The long-ago battles on opposite sides of the same practice field were no less intense than the ones they would eventually wage on opposite Super Bowl sidelines, because for two men with identical football DNA, there was no other way to be. From positional drills between two young assistant coaches to championship stakes between two potential Hall of Fame head coaches, Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick always played to win.
Belichick would certainly prove himself the bigger winner of the two, five Super Bowls and counting as he brings his Patriots into a seventh consecutive AFC Championship game Sunday at Gillette Stadium. But it was Coughlin who was the undisputed head-to-head champ, two Super Bowl knockout punches preventing that already ridiculous number from being seven and counting. And now, here he comes again, packing his Patriot kryptonite in Jaguars' teal and gold, aiming to take the Patriots down for Jacksonville the way he once did for the New York Giants.
Of course, this intersection no longer casts them as professional peers, not as Belichick continues to dominate the coaching field years after Coughlin left it. But will there be a soul in the building Sunday who won't shudder at the sight of the Jaguars' current executive vice president of football operations, who won't relive the nightmares of Eli Manning's heroics or Tom Brady's bruises, who won't be grateful that it's not Coughlin standing where Doug Marrone will be?
For all the praise Marrone deserves for turning a three-win team into a division champion now one game away from the Super Bowl, for all the critic-silencing plays quarterback Blake Bortles made in Sunday's crazy 45-42 divisional-round toppling of No. 2 seed Pittsburgh, for all the hard-earned yards and multiple touchdowns rookie Leonard Fournette chewed up on the Heinz Field turf, what happened this year in Jacksonville can be directly tied to Coughlin's influence.
Exceptional, yes, but at the same time, nothing short of expected.
This is what his résumé is built on. Boston College fans remember how he built the program to national relevance, Giants fans recall how he took the 4-12 ashes of Jim Fassel's reign and reignited a run to the Super Bowl, and in Jacksonville, this is Round 2 of the Coughlin effect. This is the franchise he built from scratch, the OG coach/GM who took an expansion team to two AFC Championship games, including one in his second year.
But who could have known how it would go this time around? Coughlin isn't on the sidelines anymore, a mutual parting of the ways after 12 seasons in New York sending him to a one-year exile in the league office and then upstairs to the executive suite. He never was built for retirement (Coughlin often jokes that he doesn't have any other hobbies like golf, and he would drive his wife Judy insane if he were home all the time) and he wasn't even certain he was done with coaching. So when he accepted the management gig in Jacksonville, the immediate shadow he cast over the interim-turned-permanent head coach Marrone generated plenty of speculation it would eventually swallow Marrone whole.
That never happened, precisely because of that Coughlin football DNA. He may be a strong personality, but he's also a smart one, and there is no one in the game with greater respect for chain of command. He was never going to abuse that with his coach or GM David Caldwell, reflected in a text he sent to decline comment Sunday night, saying "the head coach has spoken all year for the franchise."
But Coughlin's hallmarks are all over this Jaguars team, their underdog spirit, their "Sacksonville" defensive mind-set, their intense focus on each game.
Who can forget that picture of Coughlin during the wild-card win over Buffalo, when television cameras caught him alongside his owners in a luxury box, them wildly celebrating a touchdown, him furiously writing down notes? Who couldn't laugh at the Twitter comments during this wild win over Pittsburgh, ones from a collection of different NFL reporters describing their press box visitor Coughlin living and dying with every play on the field? Coughlin was animated to the final snap, unwilling to concede until the final whistle.
In Belichick, he has a football soul mate. From those long-ago days on the Giants practice field, back when Coughlin coached the wide receivers and Belichick the defensive backs, back before and after they would win a Super Bowl together on Bill Parcells's 1990 staff, they were always cut from the same coaching cloth. The Patriots may lead the league in playing 60-minute games, but Coughlin leads the league in being on the right side of the score when those 60 minutes end.
My lasting coaching memory of Coughlin versus Belichick isn't found in Super Bowl XLII in Arizona or Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. As good as those games were, as much as Coughlin pushed every right button in toppling one undefeated team and another heavily favored one, it was a regular-season night that truly set him apart. This was in 2007, when the Patriots were headed to the Meadowlands with perfection on their minds, only the Giants standing between them and a 16-0 regular season, only pride and preparation at stake for the already-playoff bound Giants.
Coughlin didn't just go for broke that night, eschewing the popular trend of resting starters so as not to risk injury. He never even considered it, not for a moment surrendering the objective of every game he's ever been involved in: winning. The Giants would end up on the wrong side of history anyway, a 38-35 loss sending the Patriots on their quest to match the perfect championship march of the 1972 Dolphins. But rather than be deflated, those Giants were emboldened, convinced by their competitiveness that a rematch would end differently.
That it did is one of two Patriot nightmares starring Coughlin, the football boogeyman who's back again.