Five years ago, Tom Coughlin still didn't get it.
The New York Giants' head coach was still a caricature to many; a control-obsessed head coach who adopted the surface methods of tough-minded coaches like Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells. But what he didn't get was the soft underbelly of that approach -- the way Parcells used to get his players to buy in to the approach even as he was ripping them, and the way Lombardi talked sincerely about love while forging his dynasty in the hottest possible fire.
Coughlin first tried to turn that around in 2004, his first year with the Giants. After a successful tenure at Boston College and enough time on Parcells' staff to see how it was really done, Coughlin washed out as the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars despite taking that franchise to an AFC championship game in its second season. Concerned enough about his ability to reach players in the way he needed to, Coughlin reached out to quarterback Kurt Warner, who was in his one season with the Giants, and asked for guidance.
"I saw a great man, a great coach, but I also saw a man who, for some reason, didn't know how to combine those parts of his personality when it came to football," Warner told NJ.com about Coughlin. "He could connect with his family on such an intimate level but had no idea how to connect with his players. He was struggling badly. Tom was searching for the right way to lead without compromising his principles. I wanted to help. I thought I could help. I tried to help."
Warner knew what he was talking about. He was a scrub quarterback on the 1998 St. Louis Rams team taken over by Dick Vermeil. Contrary to his reputation as a sensitive man who will cry at the drop of a dime, Vermeil came in for the 1997 season, saw a team lacking mental toughness, and installed padded practices that lasted hours per day. It took outreach from the players and Vermeil's willingness to listen, but the coach eventually dialed things down a notch, and a very improbable Super Bowl win at the end of the 1999 season was the result.
Now, Warner was a superstar on the decline before a comeback, and he tried to tell Coughlin what he was missing. "Go home and make a list of all the things you think I need to do better as a coach," Coughlin told Warner, "and don't hold back."
Warner responded with an exhaustive analysis of the things Coughlin needed to do to improve. It was an unusual gesture from a coach to a player -- one would struggle to imagine Lombardi asking Bart Starr for a performance review -- but we're often most willing to listen to alternative options when our backs are against the wall. The players were revolting against Coughlin's style, and he had seen that no matter how successful the results, his one-dimensional approach would eventually have him out the door again.
It took two full seasons to really kick in, but Coughlin finally changed. He started explaining why rules were enforced, instead of just enforcing them. He started at least trying to display a modicum of patience with the reporters who asked out-of-bounds or silly questions. He let people see the man he had been unwilling to show as a public face before.
That happened before and during a 2007 season in which the Giants went on a late-season run and upset the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The resulting success has seen Coughlin amass as many Lombardi Trophies for the Giants as Parcells did, which puts things together in a very nice circle. In the week before that second win over the Pats, Coughlin reflected -- as much as he could -- on how his approach has changed in ways that are more permanent.
"You're asking the wrong guy," he said on Friday. "I don't know how to answer that. I think the one thing that has happened, and I've said it a thousand times and I'll say it again, is that once the season is over, you have to take a hard look at yourself and do a valid self-analysis. That's very important if you're going to improve. Decide what it is you can change. Look at your team and decide what it is you can change and what is needed in terms of inspiration and motivation or how you get those messages across to those people. Do your research on the outside, whatever it is you believe in.
"I'm a great reader of autobiographies and historical autobiographies, whatever you get your hands on, and reference things that I think are important in order to win or be the very best that we can be. Probably the one thing over the years that may have happened over the years is I may have gotten a little more patient."
Indeed. Now, the message was more about winning, and less about a series of picayune regulations, delivered at a 100-decibel level without further explanation. Coughlin knew he couldn't do it alone. He started letting people in and really appreciating their contributions.
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"Surround yourself with great people, people who have an outstanding work ethic, people who are business-like, who are focused and concentrated," he said on Friday, when asked what it takes to be a winner. "Get everybody on the same page and have the same inspiration, same kind of drive, same kind of desire. Do the very, very best you can. Work to the best of your ability. Be efficient. Don't waste time. You have to be organized and you need to be in a position where you are mentally prepared for all circumstances that might happen in the course of a season.
"Football is a cumulative game. You must continue to work on the situational things and the things that might happen to you in various situations, but you have to be prepared. You try to put your players in that situation. You boil it down to blue-collar work ethic. You go to work every day and work as hard as you possibly can and surround yourself with great people. Keep your eye on the prize, which is very, very important to us and was a big factor in our ability to eventually win the division this year, knowing full well we were in contention all the way through. It was good to end it there."
When asked on the morning after his second Super Bowl win just what has made his Giants able to come back and win in situations like this, Coughlin said it about as well as it can be said.
"Mental toughness, resiliency, resolve. We keep playing, we keep fighting, and we're highly competitive. We do have great trust in each other, great belief that we can finish, and that if we keep playing one play at a time as hard as we can go that we will find a way to win."
And that's the difference now. The coach is distilling his message in a way that the players understand, believe, and take to heart.
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