Today’s Guest: Jacksonville Jaguars Head Coach Tom Coughlin in a Jacksonville Magazine interview by Bob Andelman, originally published in September 1994.
Tom Coughlin wanted to be an NFL head coach.
He just didn’t know he wanted to run an NFL expansion franchise. Never crossed his mind, frankly. And even when he was approached, his first impulse was to reject it out of hand as damned foolish.
And why not? Sports history is littered with the carcasses of sacrificial coaches slaughtered at the expansion altar. Remember the New York Mets? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Those teams were led by winners, Casey Stengel and John McKay, guys who, like Coughlin, believed there was only one way to prepare for a game: Play to win.
So why did the 47-year-old Boston College coach agree to more conversations last February with the men from Jacksonville? Why did the man who declined a similar offer from the storied New York Giants say yes to the Jaguars?
Two words: Wayne Weaver.
The mating dance between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tom Coughlin began with a telephone call in which team president David Seldin expressed interest. “Quite frankly,” Coughlin says, “I wasn’t moved all that greatly.”
Prior to Coughlin, several more familiar names surfaced as possible head coaches for the nascent team. Jimmy Johnson. Bill Walsh. Lou Holtz. But Weaver says it’s a mistake to think Tom Coughlin was anything but his first choice.
“We did interview a lot of people, and Tom was one of the last,” Weaver says. “But we did not offer the job to anyone else. We wanted an offensive mind at head coach. I would say Tom was my first choice. People had great things to say about Coughlin. (New England Patriots head coach) Bill Parcells said, ‘He’s one of the best three coaches I’ve ever coached with.’ Which was quite a testimonial.”
Following more calls between Seldin and Coughlin, the coach agreed to meet Seldin and Weaver face-to-face for the first time. Coughlin, who lived outside of Boston in Walpole, insisted on a neutral location where he would not be recognized and the two sides agreed on a hotel in Providence, Rhode Island.
“We met clandestinely on Friday night because Tom was absolutely adamant about security,” Weaver recalls. “He was not sure he wanted to get involved so he did not want any leaks.”
TOM COUGHLIN excerpt: “I was the oldest of seven. We may not have had a lot of things but we had great love and support. My mother and father are people of great values. From my standpoint it’s a personal pride thing. It’s the idea that you want to do the best you can, no matter what the task because your name’s going to appear on it.”
After two weeks of interviewing coaching prospects, the Coughlin meeting was the first to completely escape media scrutiny. That, in itself, was a positive sign for both sides.
From 8 p.m. until midnight, the two sides met over coffee in a conference room. They discussed general philosophy and Coughlin pressed Weaver on his commitment to building a winning team from the start. Each made a strong first impression on the other.
“You don’t have to spend a lot of time with the man to learn what you see is what you get. He was bright, straight-forward” Weaver says of Coughlin. “It was apparent to me that Tom did not make impulsive decisions. He had very strong opinions about how he would put together a new franchise. He was very methodical. Probably in the first half-hour, I thought, ‘This man has a rigid personality.’ ”
“Very forthright, honest, sincere,” Coughlin says of Weaver. “Very intense, energetic. Great qualities as a man. Strong values. When you’re in the business of coaching and evaluating, recruiting, you hope over the years you develop a strong ability to analyze people. I felt very strongly about the quality of the man.”
Still, Coughlin didn’t leave the first meeting convinced he wanted to be the next Stengel or McKay.
“He was candid that this may not be something he wanted to get involved with, but he was willing to listen,” Weaver says. “He wanted to understand our philosophy on building a franchise. Tom felt very strongly that he had to have certain authority. As we interviewed Tom, he interrogated us.”
Weaver liked Coughlin’s hammerhead approach. He wanted someone who wanted responsibility. His preference was a man who’d wear both the general manager’s and head coach’s hat.
Weaver was impressed that more than 90 percent of Coughlin’s players at Boston College graduated. There were no scandals associated with his teams, either, no midnight raids on Foot Locker. Coughlin took a team that was barren of talent and took it to New Year’s Eve bowl games two years in a row, something that had never occurred at BC before. And Weaver appreciated the coach’s assurance that “any team I field will be the best-conditioned, the best prepared, and highly motivated when they take the field.”
