If you watch enough hours of NFL Films presentations and maybe read a few of those ghostwritten Father’s Day-bait tomes about Leadership Strategies and The Will to Win by Bill Walsh or Jimmy Johnson, you might fall under the impression that coaching a football team is a high-minded pursuit. But like anything having to do with the NFL — a multi-billion-dollar enterprise built around a body- and mind-ravaging game of collisions — coaching ranks low on the virtue scale. It is not and cannot be about instilling positive values in and bettering the lives of the people who play it, so much as it is about telling a group of superior athletes what to do and motivating them to do it. Coaches are not priests or philosophers or paragons. No one could be all of those things and still have time to game-plan for Drew Brees.
Tom Coughlin undermines this notion of coach as fatherly demigod, even more than those who reject the paradigm — fun-peddlers like Pete Carroll or unsentimental tacticians like Bill Belichick. He embraces the role, doing an impression of the deified version of Vince Lombardi you see in clips with triumphant horn arrangements, and here is the thing: He looks completely ridiculous. He’s dopey and ornery and sometimes not that different from you or me, cussing at players and wondering what the hell just happened on that last play. There’s not much dignity to the whole performance.
One day, there might be some revisionist history about Coughlin, describing in purple prose what a charismatic leader of men he was, how his take-no-guff style produced two championships, but we should remember what we know now. The dude is a good football coach, but he’s also more goofy than inspiring.
He is also probably past his expiration date, 67 years old with a face that shows it. Coughlin doesn’t look out of place on an NFL sideline — which is to say he radiates anger and exactitude — but he also wouldn’t look out of place sinking into an armchair at a family gathering, crankily sipping scotch and bantering with his grandkids. This is not a bad thing — I have a hard time picturing Sean Payton doing anything half as human — but given the way the Giants have degenerated this season, perhaps it’s time for him to live out that scenario more regularly.
Coughlin doesn’t think this is the case. During a conference call with the Washington media on Tuesday, he said he still wants to coach in 2014, “probably even more, because there are a lot of those that are telling you that you didn’t do very well, and you’re not a very good coach, and this and that.”
He doesn’t seem to understand that in a few weeks, there will be an opportunity for a logical endpoint to his career. He can walk away from the game having built a program at Boston College, stewarded the development of Jacksonville’s expansion team and won a couple Super Bowls in New York — all in all, an accomplished couple of decades. But he evidently doesn’t care about logical endpoints or legacy nearly as much as he values simply doing the job and the fulfillment that brings him. This makes enough sense. If you had a gig at the top of your field that you liked and felt you could still do, why would you stop voluntarily?
There is so much in sports that is otherworldly and not easy for us to comprehend. Calvin Johnson, when he’s leaping over a defensive back like he’s made out of superball rubber, ascends to the realm of fiction. He is part of a TV show that is only technically real. Even Bill Belichick, with his schmucky wardrobe and put-upon math-teacher demeanor, is the subject of rhapsodic monologues from colleagues and announcers about his genius, the details of which we have knowledge, since he never says anything to the media. Football is a sport that literally and figuratively casts its most successful figures in bronze. The people who play and coach it become the legends we tell about them.
Tom Coughlin has been a pretty great coach, but at least right now, he is not a Great Coach. He is much more legible than that, someone trying to continue his vocation as he ages. He believes strongly in himself, even as others around him might be losing confidence in his abilities. This is not an unfamiliar story, and its protagonist is not wholly impenetrable. Tom Landry bathed in sepia is a construct from which we can’t learn much of anything. If you want to understand what a coach is like, watch Coughlin this Sunday, in what might be his final game in the NFL. There might not be much dignity to his performance, but then what about coaching football is really dignified?