Syracuse University Magazine

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Tom Coughlin ’68, G’69 led the Giants to two Super Bowl titles. Along with his love for football, he is deeply passionate about helping families with children who have cancer. Photo by Evan Pinkus via AP



Q & A: Tom Coughlin ’68, G’69

Understanding What’s Important in Life and Tales of SU Football

Tom Coughlin has returned to his passion: Once again, he’s trying to build a Super Bowl champion in the National Football League. In January, the Jacksonville Jaguars announced the Syracuse graduate would become their executive vice president for football operations. He’ll work with new head coach Doug Marrone ’91, who spent four seasons as head coach of the Orange.

It is a homecoming for Coughlin, who coached the Jaguars to the playoffs four times in the 1990s. He later won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, an accomplishment that might someday help carry him to professional football’s Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Syracuse University Magazine contributing writer Sean Kirst caught up with Coughlin in December, not long before he left a position as a senior advisor with the NFL to accept the job with the Jaguars. It had been almost a year since Coughlin parted ways with the Giants, after spending 12 seasons as head coach of the club. He spoke with passion of his work with the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund, a charitable effort for families affected by cancer. Coughlin and his wife, Judy, founded the fund in memory of Jay McGillis, a young student-athlete who died of leukemia in 1992, when Coughlin coached at Boston College. Coughlin, a native of Waterloo in Seneca County, also recalled the lasting impact of Ben Schwartzwalder, the legendary coach at Syracuse.

You can read an edited transcript of the entire interview here. A shorter version appears in Syracuse University Magazine.

It’s been just over 20 years now since you started the Jay Fund. Can you speak of its significance to you?

We founded the Jay Fund in 1996, a very humble opportunity to raise funds for families that had childhood cancer. Our one specific goal was to make sure that families that were in need got the money directly, no red tape…. We primarily concentrate on household expenses: you know, mortgage payments, car payments, electric payments, food, gasoline, getting to and from appointments, food at the hospital, all of those functions.

We’ve added multiple holiday parties, Valentine’s Day parties, great experiences for kids…. like the Sunday blitz that the Giants have always allowed us to have in early June at the Giants facility where the kids come and we set up obstacle courses and things. We talk to them like our team before we get started, we have “rookie” players do different kinds of lifts in the weight room, we have the trainers tape ’em up, we have the equipment people try size 20 shoes on their little feet, try a helmet on, put some shoulder pads on…. It’s something that they’ll never forget.

Then we go down to the cafeteria and our wonderful cafeteria people at the Giants have an ice cream special for the kids, including chicken fingers and hot dogs, things they like to eat.… It’s just a wonderful day, when kids take a break from cancer, and the parents (feel) the same way. The parents, you know, come together and talk about their circumstances with other parents, trying to get a sense of: You’re not alone.

That’s what the Jay Fund really does: It wants people in this situation—if you can imagine the terrible news that your child has cancer—to know they’re not alone, and the Jay Fund will be there for them, as it’s certainly been there for 20, 21 years, a humble existence and a humble start and it’s been received by the people of Jacksonville and the people of New York and New Jersey who have responded so well to our great cause and supported us financially, so that our work has reached far and wide. We’re very proud of that and want to be able to continue to be there for these families.

What was it that was so powerful, so memorable about this young man that it caused you to take on this really beautiful work?

When you talk about a team, and you talk about all the different pieces…. This was our first year at Boston College as a head coach, and what Jay and his family went through…how fast the disease took Jay’s life and you watched the parents, and you watched them run to Jay’s bedside, no one worried about work, no one worried about anything, no one doing anything but trying to convince Jay that everything was going to be all right.

You know the emotions and you know the strain and you see it in their faces and the fact that they try to mask some of these experiences so that they see a smile on his face and just a continuous loving support for the child…. When we went through the experience, and the players raised $50,000 to give Jay and his family at the spring game that year… You see what they’ve gone through and your heart pours out to them and you think, quite frankly, the Holy Spirit comes to you and gives you the idea that this is how you give back.

We never forgot that, so that when we went to Jacksonville we knew, Judy and I, that we were going to give back in the spirit of Jay McGillis. You can’t do it alone. You have to have tremendous help. And when my daughter [Keli] came on board as executive director, that’s when the Jay Fund really, really made an impact, because it reached far and wide. She was very much recognized in the community, she developed a tremendous core of volunteers, she was well-received by all the different civic groups, the chamber of commerce, etc., in Jacksonville, in New York. We just continued to improve what we did and how we did it and we were able to reach more and more families. We’re just so grateful to be able to do this and we couldn’t do it without the wonderful support that we receive.

