It was January of 1994 and I was sitting in a temporary trailer outside the exterior hulk of the stadium that is now the home of the Jaguars. It was a full-fledged construction site with puddles everywhere as they were “renovating” the Gator Bowl to bring it up to NFL standards. In truth, it was a total re-build with just part of the west exoskeleton still standing. I was there for my regular, weekly, semi-clandestine meeting with David Seldin, the Jaguars president, to get “background” on what was going on with the franchise.
They were getting close to hiring a head coach, somebody to not only lead he football team but to build the entire organization and set the tone for the expansion franchise. I knew they had talked with Tony Dungy, at the time the Minnesota Vikings Defensive Coordinator. They also had discussions with Lou Holtz and even talked with Jimmy Johnson.
“Do you think you’ll hire somebody established or bring somebody else in,” I asked Seldin, fishing for a clue about where they were with the search.
“I think we’ll make our own star,” Seldin said flatly.
“Then hire Tom Coughlin,” I said from across the table.
Seldin pursed his lips and looked away, his face flushed in an instant.
I knew right then that Coughlin was not only on their radar, but he was their guy. It was only a question of when.
That happened the first week of February Tom was introduced as the Head Coach and General Manager of the Jaguars. He was friendly enough, but didn’t have that easy, casual manner dealing with the media that was the norm around here with Steve Spurrier in Gainesville and Bobby Bowden in Tallahassee.
There was a story going around that Coughlin didn’t listen to the radio on the way to work because it was too “distracting.” At the time I thought that was amusing.
But like a lot of the players, coaches and media that worked for or dealt with Tom I eventually came to understand it. He’s focused, dedicated and totally committed to getting the job done. That doesn’t mean I approved of how he went about it and in fact, we had our share of serious disagreements when it came to his tactics of coaching and dealing with the media.
But I was also privy to a completely different Tom Coughlin. His youngest daughter and my oldest daughter were good friends in high school. So I got to know him as a dad over time. We’d talk about all the things two dads with high school daughters talk about: where they were going, what they were doing together. I was always surprised at his ability to completely transform from an autocratic, unreasonable coach and executive to an engaged, caring and loving father.
There was nothing about Tom Coughlin, the dad that spilled over to Tom Coughlin, the coach.
Eventually that cost him his job. Nobody in Jacksonville liked Tom the coach. Almost nobody knew Tom the dad. He wouldn’t let them. His unparalleled philanthropic work with the Jay Fund failed to soften the harsh public opinion of Tom the coach.
Even after he sat out for a year and worked for the NFL, then taking the job as the head coach of the Giants, without the GM role, he was very much Tom Coughlin the coach without any of Tom Coughlin the dad.
“Do something to help yourself,” his wife Judy implored Tom early in his tenure with the Giants. “They hate you,” she said of the New York media who had a constant battle with Tom the coach.
Somewhere shortly after that, Coughlin began a transformation; establishing a rapport with his players and at the very least, tolerated the time he spent with the media.
And they won two Super Bowls.
Even when his time with the Giants came to and end,
the players who despised him at the start, penned love letters to Coughlin after his departure
“I respect how he conducted his business and also how passionate he is about his family,” Eli Manning wrote in The Players Tribune. “He loves talking about his wife, his children and grandchildren. Later, when I got married and had children of my own, he taught me about being a good husband, a good father, and a good man.”
Manning got to see the two Tom Coughlin’s early in his career in New York. He described Coughlin as a disciplined “Head Coach” during the season.
“Then all of a sudden, the offseason comes,” he explained. “You see him in the lunch room and he sits down to have lunch with you. He asks about your family and how things are going off the field. He tries to get to know you. He smiles. He laughs.”
“He was one of the most loyal men I would ever meet playing this game.,” said defensive back Antrel Rolle. “He became my guy, and I loved him for that.”
Steve Weatherford, Justin Tuck and Hall of Famer Michael Strahan also talk about love and their feelings for Coughlin.
“You know, there was a time when the very last thing I thought I would ever say to Tom was that I loved him,” Strahan says. “But now, that’s the only word to describe how I feel about the man. It’s love. I’m a part of his family and he’s a part of mine.”
I had read all about this transformation and figured it would continue when he was named the Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Jaguars. But it didn’t. I don’t know if it was because he was removed from the day-to-day contact with the players from his perch in the front office, or he figured this team needed that “Old School” sort of discipline to get back on track. But over time it didn’t work.
Coughlin handpicked Doug Marrone to be the Head Coach of the Jaguars because Marrone would coach the team the way Tom wanted it to be coached. So when Marrone did something different in this year’s training camp, Coughlin let him know he didn’t approve.
You’d think Marrone might have some resentment, but that wasn’t the case.
“We talked every day. I wouldn’t use those terms that the relationship was strained, because I have so much respect for him and I listen,” Marrone said the day after Coughlin was fired. “To be around someone that has just a great heart, great principles, great family man. I think those are the things that come to my mind.”
Marrone was stuck between his respect for Coughlin (and the fact that he was his boss) and his belief in the NFL Players Association as a player’s advocate when it comes to the hefty fines levied by Coughlin for what he perceived as violations of team rules.
“The calendar and the clock are all set by the football season and the offseason,” is a quote from Coughlin’s book “Earn the Right to Win.”
That’s why the whole situation with fining Dante Fowler for missing non-mandatory rehab during the off-season seems way out of character, especially for the rules-driven Coughlin. Tom knows the rules. He knows the difference between the season and the offseason. He knows players can seek outside rehabilitation options in the off-season. It’s part of the collective bargaining agreement.
But for some reason Coughlin decided his own rules superseded the agreement the players had with the league. As well as I knew him, and for as long as I’d known him, Tom projected a level of hubris in his return to Jacksonville in his role as the EVP that wasn’t working for him or the people around him. And I don’t know why.
When the arbitrator ruled in favor of the Players Association last Monday, giving Fowler back the $700,000 in fines he had paid to the Jaguars it brought to light more than just Coughlin’s re-found autocratic manner. The NFLPA’s memo pointed out that a full 25% of all grievances filed against teams were filed against the Jaguars. It concluded saying players should “consider this when choosing their next team.”
That made Shad Khan’s decision to remove Coughlin from the equation easy, even with just two weeks left in the season. The Jaguars couldn’t compete with the 31 other teams in the free-agent market with that hanging over their head. Khan had already decided to make that move at the end of the year based on the poor performance the team has had since the 2017 AFC Championship game. He says he “reconsidered” after the NFLPA memo and made the move immediately.
Pay no attention to Fowler’s gloating or Ramsey’s childish Twitter postings. They’re both blips on the radar of Jaguars history. The team is better off without either of them, Coughlin’s status notwithstanding.
Although his agent, Sandy Montag, said Tom has “more football left” it was more than likely that at 73-years old, Coughlin was going to retire at the end of this season to spend more time with his family and his ailing wife.
It’s an unceremonious end to this chapter of Coughlin’s career. A career that could culminate with a spot in Canton.
I just keep thinking it didn’t have to happen this way.