They all told Tom Coughlin to take something off his fastball after the 2006 season, to stop making a tough job even tougher. After the Giants considered firing Coughlin, John Mara, Jerry Reese and other team officials advised him to change his boot-camp approach to the players and the press, to everyone and everything.
But the head coach always answered to a higher authority than the front office — his bride, Judy. She ordered her husband to make things fun the following season, so Major Tom Coughlin was going to have fun in 2007, even when his grandkids charged into his hotel room on the morning of Super Bowl XLII and turned his game plan for the 18-0 Patriots into their own little art exhibit.
“They were drawing animals, anything you can think of, all over my notes,” Coughlin once told me. “It was very funny. They were using me as part of their chair, crawling on me like I wasn’t even there. It was very relaxing to me.”
Two days later, after the team traveled from the parade and ceremony back across the river for a Giants Stadium pep rally, Coughlin stepped off the bus holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy and walked toward two of his grandchildren, Emma and Shea, so they could touch it. Beneath his hard-ass methods, Coughlin’s humanity was always there. You just had to be in the right place to see it.
The Giants’ former two-time championship coach just wrote an essay in The New York Times about the incurable brain disorder known as progressive supranuclear palsy, which has slowly but very surely taken his Judy away from him. She was forever a vibrant, wide-smiling figure in postgame scrums, humanizing her scowling husband with her mere presence. Now, Coughlin wrote, Judy spends her days in her bed and wheelchair, her ability to speak and move almost completely gone while she’s “trapped inside a body that will not allow her to be the person she was.”
Coughlin wrote movingly of the struggle he has faced in the transition from consumed football man to 24/7 caregiver, and in the battle with his own feelings of anger, frustration and helplessness brought on by his wife’s darkest days. Judy always wanted her husband to show the public Tom Coughlin the man, and not just Tom Coughlin the coach.
I’m pretty sure she just succeeded.
But the players who won those two Super Bowls for Coughlin had seen a softer side of him long ago. He famously established a leadership council of veterans to better connect with the locker room and he famously canceled a 2007 training-camp practice to take his team bowling. The players felt free to get all over him for throwing some unsightly gutter balls, and everyone agreed it was progress.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi read about the new-and-improved Coughlin before the 2009 season, canceled a spring training practice for a billiards tournament, and led his team to a championship, too.
Coughlin needed only a few well-timed nudges to help him get where he needed to go. Charles Way, a former Giants fullback and later the team’s director of player development, had told the coach that he should “let the players see you the way you are with your grandchildren” without changing his core values. Coughlin listened, adjusted and became a better leader.
The kind of leader who, through a one-on-one pep talk in 2011, inspired a struggling Justin Tuck to rise above his injuries and play disruptively enough on the line to drive the Giants to their second title.
The kind of leader who could touch his players on a personal level. Why do you think Eli Manning was crying during Coughlin’s final Giants press conference, while Coughlin was assuring the quarterback that the coach’s firing wasn’t his fault?
By the account of one family friend, Judy was quite proud of Tom’s willingness to heed her advice and crack open a window on his soul. With Tuesday’s essay, Tom threw open that window with sudden force. The Coughlins had worked tirelessly together on their Jay Fund Foundation, supporting the families of cancer-stricken children.
Judy’s recent absences from foundation events led to questions, and those questions led her husband to decide that going public could help others who are living through the hell the Coughlins are living through now.
On cue, the former Giants coach was meticulous in putting together his piece, writing three drafts before it was ready to go. Every single word had a purpose. And since a coach never stops coaching, and a leader never stops leading, Coughlin closed his Times essay with a note to fellow caregivers that they should “take a break when you need it and don’t be too hard on yourselves.”
For 54 years, Judy Coughlin has brought out the best in Tom Coughlin. Why would an incurable brain disorder stop her now?
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