Everyone was standing around; Tom Coughlin was running late; and when someone asked him to kick off his shoes, the NFL's most regimented coach put his foot down. "The flip-flops stay on," Coughlin declared to his wife, Judy, their four kids and a daughter-in-law early last Saturday as they waited for a photographer they'd hired to shoot a family portrait at Ponte Vedra Beach. A day before his Jacksonville Jaguars opened the 1999 season against the San Francisco 49ers, Coughlin was in no mood to smile or say cheese: He had already delayed his normal 5:45 a.m. arrival at Alltel Stadium by more than two hours, and if there's one thing Coughlin detests more than being late, it's getting dirty. To show up at work with sand between his toes would be totally unacceptable.
Since becoming the Jaguars' coach, personnel chief and de facto despot in 1994, 19 months before the franchise played its first game, Coughlin has ruled with a hard-line approach that has helped make Jacksonville, in only its fifth season, a bona fide Super Bowl contender. But while he may be the master of his domain, Coughlin is not the head of his household. In a scene that some Jaguars might have sacrificed a week's paycheck to witness, Judy Coughlin matter-of-factly informed her husband that his flip-flops would ruin the photo. Tom flashed his trademark steely glare, then threw up his hands. Seconds later the sandals came off.
By Sunday afternoon Coughlin was back in his element, coaching the Jaguars to a 41-3 win over the 49ers that validated the defending AFC Central champions' preseason hype and resounded in Denver, Miami, New York and Minnesota. Since the team's shocking run to the AFC Championship Game in its second season, Jacksonville's defense has been vulnerable in big games, but it shut down the Niners, who converted just one of 14 third-down attempts. Buoyed by the additions of zone-blitz guru Dom Capers as defensive coordinator and former Pittsburgh Steelers star Carnell Lake at free safety—as well as the long-awaited emergence of fourth-year defensive end Tony Brackens, who made the two biggest plays of Sunday's game—the Jaguars spent the day playing Back Dat Azz Up against an offense that was the league's best in '98.
Most impressive of all, Jacksonville displayed a dogged intensity that met Coughlin's high standards. This is a coach who once fined three players for almost being late to a meeting—a perfectionist who, says Judy, "straightens things on his desk that are already straight, just out of habit." After reporting to training camp on July 29 and enduring four weeks of Coughlin's stress, the Jaguars viewed Sunday's game as practically a day at the beach. "As long as we're winning, I can put up with a lot of stuff," says Pro Bowl wideout Jimmy Smith, who scorched San Francisco for 139 yards on six receptions. "I've never seen somebody who wants to win so badly as Coach Coughlin, but it carries over to us, and that's what you need to get to the ultimate plateau."
This year the Jaguars seem more intent than ever on playing it Coughlin's way. Though some of the players hate to admit it, the carping coach is usually right. When an unexpected rainstorm hit Jacksonville before Sunday's game, he told his players the key to the game would be winning the turnover battle. The Jags ended up with a 5-0 edge in that pivotal category, scoring touchdowns on special teams and defense, and they looked far more poised and polished than the more experienced Niners.
"I'd hate to see how bad it might get around here if we weren't winning," says right tackle Leon Searcy, whom Coughlin plucked as a free agent from the division rival Steelers after the 1995 season. "But the fact is we have won here the way he has said we would, so you can't ever challenge him.
"He plays no favorites, and he never has to worry about being second-guessed," Searcy adds. "You respect his honesty, even if you're offended by it sometimes. I thoroughly believe that when all is said and done, we might work harder than any other team in the NFL because we're always facing pressure-packed situations in practice. Coach Coughlin's a firm believer that you earn your right to win on Sunday by out-preparing your opponent during the week."
Coughlin believes that by pressuring his players 24/7, he can sustain a collective concentration level that eliminates the one element he fears most. "When things aren't predictable or consistent, it absolutely drives me crazy, and quite frankly, I don't know how to function," Coughlin said after Sunday's victory. "I want to know that I can depend on my players' behavior, that winning is their Number 1 priority and that they understand the sacrifices it takes to win."
Yet Coughlin's critics, including some current and former Jaguars, believe his obsessing over petty details saps the players mentally and detracts from their ability to focus on what's truly important. Since the infamous list of rules he unveiled during Jacksonville's first training camp in 1995—no sunglasses on the sidelines, two feet on the ground during team meetings—Coughlin has been the NFL's Great Santini, a man so strict and intent on driving home lessons that he hides his humanity. "People think he's this ogre who has no personality, but that's not true," says former Jaguars defensive end Jeff Lageman, who retired after last season. "If he'd just let down that steely glare and smile once in a while, he'd own this town, but he won't do it. He has a specific structure that he insists everyone abide by, and it's tough on the people around him."
Lageman was fined $200 in 1995 for wearing a bolo tie on a team flight, but that's a Grade B nitpick in Coughlin's Kingdom. In '96 Coughlin called a meeting of selected veterans and told them he was prepared to impose a curfew on Thursday nights because Friday practices had not been crisp enough. Coughlin had heard from police and team security sources that many players were hanging out at Studio 87, a club with which Jacksonville wideout Keenan McCardell was affiliated, and demanded that team members stop visiting the nightspot. When McCardell and the other veterans told Coughlin they would urge their teammates to comply with his wishes, he dropped the curfew idea. Studio 87 was gone by season's end.