The meeting adjourned late. Weaver and Seldin stayed over at the hotel; Coughlin drove home to Walpole.
“I was convinced Friday night that I was going to offer Tom the job,” Weaver says. “But in fairness to the due diligence process, I decided to wait.”
Saturday morning, Weaver and Seldin drove on to Boston and took a suite at the Four Seasons. Upon arrival, Weaver called Coughlin at home and invited him for a second meeting. This one lasted 2-1/2 hours.
The conversation quickly moved from philosophy to contract terms and salary. Weaver’s new head coach did not come cheap or easily. “I think Tom’s a good negotiator,” he says, laughing. “He had a lucrative job at Boston College, he was secure there. And he had turned down the Giants job the year before. As a matter of fact, (Giants G.M.) George Young was one of the people we talked to before we spoke to Tom. He had praise for him — ‘I offered him a job, didn’t I?’ ”
Young liked what he saw when Coughlin worked under Bill Parcells. “He was an excellent coach and disciplined the players well. We felt, in time, he’d be a very good head coach. He went to Boston College and proved it.”
They settled on a five-year deal, the exact details of which Weaver declines to discuss. Afterwards, Coughlin went home, where he was followed a short time later by Weaver and Seldin, who met the coach’s wife, Judy, and his four children, daughters Keli and Katie, sons Tim and Brian. Monday morning, the Coughlins flew into Jacksonville for Tom’s coronation.
• • •
Tom Coughlin is intense.
Who says so? Well, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, for one. In a 1992 story describing the BC coach, Shaughnessy described him as “RoboCoach . . . equal parts Lombardi, Patton and Nixon.” Beside a photo of the coach were two words: “He’s intense.”
Jaguars assistant coach Jerald Ingram, a BC transplant, recalls a painful Eagles loss to Georgia Tech during 1991, Coughlin’s first season. “Coach Coughlin had pneumonia that week. This is when I knew the man was absolutely committed. He didn’t miss a practice. He didn’t want his players to think he was weak. He was not going to let anything come between him and his team.”
Boston Herald sports writer Michael J. Ryan believes the Boston College football program eventually became more stable under Coughlin’s leadership. But the man’s personality and bearing were an abrupt change from his predecessor, Jack Bickenell.
“At the beginning, Coughlin drove away a lot of kids,” Ryan says. “One of the guys was a senior and he was debating whether to come back for a fifth year. He said, ‘I don’t know if I want to play for Hitler next year.’ ”
“He was very disciplined,” confirms Reid Oslin, associate athletic director for sports information at Boston College. “He thought the team needed a lot of hard work and some kids decided not to play. They did not want to make the sacrifices he asked of them.”
As an assistant coach charged with organizing BC’s team photo day in 1981, Coughlin earned another nickname: “Technical Tom.”
“I spoke to him about setting aside time for photo day,” Oslin recalls. “He said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you a plan.’ He said, ‘At 10:07 you do this, at 10:12 you do this.’ Everybody came out of the locker room in precise order. When we took our team photo, it took exactly 12 minutes.
“He’s more highly structured than anyone I’ve ever met, including anybody in the military,” Oslin says. “You don’t notice that when he’s an assistant, but you catch on in a big way when he’s the head coach.”
One of Coughlin’s cardinal rules is that during practice, nobody sits down. When a player returned to the team following hernia surgery, Coughlin asked what the young man could do. “He can walk,” the doctor said. “Well, then, he’ll walk,” the coach ordered, and the young man walked and walked and walked.
Not even his own family members are immune to the “no sitting” rule. His daughter Katie showed up to watch practice on a hot, hot day and stretched out, exhausted, on a table. “Get up!” Coughlin told her. “But, Dad . . . ” “Get up!” the coach demanded. “Nobody sits down!”
WAYNE WEAVER excerpt: “You don’t have to spend a lot of time with the man to learn what you see is what you get. He was bright, straight-forward. It was apparent to me that Tom did not make impulsive decisions. He had very strong opinions about how he would put together a new franchise. He was very methodical. Probably in the first half-hour, I thought, ‘This man has a rigid personality.'”
