Mike Bianchi: Fired Jaguars legend Tom Coughlin is proof Vince Lombardi could not work in today's NFL
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Mike Bianchi: Fired Jaguars legend Tom Coughlin is proof Vince Lombardi could not work in today's NFL

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Jacksonville Jaguars executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin walked out of the tunnel at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on October, 2019. Coughlin had fined players millions of dollars for rules infractions, including missing doctor and rehabilitation appointments during the offseason - a blatant violation of the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL Players Association.

Jacksonville Jaguars executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin walked out of the tunnel at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on October, 2019. Coughlin had fined players millions of dollars for rules infractions, including missing doctor and rehabilitation appointments during the offseason - a blatant violation of the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL Players Association. (Michael Johnson/Zuma Press/TNS)

If ever you needed proof that Vince Lombardi could not function in today's NFL, you need to look no further than the downfall of the autocratic, iron-fisted, authoritarian, dictatorial regime of Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville.

"It's a different environment, different players and a different era," former Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell says about the iconic Coughlin being ousted last week as the Jags' executive vice president of football operations. "What was accepted when we played for him is no longer acceptable. The rules have changed and I'm sure that didn't sit well with Coach Coughlin."

Which is why Jaguars owner Shad Khan made the sad but necessary decision to fire Coughlin from the franchise he essentially created in his own image a quarter-century ago. Coughlin, the Jags' chief executive, had fined players millions of dollars for rules infractions, including missing doctor and rehabilitation appointments during the offseason - a blatant violation of the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL Players Association. The stubborn Coughlin considered these missed appointments as mandatory when the CBA clearly states they are voluntary.

The NFLPA released a scathing letter earlier this week that said former Jags player Dante Fowler Jr. had won a grievance against the Jaguars after being fined 25 times for more than $700,000. The letter from the union went on to say that more than 25% of the grievances filed by NFL players during the past two years have been against the Jaguars and then sealed Coughlin's fate when it alerted potential free agents about signing with the Jaguars.

"You, as players, may want to consider this when you have a chance to select your next club," the NFLPA letter ominously warned.

Coughlin was fired two days later.

Tony Boselli, the massive offensive tackle out of USC who became the franchise's inaugural draft choice when Coughlin helped to form the expansion Jaguars in 1994, says Coughlin's inability to follow the CBA rules contradicted everything he stood for as a coach. Boselli played for Coughlin when the coach instituted a rigid set of rules and demanded that his players follow them to a T.

Coughlin once fined two rookies for being late for a team meeting - even though a car accident was the reason for their tardiness. He once fined defensive tackle John Jurkovic for wearing white socks instead of dress socks into a team meeting. Long ago, his then-teenage daughter Katie came to watch practice one hot afternoon and sat down on the bench - violating Coughlin's rule that nobody, not even spectators, are allowed to sit or even kneel during practice. He marched over to Katie and instructed her to stand up.

"The Tom Coughlin I played for, it was about discipline and following the rules," Boselli says. "He wanted his players to do A, B and C - and those were the rules and that's how the team operated. As a player, I didn't agree with or like all the rules, but those were the rules and I followed them. It's ironic to me that if it's good for the players, it has to be good for the coaches and front office as well. If the rules are laid out by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, then you have to follow those rules."

One of Coughlin's rules was that he mandated the clocks in the team complex be moved up five minutes so everybody would show up early for meetings and appointments. When Coughlin was fired earlier this week, the clocks in the building were almost immediately reset to regular time instead of Coughlin time.

If we're being completely honest, you'd have to turn back the clock five decades instead of forward five minutes if you really want to return to Coughlin time. Realistically, Coughlin was fired because the Jaguars are a bad team, but philosophically I believe he was fired because he is an old-school disciplinarian out of step in a new-age league. Players of today (see Jalen Ramsey) simply don't respond to Coughlin's heavy-handed tactics.

Current professional athletes wield more power than ever before and their unions protect them from the czar-like coaches and team owners of the past. I covered the Jaguars' first training sessions - the infamous Camp Coughlin - 25 years ago and it was as brutal and physical and draconian as any training camp in modern NFL history. When I asked Boselli recently if such training camps would be against the rules today, he cracked, "They would be against the law today."

The thing about Coughlin, though, is he didn't demand any more effort from his players than he demanded of himself. The workaholic coach expected his players to try as hard and care as much as he did, and maybe that's just not possible in today's millennial-filled workforce.

As a teenager, Coughlin worked construction in the summer and ran home five miles every day in his steel-toed work boots to build his endurance. During his first season as coach of Boston College, he came down with a severe case of pneumonia but never missed a day of practice. When Coughlin and Bill Belichick were assistants under Bill Parcells with the New York Giants, Parcells gave his coaches Christmas off one year and told them to spend some time with their families. But when Parcells called Coughlin's office to leave a message on Christmas morning, Coughlin picked up the phone.

"This game means everything to him - everything," his wife Judy told me once. "Football means more to him than I think it should sometimes, but that's Tom."

I still remember sitting with Coughlin in his house in Jacksonville after he was fired as the Jaguars head coach following the 2002 season. He reflected proudly about working around the clock when he was hired to build the expansion franchise in 1994.

There was no team yet; no players; no stadium. Coughlin told me about sleeping in a little trailer on a vacant lot next to where the old stadium was being razed and rebuilt. That trailer was his office where he worked 24/7 on building the Jaguars into what would become the most successful expansion franchise in NFL history.

He told me then how, when he was working in the trailer, he could feel the vibration of the jackhammers next door. Sometimes, he remembered, he'd step outside, and the dust from the construction site would blow in his face and one of the workers would yell, "How's it going, Coach?"

"It's hard to let it go," Coughlin said of being fired as the coach of the Jaguars all those years ago. "That team was who I was. There was no distinction between the Jaguars, my family and me. That was my team. I wrapped my arms around that franchise as if it were one of my children."

Now, sadly, daddy has been fired again by the franchise he fathered.

A man who led the expansion Jaguars to two AFC Championship Games and later coached the New York Giants to two Super Bowl victories has abruptly been let go with just two games left in the season.

"This should not affect his legacy. He will still go down as a helluva coach; a Hall of Fame coach," Boselli says.

"I'm forever grateful for what Tom did for me," Brunell says. "Was he tough? Was he demanding? No doubt about it. But he was my coach, and I would play for him all over again."

But that was a different time and a different team.

Back then, when original Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver hired Tom Coughlin, he compared him to Vince Lombardi.

That was considered a compliment back then.

A quarter-century later, it is a curse.

We know now that Lombardi, like Coughlin, would be out of a job in today's NFL.

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

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