Hot Seat, Cool Coughlin
There’s a spring in the step of the NFL’s oldest active head coach, as he bounds from topic to topic, including the Jason Pierre-Paul saga, the Giants’ win-or-else mentality and his rare longevity in New York
“I can read for a half-hour, 45 minutes, then I have to get up and do something,” Coughlin says. “I read, then I go do something, then I come back and I read a little bit more, and then I end up picking up the paper again or an article I want to read. I’ll take the book to camp, read a couple pages at night, one of those deals.”
Sitting in a conference room overlooking the Giants practice fields on Monday afternoon, Coughlin was as relaxed as you’ll ever see him. He’d taken a summer family vacation with his wife, Judy, four kids and 11 grandchildren to Colorado Springs, where they visited the U.S. Olympic Training Center and the Air Force Academy and lounged by the pool. His biggest concern there was the sloping greens on the golf courses. Then, he moved on to the latest world leader on his historical nonfiction reading list, Roosevelt, after devouring books on Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower in previous offseasons.
This was not the Coughlin you might expect to see on the eve of a season that even team co-owner John Mara acknowledged is win-or-else for many people in the organization. The Giants have missed the playoffs for three years running, and there are plenty of issues looming over the start of training camp: Eli Manning’s still-undone contract extension. Odell Beckham Jr.’s nagging hamstring injury. The status of Jason Pierre-Paul, who reportedly lost a finger in a July 4 fireworks accident but has been largely incommunicado with the team (Coughlin’s text to Pierre-Paul the day after the accident—“How can I help you?”—was still unreturned as of Monday).
But Coughlin was, as he likes to say, stepping lively. He spent 15 minutes enthusiastically spouting World War II history, and most of the rest of the conversation conveyed optimism about pretty much everything but Pierre-Paul’s attendance at training camp. Late in the interview, a usually concealed confidence peeked through when he suggested—albeit with a mischievous Cheshire cat grin—that team owner John Mara can’t do any better than him for the position of head coach. There was no hint of a man drained by a 6-10 season, or a man on the hot seat, or the oldest head coach in the NFL—just one on the verge of a new season.
VRENTAS: Where were when you got the call about Jason Pierre-Paul?
COUGHLIN: It was Sunday afternoon, the fifth. That afternoon. I think (GM) Jerry (Reese) was the first one to text me. I texted Jason right away. I just said, “How can I help you?” But I didn’t hear anything back, so. And really there has been very little information even to this point in time. Everybody in this building is concerned with him and his welfare. Even to the point where this fiasco, when Ronnie (Barnes) goes down there and Jessie (Armstead) goes down there, and he won’t see them—these are the people he has depended on all the time he has been there. I don’t know what he thought he was going to accomplish by not allowing them to be there to assist, to help, whatever needed to be done. For Ronnie Barnes to add his medical expertise at that point in time … I don’t do anything without calling Barnes. I don’t. If there’s anything, you call him, and he will take care of everything. He’s phenomenal. I thought that was a really poor move by them. By his people. I don’t know what they think they are hiding. It only makes us, me personally, think the worst. I think (defensive line coach) Robert Nunn has talked to him a couple times on the phone. He tries to assure people that he is fine or going to be fine, but I don’t know any more than that.
VRENTAS: So you haven’t been able to speak to Pierre-Paul?
COUGHLIN: No. No. I want to help. I want to be there for him. But he’s decided that he doesn’t want our help. He thinks that something will come of it. But, all I care about, all any of us care about, the whole organization, is the well-being of the kid. Something traumatic has taken place here, and we have all kinds of experts here in this city that are at our disposal. Putting those things together is very easy.
VRENTAS: Do you expect him to be here when camp opens?
COUGHLIN: I don’t know. I don’t know what to expect anymore. I told everybody I thought he would come to the mandatory minicamp. I thought he would be here for that. He didn’t come for that, either. Now that’s not all his doing. The agent has a big part in that, and it should be that the player takes a stand, but he’s obviously going to take the advice of his agent.
VRENTAS: What can you do as a head coach to make sure Odell Beckham Jr., stays on track? Given that his star rose so quickly, and the fact that he’s dealing with these nagging hamstring issues, there’s a lot of pressure on his sophomore season.
