When a dictatorial coach gets older and deeper into the years of his life where a legacy is shaped and defined, the details about their formative years begin to soften to the point where they’re almost malleable. Over time, Bear Bryant’s Junction Boys became analogous to the creation of toughness, and not an insane series of practices where players were forced to labor for more than 12 hours a day in searing heat without any water breaks.
Tom Coughlin, who was fired by the Jaguars on Wednesday, is not Bryant on the scale of tyranny. But in the modern NFL spray chart of coaches who elicit both feelings of strong love and aggravation from players, he’s probably in the upper right-hand corner alongside Bill Belichick, which he might take as a compliment. His own brand of creating toughness, which included a maniacal system of fines and penalties for even the smallest infraction, was intense enough that it nearly imploded his coaching tenure with the Giants before it really got off the ground.
“When he first got there, everything was about rules and fines and being five minutes early,” Michael Strahan said a few years back. “It kind of consumed you more than preparing for the opponent. You were worried about his rules every day.”
And after two Super Bowls, the fines became swirled into the legend. They became moldable, even from the people (yours truly included) who saw both the positive and negative effects of it daily. The fines caused focus, right? They made people better. They weren’t that crazy when you think about it, you know? Well, if you forget a necktie on a road trip, you do deserve to forfeit a portion of your salary. It’s only right.
It worked and, for its era, it was acceptable and it was canonized. The mistake the Jaguars made was buying that version of the story and assuming it would translate into a period that is starkly different from the one in which Coughlin won his last Super Bowl.
Earlier this week, the NFL Player’s Association took cannon fire to Jaguars, winning a grievance that helped Dante Fowler reclaim some $700,000 in fines. Leonard Fournette, who is still on the team, told reporters this week that he reclaimed almost $100,000 in fines. Jalen Ramsey, who forced his way out of Jacksonville, tweeted the “zipped mouth shut” emoji in the immediate moments after Coughlin’s firing, which, despite lacking in substance, says quite a bit about why he’s no longer there.
"This is just one of the many grievances we had to file to protect our players from the Jaguars' actions," the NFLPA said in its statement, which you can read in full here. "The decision puts a stop to the blatant overreach by the Jaguars and emphasizes the voluntary nature of almost all football activities during the offseason."
The NFLPA went as far as suggesting that free agents might want to think twice about going there and that more than a quarter of total grievances filed to the NFL Players’ Association were regarding the Jaguars. In terms of the legalese at their disposal, this was the nuclear option.
There was no way Coughlin could survive this. He was Jacksonville’s Hail Mary attempt at instilling discipline, and in many ways he shouldn’t be faulted because he did the same things he’s always done. His methods were well known. Celebrated. There were hundreds of former players that could be interviewed and prodded about the emotional and financial vacillations that Coughlin’s methods may have caused over the course of their career, but it was easier to assume it would all work out because that’s what tends to happen when a story takes on a life of its own.
It won’t change what we think of Coughlin and it shouldn’t. But it should change the way we allow all of the league’s coaches and players to become infallible characters in a narrative that can sometimes get away from us without a second thought.