With the Super Bowl hype dominating every facet of media — from local news to Twitter — a lot of talk has focused on Tom Coughlin, a coach who was thought to be on the verge of losing his job six weeks ago, and is now leading the Giants to their second Super Bowl in four years.
Coughlin’s story is interesting for many reasons, one of which is the fact that he’s only the second most talked-about coach in New York. When the city isn’t caught up in the frenzy of Super Bowl week, Coughlin is usually overshadowed by Rex Ryan, head coach of the New York Jets. Although the Giants and Jets represent the same city — and even play in the same stadium — the two teams couldn’t be more different, and it all starts with their head coaches.
First, there’s Coughlin, a coach who is so strict that he earned the nickname “Colonel Tom” at one point. He insists that players arrive five meetings early for meetings and practice, and isn’t shy about punishing players when rules are broken. In fact, during a must-win game in December against the division rival Dallas Cowboys, Coughlin benched running back Ahmad Bradshaw for the entire first half after Bradshaw missed curfew. It isn’t the first time Coughlin has held a player accountable, and it probably won’t be the last.
Coughlin is hard to please and rarely cracks a smile (at least on camera). He has high expectations and places a great deal of value on character. In his dealings with the media, he gives little away — much like New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick, who is as tight-lipped as they come — and urges his players to do the same. He is the epitome of a no-nonsense guy who is always focused on the task at hand.
Then you have Ryan, a brash, affable person who is “well-known throughout the league for his outspoken manner and boisterous attitude” (Wikipedia). Under his leadership, the Jets locker room has taken on an Animal House atmosphere, filled with players who have loads of talent but questionable character. While speaking to the media — which he often does — Ryan doesn’t shy away from making bold predictions and inciting his rivals. He says whatever is on his mind and encourages his players to do the same. He’s a straight-shooter, and he’s always good for a laugh.
And for two years, Ryan is the one who seemed to have the right approach. Under his leadership, the Jets went from being irrelevant to going to back-to-back AFC Championship games. Athletes from around the league were expressing their desire to go sign with a “player’s coach” like Ryan who always seemed to be smiling. Meanwhile, Coughlin was constantly under scrutiny for being too “old school” and “out of touch” with today’s athletes.
But this year, the tide turned — and quickly. When the going got tough for the Jets, Ryan’s lax attitude and anything-goes media policy backfired. Players started griping to reporters, taking the opportunity to criticize each other and, in the process, undermine their coach. It turned out that when the chips were down, having no rules in place — and players who were only concerned with their own image — was a bad idea.
So when it comes to leadership, what’s the better strategy? Creating an overly staff-friendly environment is a great way to make friends out of the gate, but it’s not going to command you a whole lot of respect. And can the type of environment where everyone is always urged to say exactly what’s on their mind — privately or publicly — ever thrive in the long-term, or is it better not to give everything away?
Maybe there is no right way to lead. Maybe the answer lies somewhere between Ryan’s frat house and Coughlin’s army. But if you really pressed me on it, I’d say that it leans closer toward the guy who’s going to back to the Super Bowl.
The coach he’s facing, by the way, is Belichick, another no-nonsense coach who demands a lot from his players and isn’t afraid to enforce the rules. This is his fifth Super Bowl appearance as a head coach.