COUGHLIN: Here’s the thing that’s most impressive about Odell. Odell will listen. And he wants what everybody wants. He wants a ring. He wants to do it right. He wants to be a great player. He’s very smart. For somebody to be able to be out as long as he was (last season) and the first week back, go do the things that he could do. Even though, it drives me crazy today, because (the young players) are not all sitting around with notepads today writing stuff down, they don’t do that either, but somehow they get it. My concern always with Odell is his first year, he was very, very talented, you’d have to say very successful, and he does an awful lot of things athletically very well. Did you see him this summer throw the 90 mph fastball? (Raises his eyebrows in awe) My thing is, advance professionally. Advance professionally. That’s the thing he has to do. But he will listen, and he does pay attention, and he wants to do it right. So therein right away is the key, if you figure out where I’m coming from, that he is interested in doing it the right way. And he will be corrected. He doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, none of that. His mother and his dad are interested in him doing it the right way and will reinforce whatever it is that we think is important. So that’s what fires me. Obviously he’s a young product of his times, and he’s into a lot of things. Let’s face it. He can handle a lot of stuff. He does a lot of stuff. And he may have had a little trouble at the beginning saying no to some of the things, but he seems to have conquered that, too. I know he loves to play, and I know he loves to do things as well as it can be done, and I know he really enjoys working with Eli. And he’ll do whatever you ask him to do. He’ll block, he runs reverses, he can throw the ball a mile. The interesting thing about him is, like last year, I can’t give you an exact example, but I might have said something a few days before, and we’ll be in a meeting and something will happen and he’ll give me a shot about it. And he’s a rookie. He’ll turn around and make some smart remark or something about what just happened, and it will be directed right at me. And I’m thinking to myself, now this is a different kind of rookie, because most of the time those guys don’t say a word to the head coach. Nothing. But in that respect, that was funny.
VRENTAS: Have you at any point this offseason considered that this might be Eli Manning’s last season with the Giants?
COUGHLIN: No. No. That to me is … that’s not going to happen. I think I was asked one time, do you think he’ll be distracted? No. He won’t be distracted by any of this. And it will happen. They’ll get this thing done. He’s worked really hard. Had a really good spring. Did a nice job on the field. Was in great shape. Stronger and better and continuing to try to find ways to improve himself physically as well as every other way. I was very impressed by that this spring. I don’t consider that part of it at all. I just think it’s a matter of getting it done.
VRENTAS: Back in 2004, when you first made the decision to start Eli, you showed both conviction and patience. Often times, in today’s NFL, it doesn’t seem like there is that same patience for quarterbacks. Would you have been able to do that today?
COUGHLIN: I would, provided the circumstances. You always have to look at the circumstances. I’m a first-year head coach. He’s a first-year rookie player. We had the tremendous benefit of having Kurt (Warner) here, and they really did compete against each other to be the starter, and in those first seven games Kurt really did demonstrate that coming out of camp he should be the starter. Eli didn’t like it, but he was very good about it. But when the time came to make that change, I simply felt like, OK, this is the franchise quarterback of the future, and we have to go about the business of getting him into that position. Now was it ideal to be playing Baltimore and Washington (early on), two teams in the league that had demonstrated their personality on defense as nothing but pressure? Those were tough ball games for him. Tough for all of us. Because it was frustrating, and it wasn’t clicking as fast as it should have for a young guy, but he was the answer and we just had to give him a chance to play in order to bring it out of him. You’ve got to play. At some point, put the clipboard down and go on the field. That’s all there is to it. Whether it is too early or whatever, it’s gotta be done. I think circumstances also allowed us to do it that way. It was my call all the way, and it worked. Fortunately. Although when we sat Kurt down, we were 5-4, and that was not easy. But at that point, I felt like, we’re not making any progress right now in this regard. And Kurt was terrific. You talk about a quality professional, a man who put his own personal feelings aside because it wasn’t in the best interests of developing this young quarterback or the team. So he conducted himself in a tremendous way, and he forever endeared himself to me because of the way he handled it. He was not a happy camper. And he did not believe that I was doing the right thing. But he was going to suppress all of those thoughts, and he helped Eli. It takes a big, big man to be able to do that.
