Everyone was standing around; Tom Coughlin was running late; and
when someone asked him to kick off his shoes, the NFL's most
regimented coach put his foot down. "The flip-flops stay on,"
Coughlin declared to his wife, Judy, their four kids and a
daughter-in-law early last Saturday as they waited for a
photographer they'd hired to shoot a family portrait at Ponte
Vedra Beach. A day before his Jacksonville Jaguars opened the
1999 season against the San Francisco 49ers, Coughlin was in no
mood to smile or say cheese: He had already delayed his normal
5:45 a.m. arrival at Alltel Stadium by more than two hours, and
if there's one thing Coughlin detests more than being late, it's
getting dirty. To show up at work with sand between his toes
would be totally unacceptable.
Since becoming the Jaguars' coach, personnel chief and de facto
despot in 1994, 19 months before the franchise played its first
game, Coughlin has ruled with a hard-line approach that has
helped make Jacksonville, in only its fifth season, a bona fide
Super Bowl contender. But while he may be the master of his
domain, Coughlin is not the head of his household. In a scene
that some Jaguars might have sacrificed a week's paycheck to
witness, Judy Coughlin matter-of-factly informed her husband
that his flip-flops would ruin the photo. Tom flashed his
trademark steely glare, then threw up his hands. Seconds later
the sandals came off.
By Sunday afternoon Coughlin was back in his element, coaching
the Jaguars to a 41-3 win over the 49ers that validated the
defending AFC Central champions' preseason hype and resounded in
Denver, Miami, New York and Minnesota. Since the team's shocking
run to the AFC Championship Game in its second season,
Jacksonville's defense has been vulnerable in big games, but it
shut down the Niners, who converted just one of 14 third-down
attempts. Buoyed by the additions of zone-blitz guru Dom Capers
as defensive coordinator and former Pittsburgh Steelers star
Carnell Lake at free safety--as well as the long-awaited
emergence of fourth-year defensive end Tony Brackens, who made
the two biggest plays of Sunday's game--the Jaguars spent the
day playing Back Dat Azz Up against an offense that was the
league's best in '98.
Most impressive of all, Jacksonville displayed a dogged
intensity that met Coughlin's high standards. This is a coach
who once fined three players for almost being late to a
meeting--a perfectionist who, says Judy, "straightens things on
his desk that are already straight, just out of habit." After
reporting to training camp on July 29 and enduring four weeks of
Coughlin's stress, the Jaguars viewed Sunday's game as
practically a day at the beach. "As long as we're winning, I can
put up with a lot of stuff," says Pro Bowl wideout Jimmy Smith,
who scorched San Francisco for 139 yards on six receptions.
"I've never seen somebody who wants to win so badly as Coach
Coughlin, but it carries over to us, and that's what you need to
get to the ultimate plateau."
This year the Jaguars seem more intent than ever on playing it
Coughlin's way. Though some of the players hate to admit it, the
carping coach is usually right. When an unexpected rainstorm hit
Jacksonville before Sunday's game, he told his players the key
to the game would be winning the turnover battle. The Jags ended
up with a 5-0 edge in that pivotal category, scoring touchdowns
on special teams and defense, and they looked far more poised
and polished than the more experienced Niners.
"I'd hate to see how bad it might get around here if we weren't
winning," says right tackle Leon Searcy, whom Coughlin plucked
as a free agent from the division rival Steelers after the 1995
season. "But the fact is we have won here the way he has said we
would, so you can't ever challenge him.
"He plays no favorites, and he never has to worry about being
second-guessed," Searcy adds. "You respect his honesty, even if
you're offended by it sometimes. I thoroughly believe that when
all is said and done, we might work harder than any other team
in the NFL because we're always facing pressure-packed
situations in practice. Coach Coughlin's a firm believer that
you earn your right to win on Sunday by outpreparing your
opponent during the week."
