Giants coach Coughlin is an under-the-radar genius

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 5, 2012 - 8:02 AM

Giants coach Tom Coughlin doesn't crave the spotlight. He just insists on attention to detail from his teams.

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Tom Coughlin isn’t a showy personality, but his Giants have won two Super Bowls in the past four seasons.

Photo: Ben Solomon, New York Times

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The NFL's 93rd season begins tonight when the Dallas Cowboys visit the New York team that didn't trade for Tim Tebow.

They call themselves the Giants. Supposedly, they're pretty good, too, although no recent national recognition of them exists beyond punter Steve Weatherford posting a video of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul slam-dunking cornerback Prince Amukamara into a tub of ice.

Other than that, the New York market and the national hype machine that endlessly drives the NFL's popularity has pretty much ignored the Super Bowl champion Giants in favor of a Rex Ryan-coached Jets team that went 8-8, missed last year's playoffs and signed a backup quarterback who likes to bare his soul and his chest. Giants coach Tom Coughlin and his two Super Bowl titles in four seasons? Not as sexy as Rexy and the Super Bowl titles he's talked about winning.

"And you know what?" said Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer, "I guarantee that's exactly how Coach Coughlin wants it. If I'm the head coach in New York, I'd love it if Rex Ryan was the other coach in New York. But I'm more like Coach Coughlin, an under-the-radar guy."

Coughlin was the Jaguars' head coach in 2002 when he gave Priefer his first NFL job. Coughlin likes disciplined military guys. Priefer, a Naval Academy grad, fit the bill as an assistant special teams coach who also served as Coughlin's personal scheduling assistant.

"I thought I already had an attention to detail, but it was nothing until I met Coach Coughlin and spent that year with him in Jacksonville and those two years [2004-05] with him in New York," Priefer said. "He might be the most focused man I ever met in my life."

Coughlin gave Priefer a lesson during the 2002 season that stays with him to this day.

"I made a mistake on a small detail in his schedule," Priefer said. "He wrote a little sticky note and put it on the schedule. It said, 'This is not what I expect from you. This is not what I expect from a Naval Academy graduate. It's not what I expect from one of my assistant coaches.'

''I kept that sticky note with me the entire season to remind me that there's no time for amateur hour in the NFL. He taught me that everyone in the NFL, even the lowest guy on the totem pole like I was, had details he had to focus on."

Coughlin's place in history is an interesting subject because he is such an under-the-radar personality. He gets overshadowed in his division (Philadelphia's Andy Reid, Washington's Mike Shanahan) and his backyard (Ryan). Nationally, he gets lost behind New England's Bill Belichick, even though Coughlin has upset Belichick's Patriots in two of the past four Super Bowls, including one in which New England was 18-0.

Despite his age (66) and his rigid exterior, Coughlin somehow has been able to adjust and recreate himself to fit today's athletes.

"Coach Coughlin went through a lot of growing pains when I was there in New York, with guys trying to buck the system a little bit," Priefer said. "But he knew how to maintain leadership while still adjusting to what the players' needs were in terms of how they learned and how they trained and what they needed for motivation. That's the greatness of Tom Coughlin. And he's got two championships to show for it."

He also has 154 victories, tying him with Pro Football Hall of Famer Marv Levy for 17th place in NFL history. Coughlin is 154-121, including 12-7 in the postseason. Levy was 154-120 including 11-8 in the postseason (0-4 in Super Bowls).

"Just look at what Coach Coughlin did at Jacksonville," Priefer said. "They made a big mistake firing him [after the 2002 season]."

Coughlin coached the expansion Jaguars to four playoff appearances in their first five seasons, including the AFC Championship Game in their second season (1997). In the nine seasons since Coughlin was fired, the Jaguars have made the playoffs only two times. They've won once.

Tonight, Coughlin starts his 17th season as an NFL head coach. Naturally, the expectations for his team aren't high. Some expect the Giants to revert to last year's midseason form -- when they lost four in a row to fall to 6-6 -- and finish third in the NFC East behind the Eagles and Cowboys.

"Coach Coughlin isn't concerned about what other people say or do," Priefer said. "He has a knack for knowing exactly what his team needs. He's under the radar now, but I think his record will speak for itself. Twenty years from now, he'll definitely be remembered as one of the greatest coaches of all time."

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

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