VRENTAS: You might have to start a rookie left tackle this season. You’ve done that before, with Tony Boselli in Jacksonville. What did you learn from that experience that might influence your approach with first-round pick Ereck Flowers?
COUGHLIN: Ereck, he knows. This is a tremendous opportunity for him and the New York Giants. He’s very, very talented. He’s a huge man, very difficult to run around. Not that far off from Boselli; Boselli, I think, was 327 pounds when we drafted him. Big, big bend. Very athletic. Outstanding feet. All that stuff. They can do it, but the mind and the body have got to do it together. It’s not going to just be athleticism. They will make mistakes, but their competitive fire and the focus and the ability to comprehend the big picture, those things will all come into play. There’s no doubt this guy can do it. Is it ideal? We’ll see. It’s happening all over the league. There’s a point here—whether it is salary cap or whatever you want to say—when these young men who are drafted, especially in the lofty positions that some of them are, gotta play. So let’s get on with it. Let’s go.
VRENTAS: Another training camp brings another round of “Tom Coughlin on the hot seat” headlines. I don’t think any of us really have any idea—what is it like to be on the hot seat?
COUGHLIN: Well, the last time they were like that—I shouldn’t say the last time—but, the one time that I can tell you was 2011, and we won it. So if that’s the case, if that means we get to go right into that kind of success story, then by all means go ahead. But I don’t pay any attention to that. It does have a harder impact on the family than it does on me.
VRENTAS: You’re entering your 12th season as the Giants head coach, and I did a little research and found only five other coaches of major professional sports teams in the New York market who lasted that many consecutive years with the same team. You have to go back to the 1920s, starting with a Rangers coach named Lester Patrick. There were also Yankees managers Joe Torre and Casey Stengel, Islanders coach Al Arbour, and of course, Giants coach Steve Owen. Does that say something about the challenges of coaching in New York?
COUGHLIN: It certainly does say that, but it also speaks to the fact that continuity is very important to our owners. And also, quite frankly, that I have demonstrated that I will adjust to the times. Even now, the way we practice has definitely been affected by science. All this work we do with the GPS trackers and all the ways in which the workload of the athlete is measured and how it predicts vulnerability on the part of the athlete and the chance that he might be injured if he repeats a workload exactly like the one he just had. You’d like to say, well, why can’t we do it like we used to do it? Why can’t we wear pads twice a day? What happened to that day and age, that athlete? Of course by rule, we can’t. But just by the nature of where we have gone, in terms of the athlete we are raising, and the scientific information we have accumulated, it’s not possible for these guys. Over the last two years, one year (the issue) was definitely soft-tissue (injuries), but the next year, even though we made adjustments, we had broken bones and knees and you name it. But we have tried to adjust, and we’ll continue to do that because it doesn’t make sense not to benefit by the information that’s being presented.
VRENTAS: One of your former players, Walter Thurmond, said in an interview this offseason that you don’t believe in modern medicine. Because the team has been so snakebitten by injuries, has that taken away from some of the things you are trying to do in the area of sports science?
COUGHLIN: I think we are paying attention to it. I think we are trying to do something about it. It does miff all of us to a certain extent because even if you went back and looked at the way we used to practice, I really thought we had something when we began the rotation of two practices to one to two back in the Albany days of training camp. The way we practiced in those days, one practice would be in shells, the other would be full pads, and then the next day at 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon, we’d go uppers. You wore all different sets of armor; you practiced in all different kinds of heat of the day. When we’d go twice a day, it was 8:40 a.m. and 6:10 p.m., so we had a long amount of time in between. The players really mentally liked it, because when practice was over that night, they were done. We still are able to do that because in our walkthrough, we still get them out of here about 8:40 p.m., which you think would be adequate rest time for practicing one time a day. But you have to take the information, and you deal with it. You have to adjust, and you like to think more people as a result of what we’re going to do will be able to stay out there. Because even in the spring, you’ve got 10 guys watching practice on the sidelines. Some are from offseason surgeries, but the way this is put together now, man, they certainly should be able to practice. You’d like to think we can stay on the field.
VRENTAS: Back to coaching in New York, you’d been here as a receivers coach before from 1988-90, but being a head coach is totally different. When you took the job in 2004, did you have an expectation of how long a coach can last in New York? Because it is usually not that long.