Coughlin believes that by pressuring his players 24/7, he can
sustain a collective concentration level that eliminates the one
element he fears most. "When things aren't predictable or
consistent, it absolutely drives me crazy, and quite frankly, I
don't know how to function," Coughlin said after Sunday's
victory. "I want to know that I can depend on my players'
behavior, that winning is their Number 1 priority and that they
understand the sacrifices it takes to win."
Yet Coughlin's critics, including some current and former
Jaguars, believe his obsessing over petty details saps the
players mentally and detracts from their ability to focus on
what's truly important. Since the infamous list of rules he
unveiled during Jacksonville's first training camp in 1995--no
sunglasses on the sidelines, two feet on the ground during team
meetings--Coughlin has been the NFL's Great Santini, a man so
strict and intent on driving home lessons that he hides his
humanity. "People think he's this ogre who has no personality,
but that's not true," says former Jaguars defensive end Jeff
Lageman, who retired after last season. "If he'd just let down
that steely glare and smile once in a while, he'd own this town,
but he won't do it. He has a specific structure that he insists
everyone abide by, and it's tough on the people around him."
Lageman was fined $200 in 1995 for wearing a bolo tie on a team
flight, but that's a Grade B nitpick in Coughlin's Kingdom. In
'96 Coughlin called a meeting of selected veterans and told them
he was prepared to impose a curfew on Thursday nights because
Friday practices had not been crisp enough. Coughlin had heard
from police and team security sources that many players were
hanging out at Studio 87, a club with which Jacksonville wideout
Keenan McCardell was affiliated, and demanded that team members
stop visiting the nightspot. When McCardell and the other
veterans told Coughlin they would urge their teammates to comply
with his wishes, he dropped the curfew idea. Studio 87 was gone
by season's end.
In 1997 cornerback Dave Thomas, who skipped a mandatory
meet-and-greet banquet on an off day to stay home with his
fever-stricken two-year-old son, received a tongue-lashing from
Coughlin upon his return to work the following day. Coughlin
fined him $1,500, but the NFL Players Association successfully
argued that the fine be rescinded because players can't be
required to attend functions on days off.
Last Jan. 2, on the night before Jacksonville's wild-card
playoff victory over the New England Patriots, rookies Tavian
Banks and Cordell Taylor arrived late for a team meeting because
they were in a car accident on a rain-slicked bridge. After
Taylor's car flipped four times and hit a guardrail, the injured
players were so fearful of Coughlin's wrath that they had a team
security official take them to the meeting before they received
medical attention. Coughlin fined each player $500 for being
late. The next day, according to several witnesses, Coughlin lit
into Banks in the locker room when he informed the coach that
his injured back would prevent him from playing in the game.
"To me there was only one issue--two young kids had a chance to
learn a lesson," Coughlin says. "If they would've been smart
enough to leave early for the meeting and not have to rush, it
could all have been avoided." (Banks says he and Taylor were not
running late or speeding at the time of the crash.) Coughlin's
treatment of the incident was derided by many Jaguars. "He said
he did it to be consistent," one player said at the time. "If
they had died, I guess he would've fined their estates."
If the 53-year-old Coughlin were always so hard, it would be
easy to write him off as a tyrant, but the eldest of seven
children from an Irish family in upstate New York has succeeded
in life's most important realm. He married Judy, his high school
sweetheart, in 1967, and together they've raised four children
who view their dad as a quirky yet harmless taskmaster. "He
talks a big game, but my mom's the boss at home, no question
about it," says Brian Coughlin, a senior at Michigan.
Tom is so out of the loop that the last five times he has
switched jobs, Judy has scheduled moving day to coincide with
his coaching commitments. "He creates havoc wherever he goes,
and having him around gets me uptight," she says, laughing. "The
last time he ever helped me was in 1981, when we moved into a
house in Norfolk, Mass. He thought the grass in front was too
long, so he called the realty company and demanded that the lawn
be mowed right away. The house had double front doors, and grass
shavings were flying in as we carried our belongings inside.
Things go much smoother when he's not around."
