For such an innovative enterprise, the NFL is alarmingly retrograde in some ways.
Every winter, some forlorn owner buries his head in the recycle bin to find his next head coach. It generally fails, which is why the same owners tend to draft high and aim low.
But there could be an exception. Somewhere in the gaggle of canned head coaches are a few who have coached in a Super Bowl, and fewer who have won one. For whatever reason, Brian Billick, despite his epic IQ and close proximity to the sport, doesn’t even get a look. Jon Gruden seems to be the only member of his exclusive “FFCA” clique whose name is regurgitated yearly.
But there’s a former headset-wearing boss who bagged two Lombardi Trophies: Tom Coughlin.
When the New York Giants all but handed Coughlin a pink slip — Coughlin technically left his post, but would have been canned had he bolted his office door — some assumed he was to ride off into the purple sky. At his tender age, he would surely fade between the soaring silos of industry that belch smoke along the NJ Turnpike.
But then you know nothing about Tom Coughlin, who was destined to leave MetLife with more than an insurance policy. If anyone is a coaching lifer, fated not to fade but rather leave the gridiron feet-first, it’s the ornery, cherry-faced coach who led his beloved Big Blue to two Super Bowl wins.
To this day, New Yorkers are split over the move. Those who still adore Coughlin’s military approach to our nation’s favorite sport thought he got a raw deal. Even those who didn’t love Coughlin kept a grudging respect.
He’s old enough to get Social Security checks, yet no NFL coach has more energy, passion, fervor or devotion to the coaching craft than Coughlin. He’s built like a man half his age, keeps the hours of a drill instructor and can’t help but speak — on any topic — lathered in football metaphors.
More than one iconic coach — including Pat Riley, who knows something about winning — has said that no matter how intense or innovative your coaching coda, your message will fall upon indifferent ears. So it was with Coughlin, who didn’t lose his coaching touch on his 69th birthday.
More than wins and losses, only one number keeps Coughlin off an NFL sideline — 70, his age on August 31. If this were anyone else under, say, 60, his cell phone would be hopping like a frog off the table. But even if its subliminal, or subconscious, the big wigs of pro football are surely considering Coughlin’s age before they pick up the phone.
While the NFL won’t say it suffers from rampant ageism, it’s no coincidence that Bill Belichick is the only man within a year of age 65 wearing the head coach headset.
The Giants, Coughlin’s former employer, just robbed the coaching cradle by hiring Ben McAdoo, who, at 38, is the latest in a trend of teams getting younger on the sidelines. He worked for the Steelers, who literally bagged Mike Tomlin out of nowhere. But the Steelers are an aberration when it comes to coaches. Tomlin is just the third man to bear the black & gold since man landed on the moon.
Surely the ancillary thought is also that Coughlin is so frigidly tethered to his boot-camp coaching ethic that he can’t bend his ear or his ways to the contours of the modern athlete. Indeed, when he first arrived at the Meadowlands, he told reporters that injuries were largely a thing of the mind.
So veterans like Michael Strahan were quick to rebuff the old-world ideology. But rather than engage in a gridiron tete-a-tete with Strahan, Antonio Pierce and others, Coughlin adapted a more pliable approach, keeping his ears, eyes and door open to suggestions. He even created a kind of team council to keep abreast of players’ concerns.
This, along with his coaching acumen, got Coughlin two Super Bowl titles. And when you consider his lack of leverage in today’s NFL, with very few teams open to hiring AARP veterans, Coughlin would surely be as flexible as ever. You won’t find a person on earth with a better bio, including 20 total years — eight with Jacksonville and 12 with the Giants — as an NFL head coach.
The perfect marriage, the best confluence of timing and talent, is the team that is a kick in the pants away from serious contention, a club whose window is wide open right now, and will shut in three years. Think of San Francisco when Jim Harbaugh applied his magic to the 49ers.
Maybe Coughlin didn’t handle Odell Beckham Jr with proper aplomb, but he’d be the perfect conductor of a gridiron orchestra that just needs someone to keep the beat.
The Giants did the right thing in moving on from Tom Coughlin. It was simply time for something, or someone, new. You can decide whether his replacement will fill Coughlin’s shoes. But you can be sure that Coughlin still has his coaching shoes on, and is ready to run a team toward a title.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.