Hot seat hasn't melted Coughlin

Jags coach not fazed by rumors of firing

November 24, 2001|By Bart Hubbuch | Bart Hubbuch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Tom Coughlin just wants to coach.

Give him 22 players, a football and an empty field somewhere, and the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coach says he would be a serenely happy man.

Coaching the game is something Coughlin does well. The Jaguars have proved to be the most successful expansion franchise in NFL history on his watch, already making four playoff appearances and two trips to the AFC championship game in their first six years of existence.

It's everything else about the job - from the draft to free agency to player relations to the salary cap - that gives Coughlin fits.

That's why, at least in the court of public opinion and media speculation, the Jaguars coach finds himself on the hot seat as last-place Jacksonville (3-6) prepares to face the Ravens (6-4) tomorrow at ALLTEL Stadium.

"I don't pay attention to the rumors or any of that stuff," Coughlin said when asked about yet another national media report that he will either be fired or resign to pursue the anticipated opening at Notre Dame after this season.

The Notre Dame talk makes sense, considering Coughlin is a devout Catholic whose career high point remains the dramatic upset of the No. 1-ranked Irish in South Bend as coach of Boston College in 1993.

But the last time Coughlin looked, Bob Davie was still coaching Notre Dame and Coughlin was in charge - completely in charge - of the Jaguars.

Coughlin's autocratic ways are legendary in Jacksonville and around the league, and he appears determined that even a 3-6 record for the second consecutive season isn't going to change him.

"If this year is so important, what happened to those first six [years]?" he said earlier this season. "Do they not count for something? Every year is your most important year in this business. Every year is critical."

Coughlin is feeling heat now because little has gone right for the Jaguars in a season that - because of Coughlin's past failures in the draft and free agency - allowed room for virtually nothing to go wrong.

The Jaguars couldn't afford injuries because poor drafts and mismanagement of the salary cap robbed them of almost all their depth, yet injuries had arrived in droves before the season even reached its midway point.

In a 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, for example, Jacksonville's offense was without running back Fred Taylor (severe groin pull), left tackle Tony Boselli (shoulder surgery) and quarterback Mark Brunell (pulled quadriceps).

That's a former 1,399-yard rusher and two perennial All-Pros, and it's possible the slow-healing Taylor could join Boselli - who has torn labrums in both shoulders - on the list of Jaguars out for the season.

Coughlin, meanwhile, doesn't know when Brunell will be available, which means backup Jonathan Quinn could make his second start since 1998 tomorrow against the Ravens.

The injuries aren't limited to Jacksonville's offense, either. During a loss to Seattle last month, the Jaguars were without four defensive starters.

The fan criticism has ratcheted up with each loss, as has the ticket-buying apathy. The Jaguars suffered their first two home blackouts in club history this season, and it appears the public is tiring of Coughlin's gruff ways.

Coughlin hasn't built any loyalty from the fans because his distaste for public appearances and dealing with the media is so great. The antipathy for Coughlin in his locker room also has grown in recent years, although the Jaguars still appear to be playing hard.

"There's still a lot of pride in this locker room," wide receiver Keenan McCardell said. "We didn't quit last year when things got bad, and we're not going to quit this year."

Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver doesn't appear ready to quit on Coughlin, either. Weaver has long admired Coughlin, and the coach has three years left on his contract. Those two factors might mean Coughlin returns next year no matter what the Jaguars' final record.

That's assuming, of course, Coughlin even wants to return. He called a home loss to previously winless Buffalo this year the low point of his entire coaching career, adding that he doesn't like to be associated with "something that doesn't look like a well-oiled machine."

In Coughlin's perfect world, his next stop would be that empty field, players and football in hand.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Jacksonville Jaguars

Site: ALLTEL Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.

When: Tomorrow, 4:15 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3

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