Tom drives Judy nuts by habitually licking his finger and
picking up household lint. "I got him a Dustbuster for
Christmas," says Coughlin's youngest daughter, Katie, an
18-year-old high school senior. Keli Coughlin, a 29-year-old
athletic trainer at North Florida, says her father "is such a
neat freak that if he's watching TV and someone gets a pie in
the face, he winces."
Even on family vacations, it takes Tom a week to relax. "We got
tired of him always asking where we're going and what we're
doing, so we started making him an itinerary," says the couple's
27-year-old son, Tim, a Wall Street trader. "There's very little
downtime, for obvious reasons, but he really does let go,
eventually. Last summer, we went white-water rafting in the
Canadian Rockies and got him in a vest and helmet, and it was
the most fun I've seen him have in years."
Numerous Jaguars tell of chance meetings with Coughlin that
rocked their worlds. "The first time I saw him out with his
family, I was stunned--literally speechless," Smith says. "It
was like night and day."
A couple of weeks after Thomas suffered a broken leg during a
'96 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, he showed up in the
locker room wearing a cast. To Thomas's amazement, Coughlin bent
down, placed a shoe on the player's foot and tied it. "It was
weird--the trainers stood there watching, in awe," Thomas says.
"It was like General Custer tending to one of his injured
cadets. It almost made me want to cry." Says Coughlin, "It's
unfortunate Dave had to get hurt to find out there was a human
side to me."
Coughlin's occasional attempts to connect with his players
aren't always well-received. During the '96 season he began
crashing locker room doughnut sessions on Saturdays, and players
scattered like waterbugs. Now he routinely makes small talk with
selected team members--"It's Tom's opportunity to cut on the
players in a fun way," says quarterback Mark Brunell--but many
Jaguars stay away from the doughnut tray until the coach is
gone. "You don't want to get caught in a conversation with him,
because you never have any idea where he's coming from," one
Jacksonville veteran says. "He'll make a comment about toughness
or discipline, and you don't know if he's testing you or trying
to be funny or what. It would help if he had a personality."
Though he swears he'll never mellow--"Discipline is as important
to the athlete as the air he breathes," Coughlin
maintains--there does seem to be a glasnost as the Jaguars grow
accustomed to his pace. Frustrated in his attempts to hire a
replacement for offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, who was
hired as the Cleveland Browns' coach last January, Coughlin
decided to call his own plays in '99. He says he wouldn't have
been able to handle the increased responsibility in previous
years, when more babysitting of his players was required.
Coughlin also reacted to the team's recent run of
injuries--Jacksonville finished last season with a league-high
13 players on injured reserve--by scaling back on padded
practices during training camp and, for the first time, working
injured players back into the lineup gradually by limiting their
plays during preseason games. "Things like that are really,
really smart," says one Jaguars veteran, "and then all of a
sudden he'll do something stupid for no reason."
Pressed for an example, the player cites Coughlin's rule
prohibiting white socks and sneakers in hotel lobbies, even
though sandals, sans socks, are allowed. "I just hate that
look," Coughlin says. "That looks like you're Joe Lobby or some
kind of tourist."
As he says this, you look down: Coughlin is wearing white tennis
shoes and white socks. "But I'm not in a hotel," he says. "I'm
at work, so it's O.K."
It's not the most logical explanation, but if Coughlin's team
keeps playing the way it did on Sunday, who's going to question
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Get back here! Joel Smeenge and the Jaguars harassed Niners quarterback Steve Young into one of his worst days as a pro.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Slick Brunell passed for 265 yards and a touchdown, and just as important, didn't turn the ball over in the sloppy conditions.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES New role Coughlin called the plays for the first time on Sunday, and the Jaguars responded with a 41-point outburst.
"When things aren't consistent," says Coughlin, "it drives me
crazy, and I don't know how to function."
"He talks a big game," Brian Coughlin says of his dad, "but my
mom's the boss at home, no question about it."