COUGHLIN: I never thought that way. I never did. Call it whatever you want to, whether it is being naïve, or whether it is enough self-confidence, or whether it is making decisions on what you ought to think about and what you shouldn’t think about. Because quite frankly, going down that road has no bearing on anything. It doesn’t help you at all. I do try to stay within the realm of whatever we do, let’s do it in our best interest of progress and success. I don’t even balance it off by thinking of the what-ifs. I never did do that. Even in the most tense moments, I never thought that way. I wasn’t afraid to change, but … My family certainly was being bombarded with those things at one time, but I wasn’t one of those who spent a lot of time on that. I just didn’t. I just believed you went as hard as you possibly could. Sometimes you had your blinders on, but you went as hard as you possibly could to be the best you could be.
VRENTAS: These weren’t his own words, but when John Mara was asked in his season-ending press conference in December if 2015 will be a win-or-else proposition for a lot of people in the organization, he said that would not be an unfair statement. Do you approach this season as win or else?
COUGHLIN: I look at them all the same way. Exactly the same way. We’re here for one reason, and that’s to win the Super Bowl. And that’s what we work as hard as we can for. Obviously, a couple times it’s worked; sometimes it hasn’t worked. But that’s what we’re here for. We understand the game completely, the stakes, etc. There are no amount of words that can make us work any harder than we work. That’s what keeps you going. I don’t care how old you are. We’re creatures of competitive habits. That’s what we do. And we look forward to it. Now, do I look forward to the kind of season we had the last couple of years? No. Not at all. The losses are hard. But the wins are great. And the way I look at it is, we need more wins. If we are winning more, we can smile more, and our team is playing the way we’re capable of playing. Obviously a lot of things have to happen. A lot of people have to come through. People have to perform when the pressure is on in those critical games. Let’s face it, we picked up a division that has improved. The NFC East has improved. What we are excited about is to put all the wheels in motion, make all the right decisions, compete as hard as we can, keep our team healthy and let’s see how good we can be.
VRENTAS: You have talked about your role as a coach as being a leader of men. How different is it to lead men of the millennial generation? You’ve said the Giants did a study this offseason to better understand millennials.
COUGHLIN: We’ve had some fun with that. Because whenever something comes up, inevitably somebody on the staff will make a crack about the millennial. It’s interesting because we spent a lot of time learning about them, about the mindset and how it works, and listening to a lot of people talk about it. We’ve spent time as a staff on mindfulness. (The coaches completed six one-hour sessions on mindfulness in March and April, learning techniques to eliminate distractions, quiet the noise and focus in the moment. The rookies then completed a similar program starting in May). Then I walk into the Olympic Training Center during vacation, and there’s a sign that says, “If you are going to be in the gym, be in the gym.” Perfect, right? Perfect. That’s what mindfulness is. You can take courses and study it all you want. It’s being in the moment, and that’s the challenge for the millennials. If there’s anything you can attribute as a characteristic to them, it’s a lot of balls in the air at one time. They function better that way, and it’s proven. That’s where playing music at practice came from. For me, this is really interesting, and I always use this example because it struck me that, back before we were married, Judy would study with the radio on. Not me. Dead silence. I’m not kidding. To this day, I like it like that. If I am doing something and I am focused on doing that, I don’t even have it on when I’m reading. I don’t have the radio on, I don’t have music, I don’t do any of that stuff.
