The last three seasons that former running back Tiki Barber spent with the New York Giants were three of the most productive of his career, and all occurred on the watch of Tom Coughlin. Yet, while those years were good for Barber’s resume, they weren’t so good for his relationship with his former head coach.
In fact, let’s just call it what it was: Difficult. The two didn’t get along … not then and, apparently, not now.
After a 2005 playoff defeat, for instance, Barber suggested the Giants had been outcoached. One year later, after a mid-season loss to Jacksonville, he criticized the game plan with complaints that infuriated his head coach. Barber didn’t like Coughlin’s treatment of players, and Coughlin didn’t like Barber airing his grievances in public.
But that was then, and this is now … and now Barber — one of 102 preliminary candidates for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 — doesn’t waver when asked about Tom Coughlin’s legacy. He firmly believes he belongs in Canton.
“He is a Hall-of-Fame coach,” Barber said on last week’s Talk of Fame Network broadcast, “and I respect the hell out of him.”
So do a lot of Giants’ fans. Because in his 12 years with Big Blue, Coughlin returned the franchise to prominence — with the club winning two Super Bowls, including one of the biggest upsets in history when the Giants ended New England’s perfect season in Super Bowl XLII.
Coughlin advocatess argue that those two victories qualify the former head coach for the Hall, and they’re right in one respect: They do make him Hall-of-Fame worthy. But they don’t necessarily make him a cinch, and here’s why: Two Lombardi trophies don’t automatically punch your ticket to Canton.
Reason: There are four other retired head coaches who won two Super Bowls each (Jimmy Johnson, George Seifert, Tom Flores and Mike Shanahan) and who aren’t in Canton. And while Coughlin, who was also Jacksonville’s first head coach, has more victories (182) and more playoff wins (12) than the others, he ranks last in winning percentage at .531, well behind Seifert’s .649.
And then there’s this: Coughlin’s last four years with the Giants were undistinguished, with no playoff appearances, one winning season and a 28-36 record.
Barber wasn’t around then. He retired after the 2006 season, a year where Coughlin saved his job with a 34-28 victory in the Giants’ last regular-season game, guaranteeing a playoff game vs. Philadelphia. In truth, though, it was Barber who saved Coughlin’s job, rushing for a franchise-record 234 yards and three touchdowns as the Giants moved on to January for the second straight season.
One year later, of course, they won the first of two Super Bowls under Coughlin, but by then Barber was gone, and the previously intractable Coughlin had changed to be more accommodating.
“We had our personal differences,” Barber said of Coughlin, “mainly with how he treated people. And I was one of those guys who could recognize how good of a person he was, with his charity and with his grandkids that you would see behind the scenes.
“But, then, how he treated you in front of the scenes didn’t reconcile with me. And so I called him on it. A lot of times. In fact, we got into a big F.U. match my last season … my last couple of games after he had to fire his offensive coordinator (John Hufnagel was relieved of the play-calling following a loss to New Orleans). But it set the stage, I think, for some good things to come forward for him.”
From 2005-2011, Coughlin would reach the playoff five times in seven years, go 8-3 in postseason play and win two Lombardi Trophies. Now, of course, he’s the executive vice president of football operations in Jacksonville, where he helped resuscitate that franchise — with the Jags reaching the 2017 AFC championship game in Coughlin’s first season.
“I’m proud of him,” said Barber. “We haven’t talked — literally — since my last game in the National Football League, that Philadelphia game in the postseason where we couldn’t stop Brian Westbrook from marching down the field, and they kicked the game-winning field goal that ended my career … not that I’m bitter about that or anything (he said it jokingly).
“It’s one of those things where I respect him. We just never got along. I’d love to rebuild that bridge at some point. I have no idea if that ever happens. But I have nothing but great things to say about him as a coach, and that’s all I can judge him on.”