“When you’re at work, he is the boss,” says assistant coach Pete Carmichael. “He’s intense on the field. He doesn’t hold it back. If something goes wrong, he lets you know. But not to the point of being degrading. He’s vocal. You know he’s there. The first meeting we ever had, he said, ‘Don’t take me seriously. Don’t be thin-skinned when I tell you something.’ He’ll say something and it’s over. On to the next situation. I think that’s very productive.”
New York Giants GM George Young doesn’t see what the big deal is. “Football’s a battlefield,” he says. These are Patton-esque people who coach football teams. Hey, they used to scream and yell at Lombardi but they raised him to sainthood. And he was pretty intense. They have to be intense because they have to know how to win.”
Tom Coughlin is intense — and he knows it.
“I was the oldest of seven,” he says. “We may not have had a lot of things but we had great love and support. My mother and father are people of great values. From my standpoint it’s a personal pride thing. It’s the idea that you want to do the best you can, no matter what the task because your name’s going to appear on it.”
• • •
Tom Coughlin is a human being, after all.
For all the ferocity attached to the man, at least one heart-wrenching story also follows him wherever he goes.
Jay McGillis was a defensive back on Coughlin’s first squad at BC in 1991. He started the team’s first 10 games before being struck with the flu just before the 11th game. Blood tests showed McGillis actually had leukemia; he died the following July.
“Tom was very affected by that,” Reid Oslin says. “Jay was Tom’s type of kid. He wasn’t the best player, or the fastest, but he gave 110 percent.”
Coughlin kept Jay McGillis’ picture in his office and left the boy’s jersey hanging in his locker. Everyone on the team wore McGillis’ No. 31 on the left sleeve of their jerseys during the 1992 and ’93 seasons. Coughlin wouldn’t assign anyone else the number as long as he remained coach. Sometimes he wore McGillis’ windbreaker, No. 31, on the sidelines.
Out of public view, he maintained a remarkable dedication to the entire McGillis family, calling them regularly, inviting them to take part in team activities. When Boston College earned bowl bids in 1992 and 1993, Coughlin saw to it the McGillis family was invited to accompany the team. It wasn’t until later the family learned Coughlin had paid their way out of his own pocket.
“There’s not enough I can say about Coach Coughlin,” says Jay’s mother, Pat. “He was more like a father to Jay than a coach. He was at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital to see Jay, and then at Dana Farber. He would go in to encourage Jay and Jay would end up encouraging him. He’s truly a wonderful person. In fact, he’s one of the finest people I know. He calls on holidays, or on Jay’s birthday, or on Mother’s Day. He’s called me from Jacksonville to see how things are. He’s almost unbelievable. We certainly miss him up here.”
(By sheer coincidence, Jay McGillis was a patient at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, where Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver and his wife Delores established the Claudia Adams Barr Program. In June, Tom Coughlin made a donation in Jay McGillis’ name to the institute.)
• • •
Tom Coughlin is a stickler for detail.
He works hard and he pushes hard, but those who know him say he recognizes when it’s time to lay off, too. He has limits and knows other people do, too. There’s no gray areas with the man. He tells his players and coaches what he wants, then he expects them to go out and get it done.
His precision is legendary.
“Technical Tom” arrived for work at BC precisely at 6:05 a.m. (Sundays at 7 a.m.) And you’ll find him at Jaguars headquarters each morning at the same time. (Before his family moved down this month, he lived a bachelor’s existence in Jacksonville, working until 11 p.m. most nights, breaking only for a 7 p.m. workout and run.)
Wait till you see him on the sidelines. He’s a nervous guy down there, always moving around, always making himself heard, his presence felt. And watch his hands — he’ll always be tapping something.
• • •
Tom Coughlin played the game.
He was a standout at Waterloo High School in upstate New York and remembers being all-consumed by the experience then, too. “That’s your world when you’re a youngster as much involved in athletics as I was,” he says. “That’s your family, your school and your religion. Those are the kind of things that drove me.”
