Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick are destined to have one of the most intriguing and intertwined relationships two coaches have ever had in the NFL.
As young assistants, they joined forces to help the Giants win Super Bowl XXV.
In 1995, Coughlin’s expansion Jacksonville Jaguars won four games – including two over the Cleveland Browns, who were in their final season under Belichick and in Cleveland.
Twelve years later, Coughlin was head coach when the Giants defeated the three-time Super Bowl-winning Belichick and his undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
During the 2011 regular season, Coughlin and Belichick were the league’s two oldest head coaches (new Kansas City Coach Romeo Crennel, another former Giants assistant, is now slotted between them). The Giants defeated the Patriots in New England, 24-20, on Nov. 6. Now the two teams – and coaches – are here for a rematch x 2 in Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday.
Not only is it an exciting chapter in the burgeoning Giants-Patriots rivalry, but it’s another forum for the coaches to express how much they admire each other. It’s hard to imagine they haven’t grown weary of the subject, but Coughlin and Belichick offer nothing but genuine plaudits when asked about the other.
“I certainly do admire him, and he’s done an outstanding job,” Coughlin said this week. “He’s an exceptional football coach, and I’ve said that before. The style and the preparation…Bill is going to work very hard, as we are, at showing you something and it really isn’t what you think it is. You really have to add an element of that into how you prepare. He’s always been an exceptional defensive coach, trained by the best, by (Bill) Parcells. He’s also become an outstanding offensive coach and Tom Brady has helped him to really diversify and get into areas offensively that only lead to the particular strengths of the individuals involved, and he’s done a very good job of that. He’s always been an outstanding special teamer because he was a special teams coach at one time.”
“I have a lot of respect for Tom,” Belichick said. “I think he’s definitely stood the test of time in a couple organizations: in Jacksonville and at the Giants. Of course, BC [Boston College] but I’m saying at the NFL level, he’s withstood the test of time. He’s tough; his teams are disciplined. They play with great competitiveness and play smart. They’re a good situational football team. They force you to go out there and beat them. They do a lot of things well. That’s kind of the way Tom is: Tom is tough, he’s very detailed, he has a lot of experience, he’s an intense coach and I think that’s reflected in the way his teams play. He’s a good friend of mine that I’ve been with a long time, as I’ve mentioned before.”
The relationship between Coughlin and Belichick was forged when they were on the Giants’ staff together from 1988-90. Coughlin coached the wide receivers and Belichick, in addition to being the defensive coordinator, was responsible for the secondary. They worked closely to constantly improve and challenge their players.
“We worked very well together and I think that is the thing that is very, very important when you evaluate that time in our lives,” said Coughlin, who left the Giants after the 1990 season to become the coach at Boston College. “We cooperated well and or players cooperated well. We did a lot together and I can remember Parcells saying, ‘Again?’ when we said we wanted to do some red zone or one-on-ones together. He would say, ‘Again?’ We did work well together and our players worked well, we prepared one another and we acted as each others’ scout team in the individual practices that we had. We would discuss things back and forth to a certain extent and what the offensive strategy would be and the defensive approach. It was a good time. It was fun and the whole staff was an outstanding staff.”
“When I was the secondary coach and Tom was the receivers coach at the Giants, we worked against each other daily,” Belichick said, “and we also had great rapport off the field of helping each other out, talking about the different techniques and players of our upcoming opponents and suggestions of how to cover them or run routes, helping each other out on things like that as well as working with each other on the practice field. Of all the coaches I’ve worked with, it was as good as any. I had an excellent relationship with him for us being on opposite sides of the ball, but being able to help each other and our players help each other and have a good, healthy, competitive situation, but also you’ve got the coach on the other side trying to help you and you trying to help them just get better. That certainly helped our secondary when I was with the Giants.”
As noted, Coughlin and Belichick have enjoyed more success in their second NFL head coaching gigs. Coughlin did excellent work in Jacksonville, where he took the expansion Jaguars to the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, including two AFC Championship Games. But he was fired after a third straight losing season in 2002. Belichick had just one winning season – and one postseason berth - in five years with the Browns. He endured a chaotic final season after owner Art Modell announced he was moving the Browns to Baltimore.
But the bad endings at their first jobs did not prevent the Giants from hiring Coughlin and the Patriots from bringing in Belichick. Both men are now among the NFL’s best and most respected coaches.
Giants president and chief executive officer John Mara was asked “if there’s something to be said” about coaches finding success in their second head coaching job after getting on-the-job training in their first go-around.
“I think there definitely is,” Mara said. “You’ve seen it with other coaches. Bill Belichick is a prime example and Tom, also. I think they do learn a lot. I’m sure they don’t prefer to go that route. But I think you can’t help but learn from it, especially if you’re a smart guy, like those two guys.”
Mara said several factors led him to focus in on Coughlin when the Giants had a head coaching vacancy in 2003.
“The fact that he had been with us and we knew him and the fact that he had success in Jacksonville,” Mara said. “I think what happened to him down there was he got in salary cap jail and they had a great deal of difficulty trying to get out. They had to cut their best players. I don’t think that was a black mark on his coaching ability. He’s always been able to coach. I just think the way they were set up at the time and the fact that they got in salary cap trouble made it almost impossible for him to have continued success. We made it clear in our organization, the general manager makes those decisions. He works together with the coach, but the coach doesn’t control the salary cap.”
Belichick was a Giants assistant from 1979-1990, the last six as defensive coordinator. The Giants won Super Bowls following the 1986 and 1990 seasons. Belichick left to become head coach of the Browns and spent four years as an assistant under Parcells with the Patriots and Jets before becoming head coach in New England in 2000. He won the first of his three Super Bowls the following season. Belichick’s Patriots are annually one of the NFL’s best teams. This season, they finished 13-3.
“For him to have that kind of success over that long a period of time, I think, just sets him apart among NFL coaches, really in the history of the game,” Mara said. “It’s just unbelievable what he’s been able to accomplish. He is a formidable opponent. I have a lot of respect for him. He did an outstanding job with us as our defensive coordinator. But the success he’s had as a head coach is just unbelievable.
“Things didn’t work out for him in Cleveland and he came back as a coordinator and kind of reinvented himself. The success he’s had with the Patriots has been amazing. They should someday do a statue right next to Red Auerbach’s in Boston for him.”
No man has spent as much time in meetings, practices and at games with both Coughlin and Belichick as Michael Pope, the Giants tight ends coach. Pope was on the Giants’ staff with Belichick for eight years (and with Coughlin for three) and has held his current position throughout Coughlin’s eight-year tenure as head coach.
What does Pope think is the greatest similarity between the two coaches?
“If you had to start with a similarity, it would be work ethic,” Pope said. “They both are tireless workers. They don’t leave anything to chance. Everything is detailed. That is why both of them have been as successful as they have. They don’t just say, ‘Well, if that happens, we’ll try to play through that’ or ‘We’ll figure out something if it happens in the game.’ Neither one of these head coaches do that. They go to every single possibility of a situation. Not that you’re going to accomplish it in the game. But it’s not new news to the players when it happens. They know it’s been rehearsed, it’s been talked about, it’s been covered, it’s been walked-through, it’s been practiced.
“I think their work ethic and their attention to detail far and away covers the first five spots in a list of 10 things that make them similar.”
Here’s another one: they are two of the most successful and admired coaches in NFL history. And they show no sign of slowing down. Coughlin is 65, while Belichick turns 60 in April. This is the oldest head coaching matchup in Super Bowl history. Given everything that’s preceded it, it’s also one of the best.