A Giant Among Coaches

Illustration by André Carrilho

On Christmas Eve 2006, the crowd at Giants Stadium, what was left of it anyway, lost its mind. Pausing only to cheer the last home game for the beloved and retiring running back Tiki Barber, they booed with previously untapped reserves of loathing and chanted, of course, “Fi-re Cough-lin.” The Giants, stumbling toward a playoff “run” under the guidance of embattled and clearly toast coach Tom Coughlin, had lost to the New Orleans Saints 30–7 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the final score. The next day’s papers were predictably brutal. The Post greeted its readers on Christmas morning with BLUE XMAS: ANGRY GIANT FANS DEMAND COACH’S HEAD on the front page and YULE HAVE TO GO on the back page. The Daily News cut to the point and simply repeated the fans’ incantation: “FIRE COUGHLIN.”

Coughlin didn’t have much to say for himself. “Human nature now, it’s very easy to not want to be a part of a team that’s not having success. And obviously we are not.” The team seemed in total insurrection; Coughlin had taken hits from Jeremy Shockey and the departing Barber, who called the team “outcoached.” It would just be a matter of time. Firing him wouldn’t even be necessary; his contract had only one year left on it anyway. ESPN openly speculated on his replacement. (Inevitably, Bill Parcells came up again, as did now-despised Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis.) Coughlin had only one factor in his favor: Firing him at the same time general manager Ernie Accorsi was retiring would plunge the franchise into chaos. It would end up being the only factor that mattered. It was blind luck, really.

Thirteen months later, the Giants were dousing Coughlin in Gatorade after winning the Super Bowl. And now, two years later, the Giants are the best team in the NFL and the envy of the sport. Meanwhile, Tiki Barber is paid to make omelettes on morning television. And interview Giants players for NBC about how well coached his old team is.

What happened? How did Coughlin, as ESPN put it the other day, become a “made guy”? Coughlin’s power has coalesced so completely that the Plaxico Burress situation, which would have derailed lesser teams, was essentially yawned off by everyone but reporters. (In the Giants’ locker room last week, tackle Kareem McKenzie admitted to me that the main “distraction” caused by Burress was that players who don’t know the receiver well now had to rack their brains for something noteworthy to say about him to reporters.) Coughlin is now the most powerful coach in the NFL. You can make the argument that Coughlin changed the way he coached, that one night in the middle of September 2007, he woke up in a cold sweat, screamed “Eureka!” and built himself a genius cave. Or you can recognize the scary truth about coaches, and managers, particularly in this city: A lot of this is dumb luck.

This is not to say that Coughlin is a bad coach, or at least not any worse or better than he was when fans were calling for his head. But the hothouse flowers that make up an NFL team’s locker room, and the seemingly random tidbits that can shove a fragile union of professional athletes off the psychological precipice, are an unpredictable lot. Besides talent, much of this is shaped by the Big Mo. If you have been winning, you feel like you can keep winning. Often, the best a coach can hope for—even a coach like Coughlin, who has proven himself this year to be a better game-planner, week by week, than most realized—is to harness momentum and stay out of its way.

The conventional wisdom has always been that NFL coaches have more of an effect on their teams than NBA coaches or, especially, baseball managers. And there’s an element of truth to this; the Chargers’ Norv Turner is in the midst of running his third talented team into a ditch. But once you reach that minimum level of competence—think of, say, Jim Fassel as the medium point; above him, you’re qualified, below him, you’re Al Groh—the difference between the best coach and the fifth best is so thin as to not exist. These are all smart guys. It took twenty months for Coughlin to transmogrify from a moron to a mastermind. It’s all about the circumstances.