He excelled at Syracuse University as well, lettering for the Orangemen in his sophomore, junior and senior years (1965-67) while the team — which included All-American backs and future NFL stars Larry Csonka and Floyd Little — amassed a 23-8 record. Coughlin was the team’s receiving leader in 1967, collecting 26 receptions for 257 yards (averaging 9.9 yards per reception) and one touchdown. His numbers shattered SU’s single-season pass receiving record. He also won the school’s Orange Key Award that year as an outstanding scholar-athlete.
Coughlin stayed on at Syracuse as a graduate assistant until becoming head coach at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1970. In 1974, he returned to Syracuse as an assistant coach. From 1977-80 he served as the team’s offensive coordinator, and Syracuse met with mixed results: 21-24 overall, including a 31-7 victory over McNeese State in the 1979 Independence Bowl.
Boston College coach Jack Bickenell hired Coughlin as quarterback coach in 1981. He helped guide the Eagles to the team’s first bowl bid in 40 years and coached Doug Flutie to the Heisman Trophy.
The NFL first beckoned Coughlin in 1984. He joined the Philadelphia Eagles as a receivers coach that year, moving on to the Green Bay Packers in 1986. New York Giants coach Bill Parcells recruited him in 1988; the Giants won the Super Bowl in 1991.
Coughlin returned triumphantly to Boston College in 1991 and within two seasons created a Top 20 contender. A ’92 victory over the Nittany Lions — at Penn State — was the turning point for the BC program. Coughlin out-foxed Joe Paterno that day, at one point lining up triple tight ends. A year later, BC stunned Notre Dame, 41-39, winning on a last-second field goal which sent the national championship into free-for-all.
“While he was here he certainly gave us his all,” Reid Oslin says. “I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t he wasn’t going to be in the NFL again. The surprise was he went as quickly as he did.”
Once he accepted the job as head coach of the Jaguars, Coughlin asked two of his heroes for guidance. Once upon a nightmare, both Tom Landry and John McKay had been in Coughlin’s shoes, guiding the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively, through their terrible twos (and threes and fours).
“Coach Landry said to me, ‘You’ve got to keep the faith. It is a very difficult job,’ ” Coughlin says. “He pointed out it was seven years before he had his first winning season, that one of the things that really helped him was a deep faith in himself, and confidence in his ability.
“Coach McKay was also very helpful. He talked about his philosophy as he went about building a team. We talked about his disillusionment with the expansion pool. The people available to him at the time were largely people who had serious injuries in the past. He spoke about their goal in trying to build a defense.”
McKay — who came to the Bucs after 16 seasons (1960-75) at the University of Southern California — told Coughlin that he, too, brought many of his college assistants with him to the pros, including Joe Gibbs and Wayne Fontes.
“I’ve followed his career and watched his Boston College teams play,” McKay says. “I thought they did an outstanding job without the best material. I don’t give advice lightly. But I told the coach, ‘Select the right athletes and don’t get in their way.’ ”
“I’m not naive,” Coughlin says. “I know what we’re getting into. I know it will be a very difficult time. Obviously. Just to surround yourself with the quality players it takes to be competitive in the National Football League takes time. There are no short cuts. And to say anything less than that is foolish.”
• • •
Tom Coughlin is not an easy man to know.
He is not Steve Spurrier, the University of Florida superhero as a player and coach who could light up the Gator Bowl with his smile. Jacksonville might never get to know, either face-to-face or through the media, Tom Coughlin. That’s not his style; that’s not who he is. He’s not a glad-hander, not a rah-rah. Get used to it.
“It’s going to be hard for anybody to get close to him. He doesn’t allow that,” says assistant coach Steve Szabo. “He likes to keep his distance. That’s his choice. That kind of relationship allows him to do his job better.”
“He’s not the kind of guy who, after work, goes out for a beer with the guys,” Weaver says. “When they leave, he’s still at the stadium watching film. When he goes home, he goes home to family.”
Weaver chafes at complaints that Coughlin hasn’t been visible enough in the community. “While we don’t have any players, people might think we have plenty of time to get out in the community. Well, you’ve got 1,624 players in the NFL. By the time we start, Tom and his people will have studied them all,” the owner says. “I think that’s going to be a big plus for us.”
