In 1997 cornerback Dave Thomas, who skipped a mandatory meet-and-greet banquet on an off day to stay home with his fever-stricken two-year-old son, received a tongue-lashing from Coughlin upon his return to work the following day. Coughlin fined him $1,500, but the NFL Players Association successfully argued that the fine be rescinded because players can't be required to attend functions on days off.
Last Jan. 2, on the night before Jacksonville's wild-card playoff victory over the New England Patriots, rookies Tavian Banks and Cordell Taylor arrived late for a team meeting because they were in a car accident on a rain-slicked bridge. After Taylor's car flipped four times and hit a guardrail, the injured players were so fearful of Coughlin's wrath that they had a team security official take them to the meeting before they received medical attention. Coughlin fined each player $500 for being late. The next day, according to several witnesses, Coughlin lit into Banks in the locker room when he informed the coach that his injured back would prevent him from playing in the game.
"To me there was only one issue—two young kids had a chance to learn a lesson," Coughlin says. "If they would've been smart enough to leave early for the meeting and not have to rush, it could all have been avoided." (Banks says he and Taylor were not running late or speeding at the time of the crash.) Coughlin's treatment of the incident was derided by many Jaguars. "He said he did it to be consistent," one player said at the time. "If they had died, I guess he would've fined their estates."
If the 53-year-old Coughlin were always so hard, it would be easy to write him off as a tyrant, but the eldest of seven children from an Irish family in upstate New York has succeeded in life's most important realm. He married Judy, his high school sweetheart, in 1967, and together they've raised four children who view their dad as a quirky yet harmless taskmaster. "He talks a big game, but my mom's the boss at home, no question about it," says Brian Coughlin, a senior at Michigan.
Tom is so out of the loop that the last five times he has switched jobs, Judy has scheduled moving day to coincide with his coaching commitments. "He creates havoc wherever he goes, and having him around gets me uptight," she says, laughing. "The last time he ever helped me was in 1981, when we moved into a house in Norfolk, Mass. He thought the grass in front was too long, so he called the realty company and demanded that the lawn be mowed right away. The house had double front doors, and grass shavings were flying in as we carried our belongings inside. Things go much smoother when he's not around."
Tom drives Judy nuts by habitually licking his finger and picking up household lint. "I got him a Dustbuster for Christmas," says Coughlin's youngest daughter, Katie, an 18-year-old high school senior. Keli Coughlin, a 29-year-old athletic trainer at North Florida, says her father "is such a neat freak that if he's watching TV and someone gets a pie in the face, he winces."
Even on family vacations, it takes Tom a week to relax. "We got tired of him always asking where we're going and what we're doing, so we started making him an itinerary," says the couple's 27-year-old son, Tim, a Wall Street trader. "There's very little downtime, for obvious reasons, but he really does let go, eventually. Last summer, we went white-water rafting in the Canadian Rockies and got him in a vest and helmet, and it was the most fun I've seen him have in years."
Numerous Jaguars tell of chance meetings with Coughlin that rocked their worlds. "The first time I saw him out with his family, I was stunned—literally speechless," Smith says. "It was like night and day."
A couple of weeks after Thomas suffered a broken leg during a '96 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, he showed up in the locker room wearing a cast. To Thomas's amazement, Coughlin bent down, placed a shoe on the player's foot and tied it. "It was weird—the trainers stood there watching, in awe," Thomas says. "It was like General Custer tending to one of his injured cadets. It almost made me want to cry" Says Coughlin, "It's unfortunate Dave had to get hurt to find out there was a human side to me."
Coughlin's occasional attempts to connect with his players aren't always well-received. During the '96 season he began crashing locker room doughnut sessions on Saturdays, and players scattered like waterbugs. Now he routinely makes small talk with selected team members—"It's Tom's opportunity to cut on the players in a fun way," says quarterback Mark Brunell—but many Jaguars stay away from the doughnut tray until the coach is gone. "You don't want to get caught in a conversation with him, because you never have any idea where he's coming from," one Jacksonville veteran says. "He'll make a comment about toughness or discipline, and you don't know if he's testing you or trying to be funny or what. It would help if he had a personality."