There are so many things, the dos and the don’ts, with the millennials, but they’re what you have. It’s what you’ve got. You’d better adjust to that, too. We’ve worked hard at that. We’ve taken these young people, the rookies coming in, and tried as best we could to understand them more, but we’ve also tried to make them understand. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure out how to get people to concentrate better. So when we did this mindfulness class, and we also put the rookies through it, that was the intention. The intention was to try to be able to deal with some of these distractions that we know these young people are going to run right smack into. But be prepared for it and try to be in a position where you can give your attention to what you are doing now. Right now. Because that’s a huge factor at our level. Stop and think about it. Most of them are here at 7:30 in the morning, and they go home at a little after 4. Less than two hours are out there on the field. The rest of the time is studying and learning. I teach our coaches, you have to have the ability to teach at a lot of different levels with a lot of different tools. Lecture, video, audio, question and answers with players, study sheets. Well, I used to use the 20-minute rule. (Lowers voice.) They say the millennials are 10 minutes, and then they have to have a change, or else you lose them. You’re always struggling to keep them involved. That’s why we’ve gone to the iPad as the playbook. They’re so familiar with it, and so adept at phones and all these mechanical tools. It’s what is going on today. I can barely turn the computer on, and if I have a problem I have to yell for somebody to come. But I have a 12-year old grandson, and you can ask him any of these questions, and he can fix half of them. They grew up on this stuff. A couple years ago Judy gave (the grandkids) all these little iPads for Christmas. They can all use ’em, and they’re all into them. As a matter of fact, Kate and Chris (Snee’s) youngest son, Walker, he will be 5, and when one of the two older boys is playing a baseball game that lasts for two hours, you put that little thing in front of him and he’s busy for pretty much the whole ball game. That’s how they’re raised, so you better figured out how to utilize some of that in everything that you do.
VRENTAS: Is there anything from your summer reading that you will use with your team?
COUGHLIN: Last summer I read The Last Lion, Manchester’s Churchill book, and that was fabulous. That’s the only thing I like reading now, the history. Not fiction—fact. I’ve gone through Churchill. I’ve gone through Eisenhower. I did my little deal where he was my guy, so I got everything I could get my hands on about Eisenhower. He’s a really interesting guy, too, because he’s a no-name who rises to the top. There are a lot of quotes in No Ordinary Time that are attributed to FDR or he says himself in this book. I’ll use some of them. That’s what I’m always looking for. And it may not be a quote, it may be a style or something this person has done in a crisis or adverse situation that has helped them. Churchill has got some great quotes, as you know. FDR does, too, although it’s interesting, in this book, it also describes the difference in terms of the type of prominence they each attained as a public speaker even though their styles were totally different. Churchill was someone who was a tremendous speaker, but he went into all these flowery phrases and using five-dollar words. FDR believed in simplicity but getting right to the point, and making it factual, and making sure if he had a message, that message got retained by those listening to the point where the common man could understand what he was talking about.
The obvious thing I could use is the reaction to Pearl Harbor, all those quotes and the things that were said at that time. But the interesting thing there was how long the U.S. laid on the sideline even after the declaration of war. It was North Africa a year after we got into the war; it was mid-1942 before we actually had any amount of soldiers at all involved in conflict, and even then people like Eisenhower and George Marshall didn’t agree with going into Africa. They wanted the big hit on the European continent to draw away from what Hitler was doing in Russia. Some of that I’ll eventually somehow get into with the team.
VRENTAS: Is there a common quality that your successful teams have shared, and how early on can you see that it is there?
COUGHLIN: Even though you may feel you can be a pretty good team, you don’t usually allow that to be vocalized for a lot of reasons, because things could change in a second. You could lose a player; you could be put in a whole different adverse circumstance right off the bat. You don’t ever expect the negative, but you understand it. The common thread for us has always been at some point, not necessarily in the very beginning, you become very much aware that the No. 1 ingredient is the selflessness. I don’t care how great your individuals are and what they bring in their own light to the table, it’s team. When there is a team concept and you really do start to believe that you can see people, like (Michael) Strahan in 2007, thinking, it’s not about them, it’s about us. It’s about we. And when those things happen, no matter at what point … that ‘11 team, that didn’t happen for me until after that Jets game followed by that Dallas game. The players then, they were knocking my door down, talking about team, and we’re all in, and all of that stuff. For them to come and do that, all the way through the playoffs, it was a tremendous feeling for me. And our ‘07 team built, built and built and went through those things at the end of the year. Even bringing it down to Buffalo at the end, when we had to go to Buffalo and win. And remember the weather? Every form of weather known to mankind happened in that game. Nobody could score against the wind, remember? All the scoring was with the wind, and the wind pushed (Ahmad) Bradshaw 88 yards. Even then, it clicked, but it wasn’t until late. You like to think it’s all attitude and emotions. It’s not. Remember when we lost at home in ‘07 to the Redskins with a backup quarterback? We’re thinking, God almighty, we’re a pretty good team, and we just lost at home with everything at stake. But as you look back on it, it was a good thing. We were a really motivated team. That was the time we pulled out the “climb the mountain” thing as a visual. They looked at it, and I think it was after the Tampa win (in the Wild-Card playoff round), when the players said, holy cow, are we that close to the top? They looked at this thing, with the graph here, with the top there, and they said, holy shoot, we win this one and the next one, and we are in the big game. I can remember they were buzzing about that going out of that meeting room. They had seen the season in a different way.