Very little will come between Tom Coughlin and his team once the football season is underway. He doesn’t, for example, listen to his car radio driving to or from work, preferring to spend that time concentrating on his game. Not even his own birthday, Aug. 31, can make the man pause. “I haven’t celebrated a birthday on Aug. 31 since I was 14,” he once said. No, he waits until the off-season to age.
Coughlin isn’t one of those NFL coaches who’ll develop cozy relationships with the media, sucking up for good press. As was his practice in Boston, he limits his availability for print and radio interviews to 30 minutes daily, noon to 12:30 p.m. Exceptions are rare.
“He would answer whatever questions there were — from 12 to 12:30 p.m. Nobody ever went away empty-handed during that time,” Reid Oslin says. “A guy showed up once at 12:33 p.m. and Tom was on to something else. One time he said to me, ‘You know those media interviews you say will last 5 minutes? Some of them go 11 minutes!’ ”
When Coughlin accepted the head coach’s job at BC, a Boston Globe reporter asked for a 30-minute interview. “Sure,” Coughlin said. “How about 5:30?” “That’s great,” the reporter said. “You want to meet for dinner?” “No,” answered Coughlin. “5:30 a.m.”
“The reporters here didn’t get many good quotes from him,” Boston Herald sports writer Michael J. Ryan says. “He took shots in the press here for not opening up, but I don’t think it bothered him that he didn’t get ‘country club’ coverage. That’s just the way he is. I don’t think it’s a fault that people can’t get close to the guy. He’s a bright guy, but what he does is coach football. He’s not going to explain Shakespeare’s use of the colon. His job is to communicate to big strong guys where to go, who to hit. You got yourself a good football coach. That’s the bottom line.”
At His Side
Tom Coughlin didn’t come to Jacksonville empty-handed. Following him south were six of his Boston College assistant coaches, all making their NFL debut with the Jaguars. Five will be assistants here; the sixth, Fran Foley, was hired as a college scout.
Nobody knows better than Coughlin — a former assistant himself at both the college and pro levels — that there are differences between managing the young men running for glory at school and those playing for cold, hard cash in the NFL. But he thinks his first hires will make the transition smoothly.
“Those that were best-prepared, in my opinion, to handle this sort of challenge, I wanted to share this with because of the job they had done for me,” Coughlin says. “Coaching is a very difficult job, and these people had demonstrated ability despite the pressure I might have put upon them. They certainly demonstrated the ability to succeed and be winners. They were very capable coaches who stood the test and they should be here with me. I think these people will be more than ready for anything.”
Randy Edsall, 36, brings the most unique relationship with Coughlin to the table: he once played for the man. As back-up quarterback to Rich Hurley (and a long snapper for punts) for Syracuse University from 1976-79, Edsall “made my mark as the guy who wore the nice hat on the sidelines, held the clipboard and charted plays.”
After playing for Syracuse, Edsall joined its coaching staff as a graduate assistant, eventually taking over the defensive backs. He stayed 11 years, leaving only when Coughlin hired him as BC’s defensive backs coach in 1991.
Bringing so many assistants from Boston College creates advantages for the Jaguars and Coughlin, according to Edsall. “We know each other; we know how each other interacts. And we all know how Tom is and what Tom wants,” he says. “He’s mellowed some since I played for him. But he still gets the most out of your potential.”
Edsall and his wife, Eileen, have two children, Alexi, 4, and Corey, 2. They’ve purchased a home at Marsh Landing in Ponte Vedra Beach.
While Tom Coughlin coached Syracuse’s quarterbacks from 1974-76, Steve Szabo, 50, was nearby working with the team’s defensive line. Like other members of the coaching squad, Szabo’s presence is another reminder that Coughlin remembers his associates through the years.
“We have a unique relationship because we once worked side-by-side,” Szabo says. “But I don’t do a lot of things with him. We keep it strictly professional.”
Szabo — who was a halfback/defensive back at the U.S. Naval Academy and a teammate of Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach — was glad when Coughlin brought him to Boston College as defensive coordinator; he was downright grateful to be swept along into the pro ranks.
