But these descriptions came not from the Giants, the team Coughlin has coached since 2004 and led to a pair of Super Bowl victories. Instead, they were uttered by players from his first head coaching job at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Coughlin’s first season there was 1970, when he was all of 24 years old. He stayed four seasons and compiled a record of 16-15-2 (the program was disbanded after the 1977 season; Coughlin left after the ’73 season to take an assistant’s job at Syracuse).
“It was a great experience,” Coughlin said of his time at RIT. “I was a GA at Syracuse (his alma mater) and I got my graduate degree there. I go to RIT, which is a club football team transferring into Division III. So I have to do it all. First of all, I’m the only full-time employee. I have two of my Syracuse classmates who were also football players and a couple of local guys became my part-time assistants. I did scheduling, I did equipment buying. I scheduled the preseason scrimmages. I found the preseason dormitory – we stayed in a fraternity house. I had to hire the cook myself.
“I did the fields. We made a great move at one point; we played our games in the back in the middle of the hinterland. We moved up to the main varsity field, which was a beautiful soccer field at the time. I scheduled hotels and busses – everything you had to do, I did it. I scheduled the games. The AD, Lou Alexander, Jr. had me do it. It prepared me in a lot of ways for things that have come up in my career.”
The players who were on Coughlin’s roster four decades ago have similarly fond memories of their careers and their coach. When the Giants played in Super Bowl XLII following the 2007 season, almost 60 former R.I.T. players, family members and friends watched the game together. When the Giants upset the New England Patriots, they cheered wildly.
This week, six of those former RIT players – all still close friends – traveled to the Giants’ headquarters to spend a day with Coughlin. The group included quarterback/defensive back Rich Knaack, center Leo Buda, strong safety Bill Oremus, defensive end/linebacker Mark McCabe, quarterback Tom Honan and linebacker Mike Guinan.
Most of the men had seen Coughlin sporadically in the last 40 years. Yet everyone swapped stories and shared laughs as if spending time together is a regular occurrence. And despite the vast expanse of time, they found a comforting familiarity in Coughlin’s presence.
“He was pretty much like he is now,” Honan said. “He hasn’t changed much. He even looks the same.”
“Talking to him now, he’s the same guy he was when he coached us 40 years ago,” McCabe said. “You can sit down and talk to him. This is the first time I’ve seen him since he left RIT. And we sat and talked like we had seen each other yesterday. He really hasn’t changed.”
That is true of Coughlin both personally and professionally. Anyone who follows football knows how demanding Coughlin is. He is maniacal about practice and preparation, insistent that players arrive early for meetings and follow the rules and demands that the focus always be on the team and not individuals.
Giants players are familiar with all of those mandates, just as the players at RIT were when the coach was much younger and less experienced.
“After you got recruited and decided to go to RIT, within two weeks you had a workout schedule in the mail – and you were still in high school,” Buda said. “You figured, ‘I’m not in Kansas anymore, Toto.’ This is it, this is the real stuff. He was tough. They were the toughest practices I ever went through. We watched film. We were prepared for games. We were in shape. He worked us hard.
“And he had itineraries. Every five or 10 minutes, we knew exactly what we were doing – the time we ate, the time we were going to get the bus to the time we were supposed to be in bed.”
“We’d practice out in the parking light under one streetlight,” Guinan said. “He’d keep us out there. I think all of us would agree that we’ve never seen anyone that slept, drank and ate football like Tom did. To see what he’s done to this time in winning the Super Bowl – you knew he was destined for some kind of fame.”
Coughlin wasn’t seeking fame, but success. He believed he could find it through his beliefs and his system. The core values he instilled at RIT are found today in the Giants.
“That’s the way I was taught and that’s the way I learned to win – or the circumstances under which you win,” Coughlin said. “We had to be physically fit. We had to be in great condition. We had to be smarter than a lot of teams. We were smaller. We didn’t have the numbers a lot of places had. And the unfortunate thing is, in a lot of ways, because of the injuries and that type of thing, there was only so much you could do at that level from a sophistication of football. But we did it.”
“It was great playing for him,” Knaack said. “You wanted to play. There was a family atmosphere and you worked hard. He made you want to work. And it was a joy.”
Although Coughlin was tough and demanding on the field, he was a father figure to his players off it – despite the fact, as Honan said, “We didn’t realize he was only three or four years older than we were.” He asked about and spent time with their families. Coughlin closely monitored the academic progress of all of his players. He helped arrange for them to work with tutors when they needed them.
“The wonderful thing about it is, you have to remember that these guys played for the pure love of the game,” Coughlin said. “They had no scholarships, they had no aid. They came for academic reasons. I’m sure their parents were skeptical, to say the least, about them trying to play an intercollegiate sport. Even though they were high school athletes, they were coming to RIT to go to school. That’s what they were there for. One way or another I got involved and enticed them to come out and try to play football.”
To this day, the players are thrilled he did. Each of them has a favorite Coughlin story.
“We played St. Bonaventure in a downpour,” Knaack said. “The field was soaked. When you stepped, you could hear the suction there was so much mud. We scored a touchdown at the end of the game to tie the score at 6-6. We were getting ready to kick the extra point. I was the holder and I was yelling to the sideline, ‘My hands, my hands.’ They were soaking wet. Coach Coughlin took off his dress white shirt and threw it out on the field for me to wipe my hands with. That’s the way he was. And the extra point was good.”
“I remember we played at Utica College and we went ahead with 53 or 58 seconds left in the game,” McCabe said. “We kicked off to them after we scored and they ran it back for a touchdown. He didn’t yell. But that next week in practice, all week long, all we did were kickoff drills. We had people with dummies standing at different points and you had to do sprints and hit the dummies. We did it over and over again.”
With those memories burned into their collective psyche, Coughlin’s former players at RIT watch Giants games with first-hand perspective few can understand.
“If you made a mistake, you didn’t want to come off the field,” Buda said. “You wanted to go to the other bench. If I missed a block and Tom (Honan) got sacked, he was right there in your face. When I watch him yell at a player on TV, I say, ‘I’ve been there.’”
“I’ll never forget, we were playing Siena,” Knaack said. “I was a defensive back and a guy broke into the clear when I went up to tackle him. I’ve got him dead to rights and somehow I missed him. When I rolled over, Coughlin was right there. And he yells, ‘Rich, what are you doing?’ – right in the middle of the play.”
With that everyone in the room laughs.
“I remember Tom telling us when we started out, ‘The friends you make at this football camp will be your friends the rest of your life,’” Honan said. “And we said, ‘Sure.’ But here we are.”