|Nicer? Tom Coughlin says he's just communicating better. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)|
GLENDALE, Ariz. - The annual Super Bowl Media Day extravaganza invariably features a collection of oddballs masquerading as journalists who attempt to draw attention to themselves by wearing outlandish get-ups and posing inane questions that will elicit the most shock value.
It was against that backdrop yesterday that a boy, no more than 8 or 9 years old, was handed a microphone and platform. He made a beeline for Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who, spotting the junior inquisitor, leaned over in almost a grandfatherly fashion and tenderly attended to his question.
"I hear you've been a lot nicer this year," said the child.
Coughlin recoiled as if someone had popped him in the nose.
"Who put you up to that?" said the coach, to gales of laughter.
"I certainly made up my mind to do a better job of communicating with the players," said Coughlin, smiling. "I think that maybe that's what you mean."
As we eagerly await the actual football game connected to Super Bowl XLII, the only Giants theme that's getting more play in the desert than the older, wiser Eli Manning is the kinder, gentler Tom Coughlin.
Veteran Michael Strahan has been promoting the transformation of Coughlin throughout this surprising Giants run of 10 straight road victories, repeatedly dubbing his coach "a changed man."
"I'm telling y'all, sometimes I don't even recognize him anymore," Strahan declared.
Listening to Strahan's testimonials, you'd almost believe Coughlin was hosting pillow fights and campfire sing-alongs.
In fact, what Coughlin has done, after processing input from his veterans following last season's disappointing and often rocky 8-8 campaign, is listen better, share more, and yell a little less.
A changed man? Sorry, I'm not buying it, but not for the reasons you might think. During his brief tenure at Boston College, Coughlin proved to be a gruff, hard-nosed disciplinarian. He could be terse, even abrasive. I'll never forget the time BC was about to play Miami at home in the midst of one of those bone-chilling New England cold snaps. I mentioned in passing that it was too bad the game wasn't in Florida. Coughlin retorted that he was glad the game was in Chestnut Hill and he hoped it was so cold that icicles would be dripping from noses.
He said it with passion and conviction, and I loved it. He was an intriguing kind of leader who, beyond his hardened exterior, proved to be insightful, engaging, and yes, nice.
Coughlin was so moved by the death of one of his BC players, Jay McGillis, who lost a battle with leukemia in 1992, that he started a foundation in McGillis's memory to assist families with expenses connected to caring for children with cancer. He kept that foundation thriving while he was the coach at Jacksonville, and continues to raise money for the cause as coach of the Giants.
"The way Jay fought his illness, with so much integrity, with more concern for his family than himself, I'll never forget it," Coughlin explained. "And he made such a lasting impact on his teammates. The way they responded to him when he was ill was just incredible.
"I made up my mind to help families deal with one of the most difficult ordeals of their lives. Most of them drop everything to care for their child, but in the meantime, the bills go unpaid - the car payment, the mortgage, the insurance.
"The spirit of Jay lives on through this foundation."
That foundation was created long before Coughlin underwent this supposed metamorphosis into a swell guy who suddenly learned how to express his feelings for his players.
When Coughlin left BC for pro football, I suspected he would be a rousing success. He had the focus required to tackle the intricacies of the game. He was fearless, ultracompetitive, a stickler for detail.
He also proved to be a coach who demanded regimentation. He not only expected his players to be on time - he expected them to be 15 minutes early. He was obsessed with winning, obsessed with optimal performance, and at times, he forgot to stick his head up and take stock of his team's mental state.
"You get so focused, you go from one thing to the next and sometimes you don't even recognize what you've accomplished," Coughlin said yesterday. "Even if you are winning, you tend to think about the next one."
His tunnel vision proved to be his biggest strength and his biggest weakness, not unlike another young coach who crashed and burned with the Cleveland Browns before he reinvented himself as a hooded genius in New England.
Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin share a number of traits. They are detailed, dedicated, intelligent, innovative. They attacked their jobs as fellow assistant coaches of the Giants with the same fervor and dedication, and now will try to outmaneuver one another using similar mind-sets.
Few coaches have been able to prepare a game plan as thoroughly and as tirelessly as Belichick, but in Coughlin, he may have finally found his match.
The Giants coach conceded yesterday that he has already begun to try to forecast the schemes that Belichick will implement to upend his team and his young quarterback.
"You have to do that," Coughlin said. "It's whether you guess well enough."
There's no question Coughlin has learned a few things in the NFL. This season he established a leadership council of veteran players (among them Manning, Strahan, punter Jeff Feagles, and Antonio Pierce) with whom he discussed various team decisions. He has tried to improve his personal relationships with his guys, but still remains an intense, hard-nosed tactician who will not accept mental errors or a subpar effort.
So what has changed about Coughlin? He's winning, and everyone loves a winner.
Just as some Patriots players grudgingly learn to accept, even admire Belichick's hard-line approach to football, so, too, have the Giants come to realize the value of Coughlin's single-mindedness.
"It's a mutual thing," said Coughlin, when asked how his philosophy has evolved. "I don't know how you change who you are or what you believe in."
The transformation of the Giants and their coach is still a work in progress. Coughlin winced a bit when notified that his receiver, Plaxico Burress, had boldly declared the Giants would beat the Patriots, even providing the 23-17 final score.
"It's not what we aspire to do," Coughlin said. "I want us to do our talking on the field."
They will have their chance Sunday.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.