Coughlin-Belichick: same yet very different
They come from the same coaching tree, disciples of Bill Parcells. That and a no-nonsense approach are what Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick have in common.
Otherwise, the men who have done some of their best coaching to get their teams to next Sunday's the Super Bowl are very much opposites. Coughlin, the offensive guru, is demonstrative on the sideline, his face getting redder with every snap. Belichick, the defensive mastermind, is stoic, unemotional, seemingly detached -- even as he manipulates everything from under his hoodie.
The players take after their coaches, too. The Patriots follow Belichick's never-say-anything-revealing lead; the Giants tackle tough questions with verve.
Eli Manning, who has flourished under Coughlin's tutelage and now must be ranked among the game's elite quarterbacks, says the Giants not only appreciate Coughlin's style, but become better players because of it.
"Just the way he prepares, the way he gets his team ready, his messages." Manning says. "The way his attitude is portrayed onto the players and the players kind of take on that attitude in their preparation and approach to play."
Coughlin once was almost unapproachable, so set in his ways that players feared him more than respected him. That changed before the 2007 season, when a group of Giants veterans asked him to "loosen up," as Michael Strahan, then a star defensive tackle, described it. They believed Coughlin's intense, even relentless approach caused friction throughout the team.
To his credit, Coughlin saw the merits to opening up, did so, and the Giants went on to win the Super Bowl, shocking the 18-0 Patriots for the championship.
Coughlin showed his sense of humor during the buildup to that game when asked if, because the Giants were stronger defensively, would they consider kicking off to New England's record-setting offense if they won the coin toss?
"What," he said with mock astonishment at the prospect, "and give them one more time with the ball?"
By all accounts, the 65-year-old Coughlin has gotten even looser the last few years, although former punter Matt Dodge wouldn't support that view. When the rookie's kick down the middle of the field on the final play against Philadelphia was returned for a winning touchdown by DeSean Jackson, Coughlin looked ready strangle Dodge.
The Giants have one of the more relaxed locker rooms in the NFL, but when it's "business time," as defensive end Justin Tuck says, nothing has changed.
Players still need to be early to meetings, and clocks remain set 5 minutes ahead at the training facility. When the Giants fell to 7-7 in December with an ugly loss to Washington, Coughlin didn't allow panic to set in. He simply presented the scenario that if New York won its last two games, it would win the NFC East. And from there, as the Giants proved in 2007, anything truly can happen.
Fear certainly has turned to respect among his players.
"I am happy for coach Coughlin to be back in this game because he is coaching me and that means I am back in this game," Tuck says. "I think he deserves it and he has done a great job of continuing to believe not only in himself and what he brings to the table, but also because of this team. At 7-7, everybody and their mom was counting us out, but he just stayed persistent and stayed true to who he is as a coach and a person.
"It trickles down when you see a person has faith in you when nobody else does. It is kind of easy for us to continue to have his back and do our best. We have been rewarded for that."
Among Coughlin's rewards: He can coach the Giants for as long as he wants. Even as fans in New York, among the toughest places to coach or play in pro sports, were calling for his dismissal as the Giants underachieved in the regular season, the organization never gave it any credence. Owner John Mara laughingly says he kept a "Fire Coughlin" folder with emails urging just that, and was tempted to respond to those messages after the Giants beat San Francisco last weekend.
"I'm pretty sure you will probably have to drag him out of here," says Giants guard Chris Snee, Coughlin's son-in-law.
There are no such movements to send Belichick packing. Only Tom Landry coached his team to five Super Bowls, and given his work this season, when the Patriots were down to using wide receivers in the secondary and plagued by inexperience in some areas, Belichick was at the top of his game.
Not that he would ever compare this season to any other, at least not publicly. For the 59-year-old Belichick, there is the here and now. That's it. Ask about the past Super Bowl wins or the 2008 loss to the Giants, and he dismisses them as irrelevant to next Sunday's game at Indianapolis.
"I don't really think there's any other way to do it," Belichick says. "What else is there to work on but the game, the next one on your schedule, the one that you're playing? You try to cover all your bases for that game, you play it, and then you start the process all over again with the next one."
Coughlin, on the other hand, sees value in the past, particularly in examining the history of the franchise "and the great players who have been here and achieved some great things."
Belichick and Coughlin won a Super Bowl together in 1990 with some of those great Giants, Belichick as defensive coordinator, Coughlin as receivers coach. Coughlin eventually went to coach Boston College and Belichick had a failed stint as head man in Cleveland.
As part of the NFL coaching fraternity, they stayed in contact through the years as Coughlin built the Jacksonville Jaguars from scratch as an expansion team to a contender, while Belichick rejoined Parcells with the Jets before departing for New England in 2000. Coughlin was hired as Giants coach in 2004 -- the last season the Patriots won the NFL title.
"We've talked about common problems," Belichick said. "He's shared things with me and I've shared things with him. But I mean, that's part of a friendship, that's part of a mutual respect that we have. We both have similar positions within the same league, so there's some of that. We're not in the same conference, so it's a lot easier than talking about something with somebody that's within your division, let's say."
Now, they are in the big game again, and one of their former peers and a Super Bowl winner, Tony Dungy, says what we have always seen is what we will get Sunday.
"We do what we do best and we're going to be fine. We just have to execute," is how Dungy sums up Coughlin's philosophy. "You can pretty much know when you play them: We know what we're going to have to deal with, but you'd better be ready for it; you'd better not make any mistakes because his guys aren't."
As for facing Belichick, who Dungy beat in the AFC championship game before winning the Super Bowl after the 2006 season, it's "What are they going to do different? What's going to be the wrinkle? How are they going to try to take different things away? What are they going to show you that you haven't seen?"
"It's always anticipating on the fly and being ready and withstand that first salvo," Dungy says. "You pretty much know you're going to get some different wrinkles, especially in this type of situation where you've played them several times."
The last three times they met, Coughlin more than held his own against Belichick, going 2-1, winning the biggest matchup of all, 17-14 four years ago in the Arizona desert.
Regardless of how things go in Indy, Coughlin will be marching up and down the sideline, slamming his play chart to the ground when peeved, vigorously clapping when satisfied. Always demonstrative.
And Belichick, decked out in his Patriots hoodie, will impassively view the proceedings, somehow seeming aloof even as he is in total control.
Two coaches from totally different limbs on the same football tree.
AP Sports Writer Rachel Cohen in New York contributed to this story.