Growing up, the toughest person in Tom Coughlin’s life was not the playground bully, the school bus wise guy or any of his rough-and-tumble friends. Not even close. The person Coughlin most respected and feared was a slightly built Sister of St. Joseph, a disciplinarian par excellence with clear, penetrating eyes and a huge heart. Her name was Sister Rose Alice.
“She was tougher, faster, she could hit harder and she could outtalk anyone,” said Coughlin.
Coughlin, 66, knows something about toughness. As the head coach of the New York Giants, he is a detailed taskmaster who is known for his competitive fire, and he has led his team to two Super Bowl victories in the past five years.
Thomas Richard Coughlin was the eldest of seven children growing up in Waterloo, a town of 5,000 in the idyllic Finger Lakes region of New York. His father, Lou, worked for an Army Supply Depot. His mother, Betty, was a non-Catholic who went out of her way to make sure her children fulfilled their religious obligations.
“My mother was really more Catholic than anyone,” said Coughlin. “Every Sunday she made sure we were dressed and ready for Mass.”
As a student at St. Mary’s School in Waterloo and an altar boy at St. Mary’s Church, Coughlin received a solid Catholic formation from the Sisters of St. Joseph. “They were totally dedicated to Jesus Christ, the Catholic faith and to the welfare of each and every one of their students,” Coughlin recalled. “Who I am today can be traced to the values I learned from the faith-filled Sisters of St. Joseph.” Indeed, these values have formed the foundation of his solid faith and strong marriage. He and his wife, Judy, who were high school classmates, have been married for 46 years. They have four grown children and 10 grandchildren. Coughlin’s education taught him to value the sacraments and the tenets of the faith. “We learned that there are consequences for our actions,” he said. “Ultimately, there is a greater court, judge and jury. I am far from perfect, so it has always been vital for me to know that there is no hiding from God. You can’t be a phony.”
Coughlin first established his football prowess in high school when he set a single-season record for touchdowns with 19 — a record that still stands. He went on to compete for Syracuse University as a wingback, and set the university’s single-season receiving record in 1967. At Syracuse, he played for Hall of Fame coach Ben Schwartzwalder, whose character and toughness rubbed off.
Coughlin later posted a 21-13-1 record as head coach of Boston College from 1991-93, including a dramatic last-second victory over top-ranked Notre Dame. One player he will never forget was Jay McGillis, who died of leukemia and inspired Coughlin to launch a fund that has raised more than $2 million to assist the families of cancer patients. Moving to the NFL, Coughlin became the inaugural head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars expansion team for eight years before accepting the top spot with the Giants in 2004.
Through it all, the faith and values that Coughlin learned during his youth have been brought to bear on the gridiron. “Look inside the locker room. He has inspired every single player to play for each other and not just for themselves,” noted Giants Chairman Steve Tisch. When looking back on his life and career, Coughlin said that he would like to be remembered as “fair, firm, honest and demanding.”
Revealing a warm heart beneath his tough exterior, he added that he is particularly pleased when former players return to see him. “They thank me for helping them become the best they can be, on and off the field,” said Coughlin. “Those moments are special. Man to man. You can’t top that.”♦
WALLY CAREW, a member of Vera Cruz Council 129 in Randolph, Mass., is the author of Men of Spirit, Men of Sports and A Farewell to Glory.