Coughlin can still coach

Is there a better head coach in the NFL than Jacksonville's Tom Coughlin?

But I'm biased. I played for the guy.

No. There's none better. He's got 60 wins in six seasons. Shooting for 61 against the Bengals here Sunday.

Proof enough a hard-driving perfectionist who knows football is better than those warm, fuzzy players' coaches who always seem to get run out of locker rooms after about 30 games or so.

And, by the way, Bengals coach Dick LeBeau has more Tom Coughlin in him than most people think. Don't let appearances fool you.

Coughlin and I ended up laughing about our time together the other day.

"Stories," he said. "Is that what we're doing now? Telling stories?"

If you think Coughlin's laser eyes can shoot volts of passion and intensity through multi-million dollar players, you should have seen him 20 years ago.

You should have seen him when he was the offensive coordinator and running backs coach at Syracuse.

You should have seen him when head coach Frank Maloney told Coughlin about this kid from the student paper, Hobson. Hobson would do a George Plimpton and spend a week practicing at running back during the spring ball season of 1980 and write about it for "The Daily Orange."

You should have seen him.

"You mean, what did I do after I threw all my books on the floor and dumped everything off my desk?" Coughlin said of the moment Maloney told him what was going down.

You should have seen him.

Here was a guy who had one running back at his position that spring. Joe Morris was heading into his junior season, well on his way to becoming the school's all-time rusher. And it was the season of a new stadium. A heat-is-on season the coaching staff had to go to a bowl game to survive.

But that spring, all he had was Morris, two walk-ons, and a paunchy junior journalist who had only carried a keg.

You think he's got a red face now? He was red all that week.

"No shortcuts for you. If you want the full story, you do everything these guys do," Coughlin hissed when we met.

"You're going to find out while you were lying around on a blanket on the beach last summer, these guys were sweating."

Twenty years ago. But you remember a quote like that.

You think he's got a red face now? You should have seen him when I tried to run through the ropes with the ball and I mangled more vine than the winemaker.

"Get off my ropes, get off my ropes. You're killing my ropes," Coughlin screamed that day, the echo still in my years and ears.

"Yeah," Coughlin said from Jacksonville. "There was some abuse of the equipment."

Coughlin had two highly-recruited running backs on the way that fall. But in April, all he had was Morris. And really, the fat writer wasn't all that bad next to the two walk-ons.

"You had pretty good hands," said the man who built the expansion Jaguars from the swamp up. "But the problem was getting you to keep standing up to go out and catch a pass."

To me, he seemed old, crusty. He fretted over the little things like a grandmother.

"This is how we get into a tailback stance," Coughlin barked at the team's best and worst player that first day. "The thumbs have to be on the sides of the knees. Not like that. Like this."

He had played in one of the last Syracuse bowl games in a backfield with guys named Jim Nance and Floyd Little. The black-and-white Stone Age, it seemed.

I thought he was ancient.

He was 32.

"You know, the baby, my youngest, is starting college," Coughlin said the other day. "How about that?"

They always say Coughlin is on his way out in Jacksonville.

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Continued from Homepage

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The players can't take him any more, is always the word. The rigid rules, the tight schedule, the micro management.

There always seems to be a player revolt. Mark Brunell, his quarterback, can't stand him, they say. Just this year, he apparently set Brunell off when he called him into his office to question one of the quarterback's checks at the line of scrimmage.

Even the great tackle, Tony Boselli, reportedly hasn't escaped Coughlin's all-seeing scrutiny and has supposedly enraged Boselli with some questions.

But you know what? The Jags are the most dangerous team in the NFL right now and they're not even in the playoffs. They were losing five straight and Coughlin wouldn't put up with it and what's wrong with that.?

Brunell and Boselli are big boys. Pro Bowlers. They make enough money to put up with a guy who merely wants their best. Heck, Morris and I were only making memories, but Coughlin made everyone better then, too.

"When you're here, your time is my time," he told us 20 years ago.

He says the same things to these guys. But it's different.

"I can't be as blunt," Coughlin said. "When you're a perfectionist, you have to bite your tongue. I think maybe the idea is to step back and figure out a smarter way to say it."

How about saying this? A lot of teams are playing like they're thinking about being on the beach. And Coughlin has the Jags off the ropes at 7-7.

"These are professional football players," Coughlin said. "I know it's a long day, but there's plenty of time for them to kibitz and relax. But my meeting time has to be business. It's giving information and absorbing it. My role is to give them every opportunity to win. Really, anything else is foolishness."

That week in Syracuse, there was no nonsense as Coughlin glared from a blackboard. The classroom stuff was the toughest. It was a pleasure to go back to Chaucer at night. Something you could understand without the high-voltage stare.

Coughlin convinced himself to put up with the paunchy journalist only when he figured he was teaching the kid something.

"I was looking at it as an educational opportunity," Coughlin said a few days ago. "I'm thinking, here's a guy who wants to find out what it's really like. Most people don't know what these guys go through. How tough. How hard. Don't have a clue. They have no understanding at all. I still get asked questions by people who don't have a clue. Not a clue."

They may say that's Coughlin just being defensive. But that's Coughlin being Coughlin. Get it right. And what's wrong with that?

"I guess I'm the same guy," he said the other day. "Same drive. Same interests."

What gets Coughlin red nowadays is the perception that lingers from the first days of the franchise. The perception that he's a full-bore nutcase running a boot camp. He detests those five-year-old quotes that keep surfacing.

"That stuff is kind of tough," he said.

I reviewed the things I learned from him. How I still think about thumbs when I see a tail back line up. Or my pivot to begin the wide pitch from the quarterback.

"A little option footwork. That's good," said a pleased Coughlin. "Don't get dizzy. Don't keep spinning into the ground."

That 1980 season, Morris was leading the nation in rushing when he ran into an uncovered wall in the second game ever at the Carrier Dome and separated his shoulder and was gone for the year. The wall was later covered. The coaching staff wasn't.

But Coughlin almost saved them all. One of those freshman backs who wasn't there in the spring got carried off the field after the last game in West Virginia with a huge 100-yard day. But 4-6-1 didn't cut it, and the staff was fired. In those days, 5-5-1 could have been a bowl game.

That Wednesday after Thanksgiving 20 years ago, I stopped into Coughlin's office to say good-bye. He was taking down the picture of him with Little and Nance all those years ago and putting it in a box.

"Who's going to hire a broken down No. 3 running back?" he asked, or something like that. "Know of any jobs?" I think he joked.

I didn't. But you figured he would do a hell of a job wherever it was.

"I guess you're glad you got Fred Taylor out there Sunday instead of me, huh?" I asked him the other day.

"Hey," Coughlin said. "I'd rather have Fred Taylor out there than you, me, anybody."

Then he had to go to a meeting.

See, he can laugh. He can talk about his kids. He can make a call in the middle of his day.

And he can win, too.

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