BY GUIDING the New York Giants to two recent Super Bowl victories (2008 and 2012), Tom Coughlin has solidified his position in the ranks of elite pro football coaches. He also joined another fraternity: devout Catholics who have been outstanding gridiron leaders and two-time Super Bowl champions. Others on that list include the legendary Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, who said he was strengthened by daily Communion, and Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins, who wrote: “Attending Mass and looking to God for guidance aren’t just habits for me. They matter deeply to me.”
Strong Catholic Roots
As with most Catholics, Coughlin’s faith began at his Baptism, but he made clear during a recent interview that a belief system isn’t frozen in place in a single moment. Rather, he says, it evolves over time, through ups and downs.
“I can’t remember any one incident” when his faith was solidified, he says. “You go through stages; all young people do. I was an altar boy and master of ceremonies at midnight Mass and the Easter Vigil Mass. Then you go to a public high school, and you’re not quite as attached [to the Church] as you once were. I went to Syracuse University and became very fond of the Catholic chaplain there. I learned and grew along the way. It’s cumulative.”
Born in 1946 in Waterloo, a small town in western New York state, Coughlin was the oldest of seven children (and is now the oldest coach to win a Super Bowl). He credits his parents and the Sisters of St. Joseph, who taught him at St. Mary’s School, for providing a firm grounding in faith that never collapsed as he made his way through life.
Reflecting on what builds a Catholic, he says that “a lot depends on the strength of the belief of your family— your parents and what they believed. I went to Catholic grammar school through eight grades with the Sisters of St. Joseph, and that’s a big part of it.
“We were raised in a different time and in a different way. I’m a firm believer that that has an awful lot to do with the values I believe in. I’m very proud that my parents sent me to a Catholic grammar school. The idea of [sisters] devoting their lives to the preparation of the young was very obvious. That’s what I felt the whole existence of the Sisters of St. Joseph was: to pay tribute to God [by how] they taught their pupils. And they did a great job of it. There isn’t any question in my mind that my values, my grounding, the way that I was raised are all a part of what I am now.”
The Beginnings of a Career
Following high school, where he lettered in football, Coughlin attended Syracuse University and set a record for single-season pass receiving as a member of the Orangemen football squad. With his experience and success as a player, he moved into coaching as a career, first at the Rochester Institute of Technology, then back to Syracuse before moving on to Boston College.
In 1980, he entered the world of professional football as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, and later with the Packers and Giants. During his initial stay with the Giants in the mid-1980s, he helped head coach Bill Parcells steer the team to a Super Bowl victory.
In 1995, after a brief and successful return to collegiate football, Coughlin was named head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, an expansion team in the National Football League. In just its second season, he guided the team to a postseason berth, a rare feat for a new franchise.
When the Giants went looking for a new head coach, they settled on their former assistant, and Coughlin took over the reins of the team for the 2004 season. The Giants were founded and are still owned by a Catholic family, the Maras, who are well known for their charitable work. When Wellington Mara died in 2005, his obituary in the New York Times summed him up in one sentence: “He devoted his life to his large family, his Catholic faith, and his extended Giants family, whose members revered him for his integrity and kindness.”
Asked if the Mara connection and his own faith make the team itself a Catholic entity, Coughlin jokes: “It’s a fair assessment, but you must remember that 49 percent of the team is owned by the Tisch family, and they’re Jewish. It’s balanced out pretty well.”
On a serious level, he credits two officials of the Giants for providing him with an example of how to live one’s faith in the world of a secular sport.
“When I first came to the Giants as an assistant coach,” Coughlin notes, “I was very much influenced by Wellington Mara and the way in which he ran this franchise. George Young was the general manager in those days, and he was a devout Catholic as well. There’s no question that [their example is] reflected in the way that I think and act and what my beliefs are.”
Coughlin has also learned lessons from his predecessors in the coaching fraternity. “There have been many, many great Catholic football coaches down through the ages,” he points out. “Notre Dame has had their share.” But he is quick to add that Notre Dame also had non-Catholic coaches. “Ara Parseghian and Knute Rockne were not Catholics,” he points out, although Rockne converted late in life. “But they performed extremely well at a Catholic university and provided an example for all—not only in our profession but in all walks of life.”
A Modern-Day Lombardi?
Like both Rockne, who declared that a coach “must be obeyed,” and Lombardi, the Giants coach is a stern disciplinarian. “Coach Lombardi was a tough guy, and he ruled his program with a very firm hand,” Coughlin says.
Players and staff on Coughlin’s teams often share stories about his strict regulations. “At the root of everything are Coughlin’s rules,” wrote a reporter for the New York Times before the 2012 Super Bowl, “since his core values include, for example, not only being on time for everything, but being five minutes early.” A columnist joked in Sports Illustrated that the coach’s watch “famously runs five minutes fast. As a result, Coughlin gets a five o’clock shadow at 4:55.”