How important is a manager or coach? The definition shifts depending on everyone’s mood. Take Joe Torre. When he arrived in the Bronx, he was an underwhelming retread hire, a stopgap until George Steinbrenner came up with a bigger name or figured out how to exhume Billy Martin. And then the Yankees became America’s Dynasty, and Torre became the strategic genius, the public face of an empire. Then the Yankees won often enough that people questioned whether Torre was steering the ship or riding along. When they stopped winning World Series, it was because Torre had grown too complacent. Now that he’s gone? Why isn’t Joe Girardi as smart as Joe Torre? Why isn’t he managing, you know, harder? And when Torre’s Dodgers made the playoffs last year, it was because he was “renewed” and “energized.” It was all headlines; Torre’s the same guy. Managers and coaches, to borrow everyone’s new favorite sports cliché, are what they are. It’s the swirl of public opinion around them that keeps shifting.

Deciding when to keep a coach around is far from an exact science. You can credit the Giants for keeping Coughlin, but then you better not hammer the Mets for not firing Willie Randolph, who was in a similar spot, at the end of the 2007 fiasco. (Coughlin, who started 0–2 last year, was in danger of not making it out of the first half of the year, either.) Sometimes owners ignore the media clatter, sometimes they don’t. It’s a crapshoot.

It’s sportswriting jargon to say a failing coach has “lost the locker room.” The symptoms of “losing a locker room” tend to involve, well, losing. When teams lose, players are unhappy and they spout off at the coach. Winning teams are never “outcoached.” When you lose, someone has to go. This is hardly new. Leo Durocher once said, “If you don’t win, you’re going to be fired. If you do win, you’ve only put off the day you’re going to be fired.” The clatter has always been there. It’s just louder now.

Where does this leave the other coaches in New York? Of the big five (Giants, Jets, Yankees, Mets, Knicks), Girardi would seem to be in the most trouble. He’s a little too low-key for Gotham’s purposes—the same was said of Coughlin, of course—and if the playoffs elude the Yanks again this year, the shouts of “He’s not ready!” will become deafening. Could Torre have won with that fractured, thin team? Probably not. But he knew to get out in time for the “renewal” story line to manifest in Los Angeles. Eric Mangini, just a year removed from Mangenius and Sopranos status, is safe if the Jets make the playoffs, but if they miss it, he’ll have turned stupid again. Jerry Manuel probably has a year in the new Mets stadium, and he’s buffered by the likelihood that Omar Minaya would suffer the ax’s first swing. And Mike D’Antoni has a halo over his head, not just because the Knicks are perversely fun to watch right now but also because he’s defiantly not Isiah Thomas. You could hire Willie Randolph to coach that team at this point and he’d be safe, so long as everyone thought he had a chance to bring LeBron to town.

Note that the previous paragraph has not a single assessment of any coach’s actual ability to coach a team. It’s all about where they stand on the fickle thermometer of public discussion. Girardi is not in the most trouble because he’s a lousy manager; he’s in the most trouble because it’s his turn. This is true everywhere. But it’s really true in New York.

This is perhaps the true genius of Bill Parcells, whose wisdom at team architecture pales in comparison with his skill at managing media and fan expectations. Like Larry Brown and Jerry Seinfeld, he’s a master at knowing how to jump out of the car right before it flies off the cliff. Then he’ll go to another franchise at the bottom and be called brilliant for molding it into something at least respectable. Knowing how to be an effective coach is difficult, but it is not rare. Knowing how to make everyone believe you’re a savior requires timing and a keen mercenary eye. It’s why D’Antoni is here, after all. Well, that and $24 million over four years.

No matter what happens this season for the Giants, they’re assuredly going to regress next year; seasons like this one come along once a decade at best. And it won’t be because Coughlin turned back into an idiot. This is how these things go. Even in New England, which has been blessed with more professional-sports success than seems natural, you’re starting to hear quiet grumblings about Bill Belichick and The End of the Patriots Dynasty. It’s the circle of life.

At the end of his tenure with the Yankees, when the Bombers were losing, it kind of looked like Joe Torre was just sitting there watching, chewing gum, doing nothing. Shouldn’t he be doing something? He was doing the same thing he ever was, of course. Like Girardi. Like D’Antoni. Like Coughlin. In sports, when your team is losing, it’s like in Sunset Boulevard: It’s not the team that used to be big. It’s the coach who got small.

You can write to Leitch at will.leitch@nymag.com.

A Giant Among Coaches