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Super Bowl-Winning Head Coach Tom Coughlin ’68, G’69 on Overcoming Adversity, Being Forever Orange on the ‘’Cuse Conversations’ Podcast
During a tumultuous start to the 2007 National Football League (NFL) season, Tom Coughlin’s ’68, G’69 New York Giants dropped their first two games in spectacular fashion, losing to the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers by a combined score of 80-48.
Coughlin had entered the season on thin ice after his Giants stumbled to the finish line the year before, and after this inauspicious start to the season, the calls for Coughlin to be fired grew louder. But Coughlin knew he had a talented team, and the Giants’ front office stuck with their veteran head coach.
Good thing they did. Never one for giving in to his critics, Coughlin grew resolute in his determination to lead the Giants to success. His team responded, rallying around their embattled coach to win six straight games and qualify for the playoffs with a 10-6 record.
The Giants became the third team to advance to the Super Bowl after winning three straight road playoff games, and their reward was a date with Tom Brady and the previously undefeated New England Patriots. In one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played, Coughlin’s Giants shocked the football world, rallying late for a 17-14 victory in part thanks to an improbable completion from quarterback Eli Manning to David Tyree ’02 on third down that would come to be known as “The Helmet Catch.”
Now, Coughlin has a new book out, “A Giant Win,” describing how, against all odds, the Giants pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in Super Bowl history. The book is a lesson in how to overcome adversity and how to respond when life hands you a setback.
“Our game was the greatest upset in the history of football, and of all the Super Bowls for sure. There’s a theme that goes on in the book, which is, ‘Go ahead. Tell me I can’t do something,’ that was always a great motivator for me,” says Coughlin, who won 170 games as a head coach and received the Arents Award, Syracuse University’s highest alumni honor, in 2017.
Coughlin, a three-year letter-winner on the football team under legendary Hall of Fame coach Ben Schwartzwalder, stops by to relive his coaching career, reminisce on those Super Bowl championships, and share why Syracuse University was his dream school.
He shares his memories of playing alongside Orange football legends like Floyd Little ’67, H’16 and Larry Csonka ’68, explains why the No. 44 is the most special number at Syracuse, and discusses why he and his late wife, Judy, became passionate about helping families tackle childhood cancer through the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation.
Note: This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
Check out episode 129 of the “’Cuse Conversations” podcast featuring Tom Coughlin ’68, G’69. A transcript [PDF] is also available.
01Why was now a good time for you to write about this remarkable story of overcoming adversity and being resilient?
Well, it’s been 15 years. But when you think about where our country has been in the last few years, between COVID, the economy dealing with inflation and a recession, and more, this book is a story of hope and inspiration. Because when most of us as Americans, at one time or another, have been knocked on our rear end, you have to get up off the floor. You don’t have a choice. If your heart is in the right place, you’re going to fight back from whatever.
02That play, where Eli Manning escapes the grasp of the pass rush to find David Tyree for the helmet catch, was such an improbable play, the ultimate in not giving up and finding a way to make it happen. What were your recollections of watching The Helmet Catch live from the sidelines?
It is the greatest catch of all time in the Super Bowl. There’s no question in my mind. So on that particular play, it’s third and five and we’re out near midfield. Mike Carey, the referee, is standing off to my left. When the ball is snapped, there’s penetration right away. Eli’s surrounded by three Patriot defenders who have a hold of him. They’ve got his shirt, they’ve got pieces of him. And I’m looking at Mike Carey thinking, ‘Mike, don’t stop the play. Let the play go. Let it go.’
And somehow, Eli wiggles out and breaks free. You see him set himself like he’s going to throw a javelin down the middle of the field. And my next thought is, ‘Oh boy, Eli, do not overthrow the ball in the middle of the field, because it’ll be surely picked off.’ Rodney Harrison, an outstanding football player, is the safety at that time. David goes up, he’s got two hands catching the ball, and I dismiss anybody that wants to say it’s a lucky catch. It’s a great catch. He’s got two hands on the ball. Rodney takes one of his arms away. He pins the ball to his helmet. And as he’s going down, Rodney’s fighting him. David secures the ball, even when he is on his back, on top of Harrison. A great, courageous play that set the stage for our victory.
03You were a football standout for Waterloo High School (about 40 miles west of Syracuse University). Why was Syracuse your dream school?
Syracuse University was my connection to great college football. Syracuse was the national champions in 1959. There was only one place I wanted to go. And as a matter of fact, Larry Csonka, who was my teammate, Larry said to me one time, “Why’d you go to Syracuse?” He said, “You were a good running back in your own right, but you had Floyd Little and you had all these great players who were there. You weren’t going to be a star…” And I said, “Because that’s the only place I ever wanted to go was Syracuse,” because I had memories of watching head coach Ben Schwartzwalder’s teams, led by Jim Brown, when I was a youngster. And so when my scholarship offer came, I was like, “Wow, it’s truly a miracle.”
04What are some of your favorite memories from your time as a student-athlete?
My playing days. I loved them. Now, I wasn’t the featured player. I tell everybody, Floyd always brought up the greatest college backfield in the history of college football, Csonka at fullback, Floyd at tailback, and me at wingback. And I always say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. They needed 11 guys, so that’s why I played. That’s how I got on the field.’ Those two are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They’re great, great football players, and they were from day one. The legacy of experiences that we had as players, I can’t tell you what it meant.
Freshmen in those days weren’t eligible for the varsity. Within my first week, we went to Archbold Stadium for our first scrimmage against the varsity. It was the Christians being thrown to the Lions. The first play of the first scrimmage, I was the left cornerback on defense, and Floyd took a toss with Jim Nance at fullback and All-American tackle Gary Bugenhagen was pulling at me. That was the first play of my career. And I’m lucky there was even more career after that. But I loved my time as a student-athlete. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
05You recently told Eli Manning that Syracuse's No. 44 is the most magical number in sports. Why is that?
Syracuse football has that great tradition. And if you wear that number at Syracuse, you are pretty special. Jim Brown. Ernie Davis. Floyd Little. Floyd was given credit for saving professional football in Denver. That’s how good he was. Ernie was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, and he was a great football player. And Jim Brown brought everyone’s attention to number 44. Jim Brown played professional football for nine years. He won the rushing title eight out of nine years. It’s unheard of. Jim Brown’s Syracuse legacy is incredible. He’s still thought to be the greatest lacrosse player ever to play. He made the varsity basketball team. He ran track. Jim Brown did everything at Syracuse and was great at it. It truly is a magical number.
06You and your late wife, Judy, founded the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation, which helps families tackle childhood cancer. What inspired you to form this foundation?
I was the head coach at Boston College in 1991 and my strong safety was a young man by the name of Jay McGillis, an overachiever, very tough, very physical, and very smart, a great teammate who was never in trouble. We came home from a game at Syracuse and our trainers said Jay will probably not play this week. His glands are swollen. So we got the doctors in here and through the testing, it wasn’t lumps or a sore throat. It was a ravaging form of leukemia. And this was November of 1991. By July of 1992, Jay was gone. He died.
But what we watched his family go through, Judy and I were very close to the McGillis family, and the mom and dad stopped working, the siblings left college to be at Jay’s bedside. We saw the bills mounting up and we all wanted to help. We started with a liftathon, where the players got pledges for what they would lift, and at halftime of our spring game we presented the McGillis family with a check for $50,000. Judy and I thought that if we ever have a chance to give back, it will be in the name and the spirit of Jay McGillis, and we will honor and help families who have a child with cancer. When I became the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars [in 1995], we formed the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation, helping families tackle cancer. This spring will be our 28th annual Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Celebrity Golf Classic.