“There’s certain things about college I’m glad are behind me,” says the veteran of 25 college coaching seasons and nine bowl games. “One is recruiting. Two is checking on kids, making sure they go to classes.”
This is actually Szabo’s second tour of duty in Jacksonville. “I was here the summer of ’62, on a destroyer at Mayport,” he says. “It was hot as hell, one of the ugliest summers on record. There wasn’t much to do. I remember Jacksonville Beach was full of honky-tonks.”
He never dreamed he’d one day be building a home on Ponte Vedra Beach (at The Plantation), where he, his wife Patti, and their 5-year-old son, Zack, will soon live. (Szabo also has two older children, Christine, 22, and Mike, 19.)
No offense, Jacksonville, but Mike Maser, 47, hardly took notice when the NFL awarded the city a football team.
“When expansion was going on, we were fully involved in the season. ‘Jacksonville got the team? That’s nice,’ ” is how he remembers it. After 25 years of coaching, Maser was on automatic pilot.
That was then, this is now. “I really like Jacksonville,” Maser says. “It’s starting to grow on me. Everybody’s been just super, going out of their way to extend courtesies to us.” He’s especially pleased to have made the move alongside his compadres from Boston College. “It’s easy to work with Tom,” he says, “because you know where you stand with him all the time.”
A former starting guard at the University of Buffalo (1967-70), Maser’s first coaching job was handling the offensive line at Marshall University in 1973. Over the years he moved on to Bluefield (W. Va.) State College (1974-76) and the University of Maine (1979-80), before settling in for a 13-year stretch as offensive line coach at Boston College.
Maser and his wife, Barbara, bought a home at the Jacksonville Golf & Country Club.
Pressure? What pressure? All Jerald Ingram, 33, sees in his future is a professional football team and a town that can’t wait. “The goal is to win. You want to try as hard as you can to win,” he says. “This is the ultimate challenge.”
Some might say that Ingram and his associates under Coughlin faced the ultimate challenge at Boston College where they convinced (brainwashed might be more accurate) pretty average student-athletes they could play with the best in the country.
“We didn’t play with the greatest players in America,” Ingram, BC’s running backs coach, says. “But we were able to motivate them. There was no way we were as good as Notre Dame, Miami or Michigan. But we played along with them. The Notre Dame game — I haven’t jumped up and down that way in years.”
Ingram, whose freshman class at the University of Michigan included Anthony Carter, was hobbled by knee problems throughout his college days, although he did find his way into some games.
Newlyweds Jerald and Kathleen Ingram — they’ve been married two years — live in Mandarin.
Leaving Boston College was probably toughest for Pete Carmichael, 53, who coached football there for 18 years altogether (1968-73, 1981-93). He and his wife Elaine have three children — Layni, 26, Kathleen, 24, and Pete, 22. All are BC graduates.
“The people in Jacksonville are very friendly,” says Pete Carmichael of his first months as a resident of the First Coast. “My wife is amazed. The Jaguars situation — people are so receptive. They’re excited because we’re associated with the team they’ve waited so long for.”
If sports writers were surprised by Tom Coughlin’s selection as the Jaguar’s first head coach, they’ll have to get in line behind Carmichael. Coughlin completely faked him out, too.
“Tom was supposed to go on vacation,” Carmichael says. “He kept it private. He called at home and apologized for doing it that way but he was going to have to get out of town. He said, ‘I’m taking the Jacksonville job, and you’ll have a decision to make.’ ”
Carmichael has been devoted to football for a long time, playing quarterback at the University of Dayton (1960) and Montclair State (1961-63) before joining the coaching ranks at a string of schools including Virginia Military Institute, University of New Hampshire, Trenton State, Columbia University, the Merchant Marine Academy and two stints at BC.
Now the youngest Carmichael is following in his dad’s footsteps. This fall, Pete will be a coach at the University of New Hampshire. “He’s going to be the guy going to get the coffee for a while,” says Dad, not without a trace of pride. But this is an all-round football family. “The girls will wind up down here, too,” Carmichael says. “They want to be involved in football.”