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COUGHLIN FITS PERFECTLY WITH YOUNG JAGUARS

True story. The phone rang. The man on the other end of the line said he represented the Jaguars and was looking for someone to lead his new company.

To this, Tom Coughlin scoffed.

"Jaguars?" he said. "Sorry. Not interested in foreign cars."

When the misinterpretation cleared up and the Boston College football coach realized he was speaking with the owner of the new NFL franchise, he still declined the offer.

"Jaguars?" he said. "Sorry. Not interested. I've got a good job."

Only after a little bit of coaxing would Coughlin interview for the position, but he would only meet with team officials in a private location. He chose the Biltmore Hotel in Providence, R.I., a spot 50 miles away from his home.

"Why Rhode Island?" Jaguar CEO J. Wayne Weaver said. "Because he wouldn't meet with us in Boston. Too many people might see us. . . . That's Tom."

True story. Two Jacksonville players flipped a car the night before a playoff game last season. They weren't seriously injured, but reports indicated that the accident might have been fatal if conditions were different.

Coughlin expressed his sympathy and later fined them both $500 for being late to a meeting.

That, too, is Tom Coughlin.

"To the rest of America he may appear to be this hard-nosed guy who never smiles and you know what, he is," Jaguar receiver Keenan McCardell said. "Around here, it's his way or out the door. You know that from the minute you step in here."

Coughlin is a local celebrity around Jacksonville, as recognizable as any player on the team. But in the NFL, he is still something of an unknown commodity despite a 30-year coaching career and guiding the Jaguars to 10 or more wins in the past four years.

Coughlin is a lot like his former boss, Bill Parcells, but Coughlin also has a lot of Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren in him. What separates them is notoriety.

The Jaguars' coach is as inconspicuous as wallpaper, but he is on the verge of a major image makeover if Jacksonville beats Tennessee on Sunday for the AFC championship.

"I don't think we're really going to get our respect among the national media until we make it to the Super Bowl," offensive tackle Leon Searcy said. "A lot of people, they look at us on paper, and we're pretty much loaded on both sides on the ball.

"We've got the players. We've got the coach. But people don't really know us at all. . . . All you need to know about Jacksonville is Tom Coughlin. He built this team."

The players used to wonder why the little coach with the white hair had so many rules. Why he seemed so distant to them and so driven. One local columnist compared him to a leader of the Soviet Union.

"I wouldn't say we're buddies," quarterback Mark Brunell said. "But we've got a good relationship. He's the coach. I'm the player."

Brunell knows the type. He saw the same attention to detail in Don James, the former Washington Husky coach, where everything in the day is scheduled. There is a set amount of time for meetings, workouts and meals.

Coughlin has total control of the hiring and firing. His assistants are restricted to speak to the media and his players are as well behaved as choir boys.

When was the last time someone got busted for drug use? Or domestic violence? Even reputed bad boy Fred Taylor has cleaned up his act since arriving in town two years ago.

"There's this father-figure aura about him," Taylor said.

That is Tom Coughlin.

But there's more. Just ask his boss, who hired Coughlin 19 months before Jacksonville's first game.

"People really don't know the real Tom Coughlin," Weaver said. "Tom Coughlin is as warm a human being as you'll ever meet. . . . He just happens to be very intense. Very focused. Very disciplined."

Born in Waterloo, N.Y., Coughlin established his football roots on the East Coast. He attended Syracuse and played with Larry Csonka and Floyd Little. Coughlin's coaching career started in 1969, moving him back and forth from college to professional teams.

After two decades as an assistant, he began carving out a reputation as a taskmaster at Boston College, where he was the head coach for three years.

He said no to the New York Giants in 1993 and many believed his future was at BC. But in 1994, Weaver bought the Jacksonville franchise and needed a coach. Friends told him about Coughlin.

Weaver, a Florida mogul who made his fortune in women's footwear, knows all about shoes. He can tell you the difference between pumps and sandals, but when it comes to football, his knowledge is limited.

Still, he knew enough about the business of sports to realize he wanted one person running his multimillion-dollar investment. From a short list that included Tony Dungy and Shanahan, he found the perfect fit in Coughlin.

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