PHOENIX – The pilgrimages began in training camp, when players would look up to see Thomas Richard Coughlin uncharacteristically lingering in the New York Giants locker room. In any other year, the experience would have been intense, like a wolf mingling amongst a flock of sheep.
But this time, it felt different – almost relaxed. Gone was the rigid, indifferent robot. This was Coughlin 2.0, complete with an emotion chip.
"You could see he was trying to build a bridge to his players," said punter Jeff Feagles, who has been with the Giants during Coughlin's entire four-year tenure. "I think that's when you knew he was really trying something different. He was trying to open up."
If they are being honest, some veterans will admit the experience was surreal at first. Coughlin might wander in the locker room, making an effort to shoot the breeze, and some players would respond by shooting each other furtive glances. Veterans like Feagles or Amani Toomer would raise an eyebrow the first few days, as if to say "Is he for real?" Michael Strahan, away from the team during training camp, had a hard time buying the buzz about his head coach's supposed transformation. And even now, some blanch when they hear almost-political rhetoric about "a kinder, gentler Coughlin.
"Whoa, let's not go too far," chuckled wideout David Tyree, whose Giants meet the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII on Sunday. "He's still the same coach. He'll still get after you if you're not doing your job. But yeah, the communication part of the relationship is a lot better."
It had to after last season, when the Giants locker room had gotten to be such a poisonous atmosphere that it might have taken a peace accord in the White House Rose Garden to repair the relationship between Coughlin and his veterans. One Giants team source said the environment had gotten so bad that after at least two losses, some veterans were undressing or packing up their belongings right in the middle of Coughlin's postgame speeches.
It was that kind of internal discord, along with the consistent failings of quarterback Eli Manning and lack of postseason success, that seemed to be spelling the epitaph on Coughlin's tenure. Indeed, the true shock was when Coughlin wasn't fired, but rather extended by one year to clean up the mess. To fans, this was the Three Mile Island of football blunders, and they responded by serenading the Giants offices with months of angry letters, calls and emails.
But for the faithful, Coughlin's retention was only the tip of the sword in a draining offseason. Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis was fired after offensive coordinator John Hufnagel was relieved of duties before the season finale; there were threats of retirement from Strahan; media criticism about the inexperience of general manager Jerry Reese; and for good measure, a book from former running back Tiki Barber that socked the franchise like a verbal frying pan to the face.
Yet, none of it seemed to get more attention than Coughlin's relationship with his players, something that was the focal point of his talks with team president and co-owner John Mara in the offseason. When Coughlin was given his extension, it was Mara who made several things clear: there had to be improvement from Manning, and some fences needed to be mended in the locker room. And what Mara got was the desired response – Coughlin establishing an 11-man veteran leadership committee, which would serve as a subset of dignitaries that would open lines of communication between the locker room and coaching staff.
"The players and coaches had to come together a little bit more," Toomer said. "I think there was a time where the whole relationship between the two was a little strained."
"One of the first things (Coughlin) said was that he needed to make some changes," Mara said. "He said that there were a lot of things that he could improve upon and he talked about some of those things and some of the changes he wanted to make. That to me was huge. The other thing that was important to me was that I never got the sense that last year there was a mutiny in the locker room or a movement to get rid of him. I talked with the players and the people who were down there with the players everyday and there were enough people that did not want him to leave. They still believed in him."
But players don't shy away from the fact that Coughlin needed to polish his interaction. Veterans had run out of breath complaining about his wide array of rules (such as players being mandated to arrive five minutes early before the start of a meeting), and knew those would never change. So what they craved was some social interaction and inclusion – a feeling that, at the very least, Coughlin was willing to listen to them. And a smile or two wouldn't hurt, either.
"Showing his teeth," cracked linebacker Antonio Pierce, when discussing Coughlin's metamorphosis. "Actually letting you know he smiles and has cheekbones. I think coach has done a great job with the team, setting up the leadership council, having events and just letting guys inside him – getting to know really who he is. Maybe before this year, guys who didn't talk to him on a daily basis didn't know who he was."
Part of that has been some over-the-top corporate style team-building functions, things like team bowling or casino night. But even now, players roll their eyes in disbelief when they talk about seeing Coughlin dropping gutter balls as his players roared in laughter around him.
As Pierce put it, "Whenever you have your head coach bowling – and he wasn't just throwing strikes, trust me, he had a lot of gutter balls – whenever you see your coach doing that, getting more involved and being more personable, you have a better understanding of who he is, instead of just a rough and tough head coach who is yelling and screaming. I think everybody got to see the personable side of Tom Coughlin.
"It makes you fight harder for that guy. It makes you understand what he really wants and what he's really about. When somebody's yelling at you and you don't understand them as a person, you take everything they say to heart, you take it personal. When you understand them and the reason why they're doing it, it makes it a little bit easier to work for him."
Make no mistake, these Giants are fighting for Coughlin. Look no further than Plaxico Burress, the previously labeled malcontent who played almost the entire season with a high ankle sprain and produced consistently. Last year, one of two things could have happened: Coughlin would have come down on Burress for not being able to practice, or the wideout would have tuned out the coach and not surrendered his body for the team. Instead, the two met in the middle, with Burress practicing whenever he could and always playing on Sundays.
"You grow and you learn, and you adapt and you adjust," Coughlin said of his new approach. "And you'd better do that. This is what this game is all about. And I think this year, I've tried to do a much better job of communicating to the players through our leadership council, what my intentions were. What is my thinking, not just what are we going to do. And wherever we could, I would ask for input on certain things. This (year) is the first time I've done that. Was it difficult? No, I made up my mind I was going to do it, and the players were not going to feel uncomfortable because of me. I was going to make them feel comfortable, and feel that they could contribute, and they did, and they have."
Coughlin's players also embraced his willingness to play his starters and fight the Patriots toe to toe in the season finale. And they have appreciated his relatively unbuttoned approach to the Super Bowl, from his laughing and joking during media day, to his request that it be veterans like Strahan and Toomer who explain to the team what the championship experience would be like.
Now, with contract talks once again in the works, the players he has embraced have stepped back behind him with unflagging support.
"He deserves an extension," Strahan said. "I don't think a short-term extension is the answer because that doesn't give any kind of security. I think they need to say, 'We recognize what you have done and we recognize the changes you've made as a coach and as a person. That's what we want in this organization for stability and to help us win.' If they do that, it's going to attract free agents and all of the positive things you want for this team.
"Like I said, Eli has played well, Brandon Jacobs along with all of the guys on these podiums have played well. But if he (Coughlin) didn't change, we wouldn't be here."