VRENTAS: Do you have a team that you consider the one that got away; that should have been a championship team, and it wasn’t?
COUGHLIN: Oh, ’08. We were the best team in the league, we thought, in ’08. For us especially to lose to Philadelphia in the division in the playoffs and to have the score be 23-11. In this game today, we all say on defense hold them to 17 or less. Well you better be able to score more than that. That hurt. There are (other) teams I would tell you about, but that’s the one that comes to mind right away when you ask me the question the exact way you said it. Even when we lose Plaxico (Burress to a self-inflicted gunshot wound), we go down to Washington in an emotional game. Amani (Toomer) has a huge game; we win. OK, just keep going. But God bless them, (defensive coordinator) Jim Johnson down in Philadelphia thought he came up with something. That’s what they thought they did, because they didn’t have to worry about Plaxico, so they sat down in there. But that gave us some opportunities, and we just weren’t able to take advantage of them. We just weren’t able to take advantage of what we were given on that day from the standpoint of how they defended us. The rest is history. But yeah, that’d be the team. ‘08.
VRENTAS: What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make as a Giants coach?
COUGHLIN: (10-second pause). Hm. I don’t know, because you know what, I don’t approach them like that. You try to be as objective as you can when you make the key decisions. Like when Eli was moving into the starting job. You try to not be influenced by any forces on the outside. You know the team best, what is best. I can remember in ‘07 thinking about the expectations for our 16th game and making the decision that we were, as a New York Giants team and organization, not going to go down in history as a team that did not give our best against a team that was 15-0. I wasn’t going to do it. We lost two players for the first playoff game because of that, (Shaun) O’Hara and Kawika Mitchell, but it still was the right thing to do. And it ended up being, even though it didn’t look like it then, it was a key factor later on.
VRENTAS: When you had the chance to talk with John Wooden, your coaching icon, in the spring of 2009, did you ask him how he knew when it was time to retire?
COUGHLIN: I never did. I just read what you have read, in his books. You talk about a phenomenal guy. He told his team, before even the last game, that this would be his last game. Amazing. You think with somebody like him, the quality of that individual, that might have shaken him a little bit. And the unknown might have been … but he was man enough and confident enough and knew his players well enough that he felt that was the time. And he just said, he knew it. Tony La Russa said, you’ll know it. Well, I don’t know it. And I don’t want to know it, to be honest with you. I don’t feel any different than I did when I was, I don’t know? Ten years ago, 15 years ago. I don’t feel any different about approaching a season or anything of that nature. So that’s my position.
VRENTAS: I’m sure you’re aware that George Halas and Marv Levy coached until they were 72.
COUGHLIN: Marv might have been hiding a few years (grins). Nah, I don’t know that. I’m very, very blessed in that Judy has good health, and I have good health. I don’t feel any different. I might look a little different. I look in the mirror sometimes and think, “Who the hell is that old guy? Oh, it’s you.” But I don’t feel any different from an energy standpoint or anything else. I’m confident in our staff, I feel good about the guys working together as a staff and looking forward to the challenge that’s ahead. And we’ve worked hard this spring. Our messages are pretty strong. One was to come back here in the greatest shape of your life, because it’s going to take that. Along with staying on the field practicing. You can’t talk about it, you’ve got to go do it, and that’s what training camp is all about. Take the information, and go and do it. And obviously we fooled ourselves the last preseason, when we were 5-0, but…
VRENTAS: It’s been reported that Mara keeps inside a drawer in his office a short list of potential head coach candidates should you decide to retire. Have you ever peeked at the list or offered input?
COUGHLIN: No. It’s none of my business. He doesn’t come to me and ask me those kind of things, because I would have to tell him, “John, you can’t do any better!”