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Coughlin previews return


Life in the big city hasn't changed Tom Coughlin. He's as punctual now as he was when he was the Jaguars coach, and just as obsessed with winning.

Coughlin's call to reporters in Jacksonville arrived one minute ahead of schedule. "A little late, actually," Coughlin said, applying his five-minutes-early rule. "That should be fined."

The former Jaguars coach was relaxed in speaking to the same reporters with whom he often bickered. Coughlin, now the Giants head man, stayed on the phone for a half hour previewing his scheduled return to Jacksonville on Monday night.

"How do you think you'll be received?" he was asked.

"Probably booed," he answered.

Coughlin's Giants are 6-3 and a game in front of the Eagles and Cowboys in the NFC East title race. This is a big game for the Giants, but there's no avoiding the sentimental storyline that goes with the return of the first coach in Jaguars history, a man who led the Jaguars to two AFC title games in five years and the best start for an expansion team in NFL history.

Coughlin knew he couldn't avoid the inevitable question about his emotions for his return to Alltel Stadium. The question came right away.

"I appreciate the opportunity to respond to that. We have wonderful memories. We continue to have strong ties and the people have been so supportive of the Jay Fund foundation. It's difficult to describe how grateful I am," Coughlin said, referring to his childhood diseases charity he founded after being named the team's head coach.

"This is a big game for both teams. We're coming down there for a business trip and I don't want to be a distraction to my team. I'm going to try to keep it self-contained," he added of his emotions.

For eight seasons, Coughlin led his Jaguars onto the field from its familiar tunnel area to the right of the team's bench. On Monday, he'll give the tunnel on the other side of the Jaguars bench a try.

"I'm coming out a different door. I know that," he said.

What are his memories?

"I have so many great thoughts about the players and the way they performed. Even in the last year. We lost five games by 11 points," he said of the 2002 season, his final season as Jaguars coach.

"I take great pride in the fact I hired everybody. We built the team," he added. "The acceleration of the '96 team, the toughness of the '95 team; the comments about the mean, ornery coach and the response of the players and the way they performed.

"Some day I'll have a better opportunity to sit down and think about it," Coughlin said, referring to retirement, which he said he'll spend in Jacksonville.

One of his former players, his first-ever draft choice, offensive tackle Tony Boselli, became the Jaguars' inaugural inductee to the team's "Pride of the Jaguars" ring of honor on Oct. 8. Coughlin said he sent Boselli a congratulatory note.

"I never worried about protection on that side. What a wonderful recognition for Tony," Coughlin said, unable to avoid the question: What about you, coach?

"Maybe some day down the road," he said.

He was also prepared for another inevitable question. Did he think he was given a fair chance to turn the team's fortunes around?

"That's ancient history. I don't want to go back into that," he said.

Those were bad times.

"Sometimes it takes bad to become good again," he added.

The Jaguars roster includes 13 holdovers from Coughlin's days as coach. Those players include his last two first-round picks, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson.

"I'm happy for the players and the contribution they've made to the team and I do take pride in that," Coughlin said.

Monday night, of course, Coughlin's Giants will be facing quarterback David Garrard, who Coughlin drafted in the fourth round of his last draft as the Jaguars' head coach. What does Coughlin see in Garrard?

"The strength of his arm and his mobility. I see those things again. He's gained more experience and he's more comfortable in the job," Coughlin said.

And then there are the friends he left behind, such as retired Navy man Rick Murray of Mandarin, who is in the ninth year of his battle with Lou Gehrig's disease.

"He's a great inspiration. He's so focused. He won't let you think he's thinking about himself. He's a magnificent human being," Coughlin said of Murray. "I always tell him he does more from the neck up than most of us do with our entire bodies. He's probably the greatest Jaguars fan of all time. He's a tremendous inspiration to me and to anybody who knows him."

By kickoff, all of these warm and fuzzy thoughts will have been bottled and put aside. By the time Coughlin comes out that "different door," he'll be wearing his best bulldog face and his thoughts will be focused only on winning; on beating the team he began.

"I love it. I love winning," he said.

Will returning to Jacksonville be an extra kick?

"We're going to play against a very good team. I don't need any extra," he said.

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