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The Giants blog for Lower Hudson Valley fans.

As Promised

April
2

Yesterday I promised you a story to take your mind off all the bad stuff happening in and around Giantsland. And you know I never break a promise.

This one is especially interesting because it involves a Super Bowl-winning coach and an old basketball coach of another era who made his living in the Final Four, which not coincidentally starts Saturday. Tom Coughlin has been a fan and admirer of UCLA coach John Wooden, he of those 10 national championships in 12 years back in the 1960s and ‘70s, for his entire life. Coughlin had called Wooden for short phone chats two, three times a year since the mid-’90s. But he had never met the great coach in person.

Not until last Thursday, as the NFL owners meeting in Dana Point, Ca. broke up and the NCAA’s Sweet 16 began. It was then that Coughlin made the 78-mile drive north from the meetings to the 98-year-old Wooden’s modest apartment in Encino for an audience of three hours “that felt like five minutes,” Coughlin said.

“You know, people have those lists of 100 things they want to do before they die?” he said. “This was a top-10 for me. Top-10.”

Those who know Coughlin would not necessarily put his name and the word awe in the same sentence. But Coughlin was truly awed by the man, not just for the amazing streak he put together with teams that featured Lew Alcindor, later to become Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Bill Walton, but by the man’s grace and integrity, and the creed he lives by.

A little background. The head coach’s Giants Stadium office has as much Wooden as it does Coughlin. Wooden’s list of life virtues—prepare well, live clean—sits in an honored place atop a center bookshelf. In a credenza, a full-color reproduction of his fabled Pyramid of Success sits next to pictures of the coach, its elements laying out a philosophy of faith, perserverance, and self-confidence. His blue-covered book, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On And Off The Court, sits within arm’s reach of his desk, its first pages indexed in Coughlin’s hand with important passages.

“It never leaves my side,” Coughlin said. “It sits right next to me. You read through this, it’s like reading another one of the gospels. Very simple. It’s all about being a good person and leading a good life.”

The reverence is obvious.

“For me, you’re talking about a national treasure,” he said.

Yet, Coughlin had never met the man until his wife urged him to try for an appointment.

“She said, ‘You’ve got to go see him, sit with him, talk to him, because if you don’t you’ll regret it for the rest of your life,’” Coughlin said.

Coughlin made the call a week before the meetings and was granted time. No small thing there, since what could be a torrential flow of visitors—from athletes and coaches to presidents and statesman—is purposely limited by Wooden’s family to preserve his strength. He is 98 after all. He uses a wheelchair to get around now, but when he received Coughlin he was seated in a plush, comfortable chair in his office.

Wooden was just two days out of the hospital after a 30-day battle with pneumonia.

History surrounds him.

“You walk in there, and right across from you is the ‘67 team, on of the four undefeateds,” Coughlin said. “My last playing year at Syracuse was ‘67, and I told coach Wooden, when I was in college, it was John Wooden and Vince Lombardi. Those two guys were the kings. That was what I watched, those two coaches and their teams.

“His teams are on the wall. Pictures three deep on the shelf.”

Coughlin found a man whose body is failing, but whose mind is still as sharp as the master tactician of the ‘60s.

“He is gracious, extremely polite, sincere,” Coughlin said. “He never interrupts. And he’s an intent listener. You know how some people, when you’re talking, they’re getting their next thought ready? He’s not like that. He listens to every word you say. He has a tremendous memory. He’s a great story-teller.

“He has a tremendous sense of humor. He makes fun of himself. I asked him about his medication and he said, “I have no idea what’s for what, nor do I know if they counteract each other.’”

What Coughlin really wanted to know, however, was how Wooden came upon his method of practice.

“His practices were legendary,” Coughlin said. “They never stopped. I asked him about the running game, and he smiled and said, ‘That was my game, the running game.’ The pressure defense, the fast-break offense. He always prided himself on conditioning.”

Wooden told him that, as a high school coach at South Bend Central High, he visited Notre Dame football coach Elmer Layden’s practice and saw how organized and intense it was. He took it all back to his gym and transferred it to basketball, sectioning off practices so one drill flowed into another.

Stories flowed about Walton and Jabbar, but one gave Coughlin particular insight into the man, not the coach.

“At that time, people would say crude things to Jabbar, who coach Wooden called Lewis,” Coughlin said. “One day, a woman was stunned by how big he was and said something very rude. Coach Wooden took him aside and said, ‘That was one of the cruelest things I’ve ever heard anyone ever say to a person.

“And then he paused, and he said, ‘She didn’t mean it. She’s startled by your imposing figure.’

“The point is, he’s a humanitarian, and he’s trying to make Lewis feel better by telling him this woman just said what came to her mind.”

Coughlin soaked it all in.

“I’ve always had great respect for my elders,” he said. “But not just for what he’s accomplished, but what he stands for, that’s why it was so important for me to see him. Not only does he espouse the Golden Rule, he lives it. Respect for others. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.

“He talked about effort. Make the great effort and everything else will take care of itself. He said he never talked to his players about winning. It was all about effort and preparing properly. And don’t compare yourself to others. Be as good as you can be.”

He came away utterly, completely awed, with Wooden’s children’s book autographed to Coughlin’s grandkids with, “Love, John Wooden.”

After all, it’s not everyday a Giants coach can sit down with a national treasure.

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 2nd, 2009 at 7:34 pm by Ernie Palladino. Print Print | Email Email
Category: Uncategorized


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10 Responses to “As Promised”

  1. S.A.-Kenny Phillips: Bringing Pride back to #21

    That’s a pretty awesome story. :)

  2. Schwabcycler

    Absolutely great piece, Ernie. They are both treasures.

  3. Touchdown Blue

    Great story.
    It’s kinda nice reading about other Giants related news and getting away from all the Plax drama.

  4. adam

    Love the story EP. I’ve lived my whole life in Geneva ny. Which is 5miles west from where Tom grew up.(Jim Beohim grew up 7miles north of me) He came back to his high school last summer and gave a great speech. Someone painted the whole side of their bar with his accomplishments.

    He and Snee both signed my daughters Plax jersey….he had to love that.

  5. adam

    lol thats jim boeheim…wow sorry

  6. BostonGiant

    Great story Vinny, and one you won’t find in other blogs. Thanks for the insight. I’ve doubted Coughlin’s decisions and methods, but I’ll never doubt his intentions or integrity.

  7. BostonGiant

    And by Vinny, I meant Ernie. Lesson # 156 on why I should not multitask email writing.

  8. Colour1

    Very nice post! Thanks Ernie!
    Is Mike still out on the course??? still trying to find his ball in the rough???LOL!!!

  9. 5H Tailgater

    Fantastic article….loved it.

  10. Al

    .... unrelated but pertinent: Plax released today.

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About this blog
Journal News/LoHud.com beat writers share their thoughts on the Giants with the Lower Hudson fans.

Jets Journal
About the authors
Ernie PalladinoErnie Palladino became Giants beat reporter in 1989 after previously covering a wide range of sports that included Yankees, Mets, boxing, Army football, St. John’s and Iona basketball, and Islanders hockey. READ MORE
Mike DoughertyMike Dougherty Mike Dougherty has been with the Journal News since 1988, spending most of that time in high school gyms and Madison Square Garden. READ MORE

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