- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Up front, understand that the Giants will beg "Hard Knocks" to book them for the next five summers before they will consider dumping Tom Coughlin in the middle of a season.
Bill Cowher can warm up his chin in the bullpen and practice spraying spittle into a mirror all he wants, and none of it will alter the ethos of a franchise that looks for reasons to keep people rather than reasons to fire them.
Will Coughlin return next season if the Giants fail to make the playoffs a second straight time? Yes, I believe he will, barring another meltdown ripped straight from the Mets' organizational handbook.
But between now and that decision, with people searching for locker room leaders the way they searched for Jimmy Hoffa's body, it should be noted the Giants already have a leader, one with staying power worth betting on.
Thomas Richard Coughlin of Waterloo, N.Y., should not be looking at the 2010 season as his own Waterloo.
Coughlin has earned the benefit of the doubt, and I should know. I was among the many who shouted for his dismissal following the 2006 season and who eagerly embraced his dreadful start in 2007 as an I-told-you-so moment.
Five months later, I stood 10 feet from Coughlin in the Giants Stadium tunnel. The coach was dressed in a priest's black. He was holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy in his hands, and I remember it looking so silver and shiny against his coat.
Guess I was wrong, I told myself. Just a little bit.
The 2007 Giants were 0-2 before a few minor miracles spared them in Week 3, giving them the same record as the 2010 Giants. So Wednesday seemed like the right time to ask Coughlin whether the epic postseason run from three years back, punctuated by the victory over Bill Belichick's evil empire, made him more confident in his leadership skills during trying times.
"That we've been through it before, yes," he said after his morning news conference. "I have a pretty good feeling about what it takes to fight your way through this thing. It does give me confidence."
Coughlin was asked whether he reminded his team that he's proved he knows how to lead one to the mount.
"Well, not in those words," he said. "But they were reminded we've done this before, that we've been through this before and we got where we wanted to go. So we have to keep our eyes on the prize."
The Lombardi prize. The one Coughlin held the day the Giants took their only-in-New York parade across the river, back to the Jersey side, and staged a memorable rally in the stadium.
Coughlin has told his players about that 0-2 start, about a defense that surrendered 80 points to the Cowboys and Packers, about a team that was a couple of FedEx Field snaps against the Redskins away from quitting altogether on the season and the coach.
Yes, those Giants were 1-2 just like these Giants. "Matter of fact," Coughlin said, "it was worse. We were 0-2 going down there, down at halftime, the goal-line stand and everything else."
Coughlin built a monument out of those ashes, and he did it by trading his tyrannical approach for a human touch. "An evolution," Michael Strahan called it. Joe Girardi read up on Coughlin's personality tweaks, followed his kinder, softer lead, and won a World Series in 2009.
It was the ultimate compliment: The manager of the planet's most famous ball team used Coughlin as a compass.
Girardi lost his way this summer and fall as the bulging veins multiplied, but he still has enough time in October to recover. Coughlin? He hasn't reverted back to his draconian ways, not yet, anyway.
And in time, Coughlin can reach these younger Giants; Strahan is living proof. Let's face it: He hated his coach, called the program "unbearable," at least until he started comparing Coughlin's life lessons to those he received from his parents.
In his Wednesday news conference, Coughlin spoke of the "strong sense of gratification" he feels when the likes of Strahan or his old running back in Jacksonville, Fred Taylor, talk of gaining a greater appreciation for the coach and his methods.
"What I would like to be remembered for, obviously, is winning," Coughlin said. "And I would like to think that we have an influence on the lives of these young men, and that is very important to me."
But back to the winning. Coughlin helped the Giants claim a championship as an assistant under Bill Parcells, and all Parcells could remember from the victory party that night was his receivers coach walking around mumbling, "World [bleep]ing champions."
Scott Norwood's wide right meant a ton to Coughlin's career, but the Super Bowl triumph over the 18-0 Patriots -- as a head coach -- meant so much more to Coughlin's belief in himself.
"It was the ultimate reinforcement," Coughlin said. "Every team is different, but knowing full well the way this team was maneuvered and massaged and having all the ups and downs over the seasons eventually pay off, that is a great source of confidence."
A great source of leadership, too. So Sunday night against the 3-0 Bears, Coughlin will bring more to the home sideline than a plan on how to keep the ball out of Devin Hester's hands.
He will bring a recent history of turning Waterloo into wine.
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