Coughlin says the fire still burns

Posted: January 13, 2016

Tom Coughlin stopped short of saying farewell last Tuesday. He spent 12 years as the New York Giants' head coach - almost all of his 60s - and put two Super Bowl trophies on their mantel. His tenure ended after missing the postseason for four consecutive years, and the stage was set for the 69-year-old to exit with grace.

That's not Coughlin. He arrived five minutes early - a Coughlin custom - and offered 20 minutes of enthusiasm that made him appear more of an up-and-coming coordinator than a future Hall of Famer looking ahead to retirement.

"Judy and I together a long time ago [said] we don't say goodbye," Coughlin said, referring to his wife. "We just say, 'Next time.' "

That "next time" could be under the Eagles' employment. Coughlin interviewed with Eagles management on Monday afternoon.

In Coughlin, the Eagles found a coaching candidate different than any other they have interviewed. His credentials are without compare on the market, and the question with Coughlin is not about qualifications. Rather, it's whether he still wants to coach at his age - he said last week he has "not necessarily" extinguished his coaching flame - and whether he fits in Philadelphia with this roster and front-office structure.

Ernie Bono, Coughlin's close friend and vice president of Coughlin's charitable organization, the Jay Fund, heard the question about whether Coughlin's fire is still burning and laughed.

"That's not even a close question in my mind," Bono said during a telephone interview. "He really doesn't need to coach. But his desire . . ."

Bono went on to describe the competitive zeal that Coughlin maintains and the sense of responsibility he feels for a team. The same message that Coughlin delivered to Eli Manning last week - when the Giants win, the team wins; when the Giants lose, Coughlin loses - is the message that Coughlin offers on the golf course.

Bono was an all-Catholic football player at St. Thomas More and played running back at Cheney State. He retired 21 years ago, but he said he does not have two days that look the same while sitting on five boards of directors and working with charities. Bono's friends call him the "Energizer bunny." Then he conceded that Coughlin has more energy than him.

"He can outwit me. If we have a dinner appointment, it's a race to see who can get there ahead of time, and he beats me all the time," Bono said. "He's an amazing person. I don't think age is a question here. . . . The fact is, you're talking about a Hall of Fame football coach. They don't come around very often."

Giants president John Mara said age was not a consideration in Coughlin's exit. He cited former general manager George Young's suggestion that energy matters more than age.

"And nobody had more energy than Tom," Mara said at a news conference.

The sentiment from Mara wasn't that Coughlin could no longer coach but rather that his 12-year reign in New York had come to an end. Former Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver said when he sold the team that he never should have fired Coughlin, who led Jacksonville to the postseason in four of the Jaguars' first five years in existence. (Coughlin coached there eight seasons.) They have made the postseason in just two of the 13 years since.

"I wouldn't categorize it as a firing, but I could very well be saying that," Mara said. "But listen. We had 12 great years. All good things must come to an end at some point in time. But I could never repay him for what he did for this franchise."

Coughlin said he's not "different" than when he started coaching the Giants in 2004, but that he has grown, developed, and learned. During his 12 years with the Giants, Coughlin's relationships with his players and his public image both improved. It helped to win Super Bowls, but there was also more exposure to his personality. Bono said Coughlin shows the type of loyalty that Philadelphians can appreciate.

During his final news conference, Coughlin didn't limit his appreciation to ownership, front office, coaches, and players. He referenced the equipment staff, video staff, and medical staff. He mentioned his communications chief and a community relations executive by name. He spoke about his wife, children, and grandchildren. When Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie discussed the next coach needing to "open his heart" and value "emotional intelligence," the 2016 version of Tom Coughlin would fit that description.

"What has become extremely important to me as I've grown in this position is relationships," Coughlin said. "Relationships have become the primary objective in my career. I still have a hard time when former players - guys who we battled together, they've been corrected, I've been mad at them, they've been mad at me, so on and so forth - after a year or two, sometimes not even that long, they walk up to me and say: 'I love you, Coach.'

"When that first happened to me, I didn't know how to respond. I was like, 'Whoa, wait a minute.' This is a big old tough-guy business. We're not supposed to be able to say that and do that. I can tell you right now it has become the source of drive for me, is that when our players, whether they're in their career, after their [football] career, when they come back to me and they say: 'Coach, I love you.' "

Coughlin gave a blind assurance that his messages will not fall on deaf ears. He said he would find a way to stay in the game. The Giants already expressed interest in keeping him as part of their organization. And the Eagles just might have a head coaching job to offer him, too.

"I will [work] somehow, some way," Coughlin said. "My wife will not want me to be home longer than probably 48 hours. 'There is your coat. Don't you have someplace to go?' "

zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm 

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