PHOENIX (AP) - Tom Coughlin was never one to sit in the stands at the Super Bowl, the way some coaches do. If there's no one to coach, to harangue, to lead, what's the point?
The last time he subjected himself to that was 13 years ago. He had recently been hired by the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. He was still working out of a doublewide trailer in the parking lot and assembling his roster.
Coughlin sat next to Bart Starr that Super Bowl Sunday. He said it was ``an honor'' and ``interesting.'' It was also something he never wanted to do again.
``The goal, always the goal, was that the next time I went back to a Super Bowl, it would be with my team,'' Coughlin, now the coach of the New York Giants, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The 61-year-old coach has been painted this week as a changed leader as he approaches a game against undefeated New England in his first Super Bowl as a head coach.
He's the ``kinder, gentler'' Tom, the once-unbending taskmaster who knew he had to change or else.
He sort of laughs at that notion, insists he doesn't know what ``kinder and gentler'' is supposed to mean. That he's gone soft? That he doesn't believe in structure and rules? That he's thrown away everything that's worked for him over a 38-year coaching career that has been, by every measure except maybe the one that counts the most, a success?
But something did change.
``He is smiling,'' Michael Strahan said. ``He uses the word `fun' and `enjoy' and it blows my mind. When he first came here, I said to myself, `I have to be here this year, but after this, I can't play for this man. He's crazy' He has come around.''
He created the players leadership council this year to give his players a voice, and some naturally viewed it as little more than a ploy for Coughlin to hang onto his job. It almost certainly wouldn't have worked had his team finished 8-8 again, or been bounced from the playoffs in the first round - or both, as happened last season.
Instead, New York made it to the Super Bowl, in large part because of a new sense of unity and ``team,'' as Coughlin calls it, that the leadership council instilled. So now, with perceptions being what they are in the NFL, Coughlin is a genius and his leadership council is all the rage.
``His personality has always been, `It's my way. That's the way I was brought up, the way I was taught,''' said Coughlin's wife, Judy. ``But he's always been open to change and listening. He just doesn't always take your advice.''
It wasn't so much his message that changed with this so-called epiphany, only the way it's delivered.
Coughlin said as things deteriorated during his first three seasons in New York, he found himself shocked at the way his prodding and coaxing, messages he viewed as straightforward and logical, could be interpreted 53 ways. One for every player in the locker room.
He realized something really did need to change.
``I wanted to let the players know that it wasn't about me,'' he said. ``I don't have this huge ego. I feel strongly enough in my beliefs and principles that I had no problem sitting down with a group of guys who also have the No. 1 interest in mind. Which is winning.''
And so, instead of Strahan being a divider in the locker room, he's now the No. 1 uniter. Instead of second-guessing their coach, they circled around him after the 0-2 start. Tiki Barber, who caused more dissension than anyone in the locker room last season, is gone. Now, instead of bickering and trying to force their coach's retirement, the Giants have delivered him to the Super Bowl.
He has reached the pinnacle of a career that began soon after he graduated from Syracuse, where he played alongside Larry Csonka and Floyd Little, and got his first head coaching job at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1970.
He studied the coaches he met along the way - most notably Mike Ornato at Greenwich High School and Bill Carey, ``a basketball and baseball guy,'' as Coughlin calls him, at RIT.
``You knew your best interests were always going to be served when it came to those guys,'' Coughlin said. ``I liked watching what they did for a living and how they did it.''
He poured everything into his chosen profession, so much so that when Judy went into labor with the first of their four children, Keli, Coughlin rushed to the delivery room only to find that he was at the wrong hospital.
Stories like those seem funnier now than they did at the time. While he's surely proud of this latest accomplishment, the Super Bowl, he insists this trip isn't as sweet for him as for the family that labored with him through the job changes, long hours and years of nonstop work.
Don't let all that selfless oratory fool you, Judy Coughlin said.
``I believe he's enjoying this. How could he not?'' she said. ``Sure, he's happy for the family. We rode along the way. But he's taken the same road. We're living our dream. All of us.''
Though the Coughlins are fiercely protective of their patriarch, they don't let him take himself too seriously, either. Classic is the family Christmas card with the picture of the coach, the unrelenting drill sergeant, sitting on his easy chair, remote control in hand. Sound asleep.
It wasn't so funny last offseason, though, when Keli and one of Coughlin's sons, Tim, gathered 'round the hearth to talk about the savaging Coughlin had been receiving in the New York press after that 8-8 season with the unseemly late collapse.
He needed to go, the critics said. So why not go on your own terms, his kids suggested.
``It's sometimes harsher on the family than it is on the individual,'' Coughlin said. ``It was just a family sit-down to check the wounds out and make sure they weren't fatal. They were going to support what I wanted to do, but they were upset and disappointed in some things. Just a family thing.''
Not surprisingly, Coughlin decided to press on.
Now, he's closer than ever to writing the long-missing chapter, the one that would anoint him a champion. It's the chapter that seemed destined after he led the Jaguars, a second-year expansion franchise, to a stunning upset of the Denver Broncos in the 1996 playoffs. It came painfully close to being written in 1999, when the Jaguars were the best team in the regular season but lost to Tennessee in the AFC title game.
-10 and 6-10.
Fans started booing. Or worse, not showing up at all. Coughlin went through the semi-humiliating task of making the rounds in Jacksonville, speaking to rotary clubs and civic groups to drum up support - the way a college coach would.
Few realized that the last season, those six victories were something of a football miracle, coaxed and coached out of a team that, because of salary cap restraints, had a roster about half full of callow players who made the league minimum. It might have been Coughlin's best coaching job until this year.
``The hardest part of it all was some of the really, really outstanding young men we had to release and part ways with,'' said Coughlin, who still has a house in the Jacksonville area, where he runs his thriving Jay Fund charity that helps kids with cancer. ``Those were the most difficult things.''
Yet as Coughlin's reign in Jacksonville was disintegrating, and after it was over, a quiet trend was developing, one that went largely unreported by media that was more interested in reinventing the unflattering caricature that had become Tom Coughlin.
Drip by drip, his former players - the ones who ripped him and said they couldn't play for a taskmaster so strict - began telling a different tale. About how they missed him and would play for him again in a heartbeat.
Mark Brunell said it. Keenan McCardell did, too. Fred Taylor: ``He's pretty cool, in a sense.''
That was during that 1999 season, when Coughlin was at his apex in Jacksonville.
Today, Taylor feels the same way, saying Coughlin was never exactly what many portrayed him as.
``He's passionate about winning and if you have a problem with that, you probably need to find another sport,'' he said. ``He's a passionate, committed coach. Sure, he had his tactics and some people didn't like them, but those were the ones who didn't need to be there anyway.''
More than winning and this trip to the Super Bowl, it's testimonials like that that make this lifetime of coaching worthwhile for Coughlin.
``We played Washington this year and Keenan walked up to me after the game, he put his arms around me and said, `I love you,''' Coughlin said. ``To me, that's as good as it gets.''

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