You’ve been in a place in football everyone aspires to reach: You’ve stood on the platform, you’ve held that Super Bowl trophy. For all of that, is this the most important work you’ve done? To help these families?

There isn’t any doubt about that. When you go to visit kids in the hospital, when you see little 2- and 3-year-old kids who are suffering from cancer, and they have all sorts of medical apparatuses hooked up to them, tubes down their nose…babies! …it puts life in a perspective, it puts everything in a perspective, and that’s something we all need. We need to be able to return to the idea that: When it’s all said and done, the big guy’s going to ask what you did for your fellow man, and that’s the way it’s going to be in which we’re all judged.

I’m very, very proud of the Super Bowl experiences and the winning opportunities…and the players and coaches that worked with us to accomplish those goals and the heart and soul that they poured into their efforts to get us to that podium against great football teams. But this is a part of me and a part of our family—they’re very much involved—so that makes me very, very proud of these kids and my family for recognizing what they can do to help and jumping in both feet first.

I know this is almost an impossible question, but any one moment, any one instance, any one encounter with a family that stays with you?

Any time you visit the hospital and go room to room…we had an experience just before Christmas when we were visiting the Hackensack hospital and the Jay Fund kids, the cancer kids, the pediatric cancer kids, were waiting for us. We had our Christmas gifts and we came to a room where the mother was outside, speaking to the doctors, and all they wanted was for Judy and I to come into the room, and a little (10-year-old) boy had just learned he had cancer.

You know, he’s playing in the side yard and he learns he has cancer and he was so scared and so devastated. He played safety (on a youth team) and we talked to him about how he can beat this disease, and he can play again. Mom was right there listening and she was trying to support him and keep him calm, but he was very upset and at that point in time you realize: If you can help a youngster to just deal with this predicament and to help mom and dad have a greater sense of, “He can win, he can beat this disease,” then you begin to understand, as I say, what’s really important in life.

Because everything stops. Everything stops for these families when a child has cancer. Their lives stop. All their attention goes to the sick child. And it’s devastating. And yet they have to find the courage and the ability to continue on.

The role of Syracuse University in your life: When did you become aware of Syracuse as a child?

I remember we got our first black-and-white TV. It was in the ’50s, and I remember the very first thing I ever watched on a black-and-white TV that was ours was a college football game. Then I remember watching the Ben Schwartzwalder show, black-and-white TV, Thursday nights, being aware of Jim Brown [’57], then Ernie Davis [’62], and I only had one school I wanted to go to. That was it. I only wanted to go to one school and that was Syracuse. I wanted to play college football at Syracuse. I wanted to be a part of that football program and be a part of what were very, very good football teams in those days.

We were talent-laden and we were deep.… I remember (Larry) Csonka [’68] was the starting fullback and the backup was a kid by the name of Teddy Allen [’67], who was also 6-foot-3, 235, that could really play. We had a lot of football players at Syracuse in those days…. It was a huge, huge part of my life and miraculous, to be honest with you.

I mean, I was from a small town and Coach Shreve, Jim Shreve, came to our town and evaluated the tape and I visited Syracuse, and they offered me a scholarship. It was a dream come true. It really was. And all the opportunities that were presented to me at Syracuse as a student-athlete, the education.… I stayed and got my master’s as a G.A.!

I even had the audacity…they were going to move Coach Shreve from the freshman team… Coach Shreve was going to go up and coach with the varsity, so in spring of that year (laughs) I went in and sat down with Coach Schwartzwalder and I just looked at him, I’d been a G.A., I said to him: “Coach, why don’t you make me head coach of the freshman team?”

And he got a smile, he looked at me across the top of his glasses the way he always did and he said: “You go and get a couple of years of experience and we’ll see if we can get you back here.” And I did get back, although I didn’t get back under Coach Schwartzwalder. It was when the change was made with Frank Maloney.

But what Syracuse meant to me, as a student-athlete, the opportunities it presented, how proud I was to be a member of that school and a representative of that school and on that team with the great players and great athletes I had a chance to hang around with.…

It was a lot of fun, obviously, it was the center of our lives at that time, all the experiences we went through…. The game was much different than (laughs) it is now. I remember the freshmen came in about three days after the varsity did and that first Saturday was the big scrimmage and guess who the scrimmage team was? It was the freshman team. It was just a great experience, playing collegiate football all over the country.

My last collegiate game was against UCLA out in California and they had been No. 1 in the country for seven weeks and Gary Beban was the quarterback, and USC had beaten them by one point—OJ Simpson was USC’s tailback— and we went out there to play them and we beat ’em and we beat ’em good. It was a great, great sendoff to college football for me. I played in the Gator Bowl in 1966: Tennesee beat us 18-12 and it was a great game. I think we rushed for more yards with Csonka and Little, we set the Gator Bowl record. A great experience.

