When most people hear the name Tom Coughlin, the first thing that comes to mind is usually the legendary coach’s penchant for punctuality. “Coughlin Time” meant that players and staff were expected to show up five minutes prior to the scheduled start time of every meeting.
“If you’re three minutes early, it means you’re two minutes late,” said Michael Strahan, the former defensive end (and now TV anchor) who played under Coughlin for four years.
The other thing many recall is how strict the coach was, to the point where after the 2006 season (his third with the New York Giants), he was told by ownership that if he wanted to keep his job, he was going to have to lighten up.
But what most don’t know is that he did much more than just ease up on his strict rules — which included everything from wearing dress clothes in hotel lobbies to having the right colored socks at practice. Coughlin — someone who is so regimented that he is jokingly referred to as “Colonel Tom” — was asked to change his leadership approach, and he did it.
It had become clear after 2006 that the coach had lost his team, with Strahan — one of the most vocal leaders — remarking that Coughlin had failed to connect with players as human beings. And so, rather than sticking with the strategy that had brought him great success over the years (during stints with the Jacksonville Jaguars and at Boston College), he created a leadership council of veterans to help bridge the divide between his office and the locker room.
And while that was an important first step, what was even more critical was the advice Coughlin took from his wife, Judy, and former Giant Charles Way (who now serves as director of player development), who urged him to let players see his kinder, gentler side. “If you want them to play for you, given the way you are, you have to show them that you care about them, which I know you do. But you have to show them that,” Way said.
And so the man whose attention to detail is the stuff of legends decided to cancel a practice session during the 2007 training camp, and take his team bowling. It was a day his players never forgot, with many referencing it years later as a turning point.
Coughlin didn’t forget it either.
“It was fun, and a way of letting players see you in a caring manner, and letting them know you are human and passionate and concerned about them outside of football,” he recalled.
Although there were still rough patches — as there are with any team — the Giants took a giant step forward that day, and developed a closeness and trust that carried them through an improbable Super Bowl run.
As I watched Coughlin become inducted into the New York Giants Ring of Honor during Monday Night’s game, I thought about his willingness to change; to let his players see a softer side, and I know how much of a difference that can make. My father makes it a point to get to know his colleagues personally, even inviting them to his legendary St. Patrick’s Day party and, as a result, they view him as more than a work acquaintance. When you’re able to build that kind of relationship, people are more likely to approach you when there is a problem, they’re more likely stick around and make things work rather than jumping ship and, as Coughlin found out last season, they’re more likely to fight for you.
When the media called for his head after the Giants missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year, there wasn’t one player — current or former — who said he should step down. His team wanted him back. And although he didn’t return, his impact will be felt by the organization for years to come.
By changing his ways, he had changed others as well.