THE NEW YORK GIANTS WALKED AROUND UNIVERSITY OF PHOENIX STADIUM WITH SWEAT ON THEIR BROWS AND JOY IN THEIR EYES. ON THE FINAL SUNDAY OF THE SEASON, THEY DID WHAT NO OTHER TEAM HAD BEEN ABLE TO DO, KNOCKING OFF THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS IN SUPER BOWL XLII IN GLENDALE, ARIZ., AND THE MOMENT PROVED TO BE EVERY BIT AS GOOD as they had imagined. The game was supposed to be a coronation for the Patriots, who were seeking to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only NFL teams to go undefeated and win the Lombardi Trophy. But New England's march to history was halted by a determined group of Giants who were able to wipe the falling confetti from their faces but not their satisfied smiles after doing the unexpected.
Despite losing to the Patriots by only three in the regular-season finale, New York was a 12-point underdog. The consensus, according to the oddsmakers, was that the Giants had as much chance of beating New England as coach Tom Coughlin did of changing from cold-blooded to warmhearted.
But Coughlin did change. Many of his players point to their coach's transformation as having as big a role in New York's championship run as any pass thrown by Eli Manning or any sack by Osi Umenyiora.
During his first 11 years as an NFL head coach, Coughlin did it one way: his way. There were no democracies. He was inflexible and intolerant, demanding all that his players had to give but never getting to know them personally or letting them see his true self.
That formula worked well for him in Jacksonville, where he had an expansion team that needed molding and guidance. The Jaguars advanced to the AFC title game in 1996 and had a 14-2 record in '99. But in his first three seasons with the Giants, a team with established veterans who didn't mind questioning the coach's ways, New York had only one winning season and no playoff victories. It was not uncommon for Coughlin to be second-guessed or criticized by some of his players.
The chorus of naysayers intensified after the 2006 season, during which the Giants started 6-2 but finished 8-8, then lost in the first round of the playoffs. Some players grumbled privately about Coughlin's unforgiving ways. The exception was star running back Tiki Barber, now retired, who made his complaints public.
Over the years family members, friends and club officials had told Coughlin to lighten up. But it wasn't until last off-season, when the person staring back at him in the mirror said it was time to try something new, that he finally relented.
The 61-year-old coach got the players' attention when he ended off-season workouts by holding a casino night at Giants Stadium for the players and staff. Then during training camp he backed off his grueling practices and even canceled one meeting to take the players bowling. Later, he created his first leadership council, made up of players who have his ear on everything from when and how they practice to what's served at the training table.
"A house divided cannot stand, and that's exactly what my approach was with the team this season," Coughlin said.
"You expect somebody to change a little bit here and there," said defensive end Michael Strahan, a member of the council. "But the changes that he's made have exceeded anything I ever expected to see as long as I've played for him. The guy actually is a personality now. He's funny. He has jokes. He gets the room laughing. He makes you feel like you can enjoy being at work."