Tom Coughlin's triumphant trip home, and what it really meant

ByIan O'Connor ESPN logo
Monday, September 10, 2018

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Dressed in gray jacket and tie and carrying a small black travel bag in his left hand, Tom Coughlin was on the march out of MetLife Stadium, his house, while New York Giants fans called out to him as if he were still one of their own.

Nice going, Tom. ... Welcome back, Coach. ... Good luck this season, Tom. ... We'll always miss you, Coach.

Coughlin nodded and thanked them all as he headed for the Jacksonville Jaguars' bus, the winners' bus, passing a wall on the left carrying the images of the Giants' Super Bowl trophies.

"Two of those are yours," a reporter told him.

"Yeah," Coughlin said, "and thank God they are."

The 12-year coach of the Giants and current executive vice president of football operations of a serious Super Bowl contender paused for a second, turned his head and said, "I was a part of it anyway."

"You were much more than that," Coughlin was told.

On his way to the bus, his step bouncy and his face aglow, Coughlin looked like a guy who had just beaten a franchise that had effectively fired him after the 2015 season in favor over the overmatched Ben McAdoo. He sat in a suite Sunday during Jacksonville's 20-15 season-opening victory over the Giants in coach Pat Shurmur's debut, and watched as his defense survived Saquon Barkley's 68-yard touchdown run in his own debut. Coughlin watched as his defense kept Odell Beckham Jr. out of the end zone and held his former two-time Super Bowl MVP, Eli Manning, to 224 passing yards on 37 attempts.

Coughlin wasn't sitting in the middle of the press box like he did at Gillette Stadium in January, when he muttered and shook his head and banged his fist on a table as the Patriots came from behind to beat Jacksonville in the AFC Championship Game. He did his reacting to this emotional game in relative solitude, after Giants co-owner John Mara visited his suite before kickoff.

In the lead-up to this opener, Coughlin had declined interview requests for a reason. Actually, for two reasons:

  1. He really means it when he says he wants Doug Marrone to be the voice of the franchise.
  2. He will always feel the sting of losing a job he desperately wanted to retire from.

"I put all that aside," Coughlin told as he left the Jacksonville locker room and made the long, victorious walk to the bus. "It's just a game. Trying to win a game."

But then Coughlin opened a small window on his competitive soul by bringing up the placement of his Giants homecoming in Week 1. According to NFL operations, "It takes hundreds of computers in a secure room to produce thousands of possible schedules -- a process that sets the stage for the schedule-makers to begin the arduous task of picking the best possible one."

Coughlin had a little fun with that claim. "I love how they say the computer [affects scheduling]," he said. "They didn't need a computer for this one. This was earmarked."

Make no mistake: It was earmarked on the Coughlin family calendar, too. People who know the coach say he was angrier about losing his job than he ever let on publicly, even if his demeanor before this game mirrored his would-be demeanor in Week 12 against Buffalo.

"We came over on the same bus today, and he didn't talk to me about it," said Jaguars offensive-line coach Pat Flaherty, a member of Coughlin's championship staffs in New York in the 2007 and 2011 seasons. "As crazy as it is, Tom acted the same way he does every other week. Even [Saturday] night, he sits in the meetings, and he's involved just like he always is, and yet I didn't notice anything different about him.

"But I'm sure he felt it inside. As you know, Tom is good at masking things."

Flaherty knows Coughlin better than most in the football business, so he was asked if he felt his boss got a raw deal from the Giants after he followed a second Super Bowl victory over New England, in the 2011 season, with three consecutive losing years.

Flaherty paused. "A raw deal?" he said. "You know, it's interesting. Twelve years is a long time in this business, and I was with him those 12 years. It seemed like every time they wanted to run him out, we won the Super Bowl. I guess we just ran out of steam. We didn't win that third Super Bowl.

"But I don't think you should have to win the Super Bowl every four years to stay with your program, if that answers your question."

It did. Coughlin won a title with Manning while based in the old Giants Stadium, and then he won another with Eli while based in MetLife -- memorable victories that, paired with his success as a coach and executive over two stays in Jacksonville, will likely land him someday in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

So this season opener meant the world to Coughlin. A rewind on his Ring of Honor induction speech at halftime of a 2016 game at MetLife would explain why.

"All right, I know the players are back on the field," Coughlin barked into his microphone, "but I'm not going to get cheated." He talked about his father, John, and his mother, Betty, and his hope that "they are proud to see our family name high above the playing field next to all the Giants greats."

Coughlin talked about sharing this night with his children and grandchildren, and about his wish that they will someday share memories of this induction with their children and grandchildren. He talked about joining his son-in-law, Chris Snee, in the Ring of Honor, before thanking millions of fans who support "the greatest franchise in all of professional sports, the New York Giants." Coughlin then thanked the crowd, tucked his speech into his jacket pocket, and exited the stage to a thunderous roar.

Sunday afternoon, Coughlin was cheered only by small pockets of fans who saw him in the bowels of the stadium. He tried to explain that he was only hoping to get to 1-0 against the Giants, nothing more, nothing less. He reminded a reporter that he'd already made a return to this building as a Jaguars executive in last season's overtime loss to the Jets.

"So I don't really put a lot of stock in that," Coughlin said. "There were parts of this game today that were good, and there were parts that were bad. So I'm one of those that kind of reflects more on what we have to do to get this better."

And then Coughlin caught himself, again. "I've never been in that visitors' locker room before, that I know of," he said with a laugh.

And then he disappeared through a loading-dock area and out of his old home. Bill Belichick and the Patriots are on deck next week, so the Jacksonville executive would surely be thinking about Week 2 on the plane ride home.

But even in the ultimate week-to-week sport, something should be understood about the Giants' two-time champ: It will be a long time before Thomas Richard Coughlin forgets anything about what went down in New Jersey in Week 1.

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