out of Jacksonville by a mutinous team despite twice taking that expansion franchise to the NFC Championship game.
But the Giants ownership — the Mara family has always been uncommonly loyal — decided to let him finish out his contract. He promised them a couple of things. One was that he would get quarterback Eli Manning to raise his level of play. Another was that he would bring in new offensive and defensive coordinators. Finally, he agreed to quit having so many annoying rules.
Few people outside the Giants’ front office thought it would work, because these things never do. Go ahead, try to come up with a list of coaches who have done what he’s done; who have been written off as out of touch with the times and then come back as conquering heroes.
I supposed you could cite Joe Torre as Exhibit A. He was fired by the Cardinals, the Mets and the Braves, and when the Yankees plucked him out of a broadcast booth to manage the team in 1996, the tabloids greeted him with headlines of “Clueless Joe.” But he did pretty well.
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