More seriously, the Times writer continued, “Over time, his contemporaries say, Coughlin came to view his rules as producing more than just discipline. They are a key to consistency, and to Coughlin consistency leads to routine, and routine leads to preparedness, and preparedness leads to proper execution.”
Besides a shared faith and steelyeyed focus on the game, there’s another similarity between Coughlin and Lombardi: a concern for the members of their teams that continues beyond their playing days.
“If you look at the way Lombardi went about his business,” Coughlin notes, his faith “certainly was reflected in the ultimate love and devotion that he had for his players—and that his players had for him.”
One of the current Giants told a reporter, “I have many different reasons why I play the game as hard as I do, and I’ll be honest to say, one of them is Coach Coughlin. I know I’m not the only one feeling this way.”
Some of the athletes the coach has guided through the years have been very religious men, Coughlin says; others have not. He asserts that he does not detect a correlation between onfield talent and off-field devotion, nor does he want to judge people from a cursory observation of them.
“You can’t make any blanket or general statement,” he says. “I cannot tell you about the background or private thoughts or private worship of any individual player. But I can tell you this: we have a strong contingent of players that attend chapel or Mass on Saturday night, which is a normal routine for our team and, I’m sure, for many teams in the National Football League. I don’t like to wear my religion on my sleeve, and I worry about that [image]. We’re all tainted, if you will, and we’re reminded of that during the Easter season.
“In my experience, I’ve seen many players who are devout, who are religious, who attend Mass, and, quite frankly, many who don’t. If I were to go through and rate them, that would not be fair. But from what I’ve seen, even from the early years when I came into this league and the head coaching experience I had at Boston College, there are a lot of players, a lot of coaches, and a lot of people in this profession who are very devout.”
One outward sign of his own level of faith is the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation, which provides emotional and financial support for families facing leukemia and other cancers. It is named for a player Coughlin coached at Boston College, Jay McGillis, who died of the disease.
According to the organization’s website, “Jay was diagnosed with leukemia in November 1991 and lost his battle just eight months later. . . . Coach Coughlin had the privilege of spending a great deal of time with Jay and his family, as they battled his disease together. [He] witnessed not only the emotional strain [but also] the financial strain. . . . Coach Coughlin vowed to create a way to help families with children battling cancer if ever he had the chance.”
The foundation reports that it has donated more than $3 million to assist patients and their loved ones.
The NFL is in the midst of determining how to respond to another devastating health problem: the effects on players of years of physical contact. The impact of repeated concussions has come under intense examination in recent years in light of several early deaths and even suicides of players.
“Not long ago, people said NFL players with behavior problems were just having problems adjusting to retirement,” Dr. Lee E. Goldstein of Boston University’s School of Medicine has said. “Now it’s more or less settled that there is a disease associated with their problems.”
In May 2012, Junior Seau, a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, Dolphins, and New England Patriots, killed himself at the age of 43. Speculation followed that brain injuries sustained during his many football seasons contributed to his death.
Commenting shortly after Seau’s death, Coughlin called him “an excellent football player and a very vital and exciting, highly emotional, highly energetic young man to be around. It’s an incredibly sad time.”
The coach continued by noting that the NFL is “in the very, very early stages [of investigating concussions and brain injury]. Certainly, we’re all very, very concerned. The rules have been changed to eliminate a lot of the big hits we saw years ago. Commissioner Roger Goodell has made a tremendous part of his current regime dealing with player safety.
“We’re all on board with that. We’d certainly like to see the serious injuries and concussions eliminated completely from our game. But we’re not naïve either. We know the game of football is a physical game. We want to do everything in our power to protect our players, to put them in the best possible uniform and safety precautions that we can. We’re all concerned about that.”
Life Beyond Football
Turning from sports to his family life, Coughlin remarks that he has been delighted as his four children and many grandchildren (an 11th was on the way as this article was being written) have passed through the same religious stages he did.
“A great part of [life] is when your children start to come along and you raise them in the Catholic Church,” he remarks. “You share with them their growth at Baptism, first Communion, and Confirmation. We just had the privilege of attending our grandson’s first Communion. We were so, so proud and happy to be able to share in that.”
As for his professional life, when he reflects on his 40-plus years as a coach, he thinks again of Lombardi’s lasting influence on those who played for him. Coughlin says his greatest treasure is not multiple winning seasons or Super Bowl trophies.
“At this stage of my career,” he says, “the great rewards are to have players come back to you and tell you how much they appreciated what you believed in and how you taught them. And also for them to say to you quite frankly, ‘I love you.’ It’s a whole different experience. It’s a wonderful thing and very gratifying to have players who you very much respect come back to you and tell you how much they appreciated what they learned from you and to use the actual phrase, ‘I love you.’ That’s an incredible, emotional experience. Quite frankly, I don’t know that you’re prepared for it. It’s the ultimate compliment. I appreciate that tremendously.”