TAMPA, FLA. – Carter Coughlin thinks it all through, but he sticks to his word:
When he committed to the Gophers as an Eden Prairie junior and stayed despite coach Jerry Kill resigning a couple of months later.
When the school fired coach Tracy Claeys after his freshman season and brought in the unfamiliar P.J. Fleck.
When he told Fleck this summer that no matter what bowl game the team ended up in, he would play in it.
Coughlin might have reconsidered all those decisions, weighed the pros and the cons. Yet he never changed his mind.
The senior defensive end has no choices left to make now, though. He will end his four-year Gophers career in Wednesday’s Outback Bowl with a chance at a statement victory over Auburn. But win or lose, he will go out as one of the great Gophers leaders.
“That’s just the way Carter’s wired,” said his father, Bob Coughlin. “He’s got incredible leadership, and that’s something that he’s always had. He’s always been the guy to lead that way and to understand that’s what ‘all in’ really means. That’s the only way he saw it.”
Fleck called Coughlin an “alpha” that people listen to and respect. That started before Coughlin even officially joined the team. He was the four-star, in-state gem coming from a long line of Gophers, including his father and grandfather. He even dubbed himself “Mr. Recruiter,” joking he nearly put former Gophers recruiting director Billy Glasscock out of a job.
Coughlin invited other recruits to his house to swim or up to his family’s lake cabin. Fellow senior Thomas Barber said Coughlin helped persuade players such as cornerbacks Coney Durr and Kiondre Thomas. Senior receiver Tyler Johnson said Coughlin deserves a “huge shoutout” for convincing/nagging him to play for the Gophers.
“Tyler gave me no clues,” Coughlin recalled of the messages they would exchange on Twitter. “… But then other guys were super receptive of it. Some other guys wouldn’t answer, and I’d hit them up again and be like an annoying ex-girlfriend. But I got the job done with a lot of guys.”
In the end, the 2016 class which Coughlin was the architect of became one of the Gophers’ most impactful groups. Johnson is a two-time 1,000-yard receiver on the cusp of breaking the school record for receiving yards. Coughlin, Kamal Martin and Antoine Winfield Jr. are defensive stars. All have Minnesota ties and NFL futures.
Coughlin said once he committed, there was no going back, so he put all his energy into making his class the best it could be. He relied on that same mentality throughout the coaching change at the end of his freshman season. Since he committed to the Gophers, he has dealt with three head coaches as well as a different position coach every season.
Yet he was always the first of his teammates to text the group during whatever upheaval: “I’m staying. Let’s play through this together.”
Pride influenced him to double down in those tough moments, knowing this was the team he wanted to play on despite any adversity. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a frustrating and disappointing process, especially when Fleck came on in the wake of a sexual assault allegation and player boycott.
“I recognized that if I’m caught up in the past, and I’m sulking and mad and all that kind of stuff, all that’s going to do is hurt the team and hurt the rest of the guys in my class and hurt myself,” Coughlin said. “It was one of those things where, it is what it is. And either you deal with it, you handle it like a man, or you sit and keep complaining about it, and that causes huge issues. It was difficult at first, but it got to the point where it was what was necessary.”
Fellow defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere said he didn’t need Coughlin’s assurance to know he was loyal. He could see it in his eyes, even just practicing across from him during drills.
“I know he’s not going to quit on me,” DeLattiboudere said.
Eventually, Coughlin warmed to Fleck and his coaching philosophy and became one of the biggest advocates for it. And it led him and the rest of his senior class to their best season.
But Coughlin said he doesn’t want his Gophers legacy to be about the on-field success. He would rather people remember him for the kind of teammate he was. And this bowl trip has been a chance to savor every last moment with his teammates, whether it’s enjoying a seafood dinner on a warm patio or remembering funny stories from Fleck’s first season on a bus ride back from practice.
Coughlin has built lasting friendships in his four years, especially with roommates Martin, Barber and Winfield. Coughlin said those guys will all be in his wedding someday. And he likely will still be Mr. Recruiter, even long after he graduates.
“I don’t know who’s going to be planning all this [reunion] stuff. I have an idea that I’m going to be doing some of that, getting guys together,” Coughlin said. “But we’ll make that happen, for sure. We’re too close not to.”