This kind of brings it all around, but did you ever meet Ernie?

I never did, but he was a guy I idolized. One of my buddies, when we were freshmen in high school, he and his dad took me to the Syracuse-Pitt game, and in that game was Mike Ditka, the tight end for Pitt, and Ernie Davis was the running back at Syracuse. And this buddy of mine sticks me with this nickname: Ernie. All the way through high school, the high school yearbook, the whole thing: The nickname is Ernie.

There are still guys who call you that?

High school guys, yeah.

I just wrote a book, The Soul of Central New York, and there’s a story in it about how Jim Brown explained how he got his number at Syracuse. He told the trainer he wanted 33, and a guy named Gus Vergara was already wearing it. So Jim Brown said to the trainer, “What do you have that’s double digits?” and the guy hands him 44. Honest to God.

Is that right? You’d be surprised how many different things in life happen that way; here’s an enshrined number, recognized all over the country as being THE number at Syracuse, and that’s how it starts.

It could have been 22.

And you know the rest of the story is how each one of them recruited the next one, which was unbelievable. Floyd’s a fabulous guy, and he’s got all the stories. He could have gone anywhere, and he came to Syracuse. Ernie passed away, and Floyd came to Syracuse.

With Jay McGillis, did you think of Ernie? Two young guys...

There’s no doubt that naturally crossed my mind. Both died of leukemia.

Tom, how about some great Ben Schwartzwalder stories?

I can tell you this, most of our pregame speeches, the night-before-the-game locker room speeches, the ones he was really great at, he would get so emotional. He might use a war analogy. He was in World War II, and he was a warrior. Imagine jumping out of airplanes, behind the lines at Normandy, at 32 years old? And he never talked about that part of it, but those analogies were there and they were prevalent.

And we were physical, if you remember anything about those teams: They were physical. We blitzed the middle back all the time—I remember Jim Cheyunski coming up the middle—and we were physical, physical, physical and one of the reasons was him: It was Ben.

I’ll be honest with you, it’s something I really missed.… I came back as a head coach at Boston College, and I knew Ben was upstairs, he was up in the boxes at the Carrier Dome, and I never got to see him. You know, we lost to them once and we beat them once while I was at BC as head coach; I never saw him before or after the game. I wish I had.

He influenced you?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. He influenced everybody, everybody who was around him.

Your reputation is as a tough guy who’s very fair.

That’s what he was. We used to practice three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, and this was in pads—there was never a time you took your pads off—and I used to tell people: “We practiced until he got tired.” That was the truth. We practiced until he got tired.

He called plays off a sheet. Yeah. It was amazing. And he’d come into the huddle and he’d go: “OK, let’s have a little three quarter.” He’s looking over the top of his glasses, and he’d say: “Let’s have a little three quarter.” And three quarter meant you were going full speed, you just didn’t tackle. It was funny. It was something.

Do you still follow Syracuse?

Well, I had a chance to meet Coach Babers. I flipped the coin at the Notre Dame-Syracuse game this year. We talked, and you know what he said? “I want players like you had back then.” And I laughed. Because we all do.

Is there any message you want to send to the greater Syracuse community?

Just the way I said it. I remember telling Floyd this a few years ago when we went back: My experience at Syracuse as a student-athlete was terrific. My friends, the guys I played with, the people I met in the classroom, the teachers. I went to grad school and Coach Schwartzwalder helped me at every step of the way.

I got married the summer right before my senior year, my wife was going to be able to teach school so she taught at North Syracuse and I finished my senior year and then went to grad school. I needed housing? I picked up the phone, boom, housing was taken care of. I wanted to go to grad school? Boom. Grad school. That’s kind of the way he operated and the whole school was like that. There were people there who were just committed.

The dean (of liberal arts) way back then, he was tremendous, he had a great appreciation for Ben…Doc Faigle. Dean (Eric) Faigle. He was fabulous. He was great. And Chancellor Tolley. He’d be at the practice field. It was great. It was fun. A lot of be proud of.

So in a way Syracuse is still home?

I’m born and raised 30, 40 miles from there. All those memories are there. Whenever I come home, there they are. Jim Boeheim [’66, G’73], I played basketball against him in high school. He went to Lyons, I went to Waterloo.

How’d it turn out?

They beat us, and he shot the lights out.

 



... you begin to understand what’s really important in life. Because everything stops. Everything stops for these families when a child has cancer.”

Tom Coughlin

To learn more about the Jay Fund, visit tcjayfund.org.



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Tom Coughlin and his wife, Judy, visit with a youngster at Hackensack University Medical Center before Christmas.

Photo by Jodi Crandell Photography