The Coughlin Way : Jaguars’ Coach May Have Been Overly Strict and Unpopular at First, but Nobody’s Complaining Now


He was a tyrant, a dictator, a sadist. He was the Marquis de Sade with a whistle, Attila the Hun with headphones, Gen. George Patton on the sidelines.

If all the reports coming out of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ first training camp about Coach Tom Coughlin were true, the International Red Cross should have been brought in.

On closer inspection, however, it turns out that the howls of protest from Camp Coughlin were not so much because the coach was acting like a drill sergeant. It was more because he was acting like a school principal.


Football players accept drills with a grunt. They understand the need to grow physically tough. Rules? Rules are often another matter.

And Coughlin had rules. Plenty of rules. Rules players hadn’t heard since since college, high school, or even junior high.

They had to keep their feet on the floor rather than rocking back in their chairs during team meetings. They couldn’t kneel in practice, or take their helmets off. They couldn’t wear T-shirts in hotel lobbies.

Tough, tough, tough.

“He was so tough, the dictator who ran Camp Coughlin,” said New England Patriot Coach Bill Parcells, a close friend of Coughlin. “You don’t hear much about that any more.”

Some would say it’s because Coughlin has softened.

More likely, though, it’s because the rules have taken hold and the Jaguars have hardened into a tough, effective unit that will take the field today against Parcells’ Patriots at Foxboro Stadium one victory away from the Super Bowl in only their second year of existence.

The players insist that Coughlin has changed.

Jaguar defensive tackle John Jurkovic has been with the team only this season, but even he has noticed a difference.

“Quite a metamorphosis,” he told the Times-Union in Jacksonville. “Like the caterpillar becoming the butterfly. Even from the beginning of the season, he’s more approachable, more accessible to the players. The change is monumental.”

It didn’t come easy, for either Coughlin or the players, as one incident illustrates. It was a Saturday morning, doughnut day for the players, who sit around in their locker room, eat their doughnuts and bond.

On one particular Saturday, Coughlin decided it was time he bonded with his players. So he walked in and sat down among them.

One player got up and left. Then another. And another.

Soon, Coughlin was sitting alone. Acceptance was still a few victories away.

Even now, the 50-year-old Coughlin won’t concede that his dictatorial ways were off base. After all, he figures he knows something about coaching after having been at it for nearly a quarter of a century.

He coached wide receivers with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1984 and ’85 and with the Green Bay Packers in 1986 and ’87. In 1988, Coughlin began his association with Parcells, then the New York Giants’ coach. Coughlin directed the team’s wide receivers for three years.

In 1991, he got his first head coaching assignment, taking over the Boston College program, with a big boost from Parcells, who gave him a strong recommendation. Over a three-year span with the Eagles, Coughlin was 21-13-1, took the team to two bowl games and finished with his squad ranked 13th in the nation in the final Associated Press poll of the 1993 season.

When Coughlin had the opportunity to jump back into the pro ranks, this time as a head coach, he brought with him rules that had served him well with undergraduates, rules he figured a new team without any history would need to be successful.

“I think teams thrive on discipline,” Coughlin said. “Sacrifice is difficult, but it can be fun. I think players need structure. This was a team that had no nucleus in the center of players who had been there before, no core in the middle.”

One of Coughlin’s biggest fans will be standing across the field from him today. Parcells gives out compliments about as readily as he gives out information about his own cloudy future, a future that might find him back in New York next season coaching the Jets.

But ask Parcells about Coughlin and you won’t have to ask twice.

“He is one of my favorite guys I ever coached with,” said Parcells, whose own coaching career spans 33 years. “I just like this guy. He has his convictions. He’s afraid of nothing in this business. He’s his own guy, fearless.”

Parcells and Coughlin have stayed close, through the years that Coughlin worked for Parcells, through the season both Parcells and Coughlin worked in the Boston area, and even now that they are rivals. Until last week, they talked to each other two or three times a week.

There hasn’t been much talk lately. And that’s not something Parcells is particularly happy about. The chance to beat his close friend is not something he’s looking forward to.

“Coaching against your friends, why would you enjoy that?” Parcells asked. “I don’t. It’s not pleasant for either of us. But that’s the way it is in this business.”

Parcells slips into sentimentality when discussing Coughlin, a smile crossing his face.

Ask Coughlin about the relationship, however, and there is no crack in the no-nonsense facade. Even the softer, gentler Tom Coughlin won’t allow himself to get sentimental. Not now. Not with the game of his life at hand.

“He’s a very good friend of mine,” Coughlin said of Parcells. “But this game is much bigger than that. It’s the Jacksonville Jaguars versus the New England Patriots for the AFC championship. Our relationship is a very small part of that story.”

But without that relationship, there might not be a story. Tom Coughlin might not have made it back to the pros, the Jaguars might not have made it into the playoffs and Camp Coughlin might not have made it into football lore as how Devil’s Island would have looked with goal posts.