Lenny Megliola: Giants coach's influence extends beyond football field

Lenny Megliola

Pete Mitchell knows Tom Coughlin. Knew him so well that at one point in their lives, Mitchell had to get away from the coach who will lead the New York Giants in the Super Bowl against the Patriots.

Mitchell had played tight end for Coughlin at Boston College for three years. When Coughlin left to take over the fledging Jacksonville Jaguars, Mitchell played for him for four more years.

Seven seasons playing for the serious-minded Coughlin were enough, Mitchell thought.

“He’s very hardnosed, demanding,” Mitchell said. “You had to live by his rules. At Boston College, he weeded out the weaklings.”

When he became a free agent after the 1998 season, Mitchell signed with the Giants, coached by Jim Fassel. Mitchell stayed two years in New York and played in a Super Bowl, a 34-7 loss to the Ravens. Then Mitchell was a free agent again. He signed with the Lions.

“Ironically,” Mitchell said, “I had a chance to sign with New England that year, the year the Patriots started their dynasty.”

Drew Bledsoe was about to be dislodged by Tom Brady. Mitchell asked his agent who’d be throwing him the ball in New England. Brady, he was told. Mitchell, a Detroit native, grew up a Michigan State fan. Brady played at Michigan.

“I didn’t like Tom Brady,” he said.

So Mitchell signed with the Lions. Big mistake.

“I think we started 0-12,” he said. He played one season in Detroit.

Then, guess what? He missed playing for Tom Coughlin: “I learned the grass isn’t always greener.”

He contacted Coughlin. Sure, he said, come on back.

“It was the most enjoyable, the best year I had in the NFL,” Mitchell said.

Where once Coughlin’s “little rules drove you nuts,” Mitchell learned that Coughlin had lightened up.

Not that the coach had turned into a pussycat or anything.

“The best thing about Tom, he tells you the way it is, and that’s the way it is,” Mitchell said.

In his second go-around with the Jaguars, Mitchell grasped the whole Coughlin package, beyond the playing field.

“He always had a hand in helping families People got to know what he was really like,” he said.

Patricia and John McGillis already knew. Their son, Jay, played for Coughlin at BC. The 5-foot-9, 179 pound McGillis was a starter at safety for the Eagles. He died in the summer of 1992, eight months after being stricken with leukemia. Coughlin took his death hard.

Years later, on the Giants Web site, Coughlin, who started the Jay Fund Foundation, revealed how profoundly affected he was by “the dignity and faith he showed to all of us as he went through this ravishing disease. He cared more about how his family was than himself.”

When a bone marrow transplant didn’t work, the Giants Web site told of intimate dialogue over the phone between the player and coach when McGillis called Coughlin.

 “Coach, do you know?

“Yes, I know. Keep fighting, Jay.”

“I will.”

The Jay Fund Foundation continues and has raised around $2 million for sick children.

“Jay was quite a young man,” Coughlin said on the Web site. “An overachiever.”

Coughlin stays in touch with McGillis’ parents.

“He calls us on Jay’s birthday, the anniversary of his death, on Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Patricia McGillis told Jim Fenton of the Brockton Enterprise. John McGillis added, “Tom Coughlin never forgets.” The parents feel the Jay Fund Foundation keeps their son’s memory alive.

That’s the lesser-known side of Coughlin familiar to a privileged few.

Coughlin was on the verge of being fired before the Giants turned their season around. They won three playoff games on the road to get to the Super Bowl.

“I’m ecstatic for him,” Mitchell said. “He’s not artificial.”

“He’s a winner, I’m happy for him,” said Stephen Boyd, a standout linebacker for Coughlin at BC. The Eagles had four straight losing seasons when Coughlin took over for Jack Bicknell in 1991.

“When Coughlin came in he just wanted to change the attitude,” said Boyd, who played for the Detroit Lions for seven years.  “We were going to be the best-conditioned team. Intense winter workouts sent that message real fast. It was pretty much a wakeup call.

“He changed the face of the program. I liked him.”

BC went 4-7 in Coughlin’s first year, but clearly the football culture at The Heights had been altered. No. 1-ranked Miami was hard-pressed to beat BC, 19-14.

“BC had been used to beating certain teams and losing to certain teams,” Boyd said. “(Coughlin) wanted us to expect to win at Penn State, at Syracuse, at Notre Dame.”

And the Eagles did. In Coughlin’s first year BC lost at Penn State, 28-21. The next season, before 96,000 fans, the Eagles whipped the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions 35-32. In 1992, Syracuse beat BC 27-10 at Chestnut Hill. In 1993 in the Carrier Dome, the Eagles won, 33-29.

But the biggest turnaround was against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish had crushed the Eagles 54-7 in 1992. Coughlin was calm in the post-game locker room. He didn’t berate his players.

“The only comment he made was that we were coming back to Notre Dame the next year, and get it in your mind you’re going to win that game,” Boyd said.

Mitchell said, “(Coughlin) didn’t swear or shout. He just said remember this for next year.”

In that one, BC recorded arguably its greatest win, 41-39, knocking the top-ranked and unbeaten Irish off course for a national championship.

Coughlin may be a taskmaster, but “he was fair,” Boyd said. “He treated everybody the same. There was just a message he was getting across.”

Coughlin emphasized strict concentration.

“I’ve taken that with me in my life,” said Boyd, who coaches football at an all-boys high school on Long Island. “I take a lot from coach Coughlin.

“A lot of things he said you take with you, like how important organization is no matter what you do (in life). We knew how hard he worked. One year he got the flu, he worked so hard.”

Boyd, naturally, is pulling for the Giants in the Super Bowl. He focuses on Coughlin when he watches the Giants on TV.

“I try to guess what kind of message he’s giving his team,” he said.

Bottom line. “I’m proud to say I played for him.”

Lenny Megliola is a MetroWest Daily News columnist. His e-mail is