"Earn the Right to Win" book review

Posted Mar 5, 2013

Coach Tom Coughlin's “Earn the Right to Win,” is available in bookstores

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Few events in sports are as frivolous, lighthearted and inconsequential as the ceremonial first pitch at a major league baseball game. The man, woman or child selected for the honor climbs the pitcher’s mound with a smile, waves to the crowd and cheerfully throws a baseball in the general direction of home plate that often bounces once, twice or several times, suggesting that he or she spent not a moment preparing for their five seconds in the spotlight.

Unless you’re Tom Coughlin. The Giants’ head coach was invited to toss out the first pitch at a New York Yankees’ game last June, soon after leading his team to a second Super Bowl victory in five seasons. It was the second time he had been asked to perform that duty; he did it prior to another Yankees game after Super Bowl XLII.

Coughlin approached the task with his characteristic determination. “My objective was to throw a strike,” he said. He wasn’t going to leave that to chance. Two weeks before the ceremony, Coughlin put together a pitcher’s mound at the Timex Performance Center and spent a half-hour three or four weeks a day throwing a baseball from the pitching rubber to home plate. When it was time for his big moment in Yankee Stadium, he threw a pitch high and inside that was close enough for him to say, “I might have gotten the (strike) call.”

That anecdote reveals much about Coughlin’s beliefs and determination, but none more basic or important than his conviction that thorough preparation is the key to success in any endeavor. He emphasizes that point throughout his new book, “Earn the Right to Win,” which was published by Portfolio/Penguin and is available in bookstores and online starting today. The book was written with author David Fisher.

Coughlin has stressed the importance of preparation since he became a head coach at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1970, when he was all of 24 years old. “Success in any endeavor isn’t an accident, it’s not luck,” Coughlin writes. “It’s the direct result of hard work.”

“Earn the Right to Win” isn’t just for football coaches or other athletic figures. It can help and inspire anyone driven to succeed in their field, including businessmen, salesmen, attorneys, teachers, physicians, mothers and housewives. Woody Allen – at the opposite end of the personality spectrum from Coughlin – famously said, that “80 percent of life is showing up.” Coughlin couldn’t disagree more. As he demonstrates throughout the book, it’s the work you put in before you show up for the meeting, to handle a case in the courtroom or the game that determines whether you will prosper or fail.

“It’s not a football book,” Coughlin said. “It’s a systematic approach to life. It’s a structural book. It’s an organizational book.”

Throughout the book, Coughlin quotes and provides examples of leadership and the value of preparation from numerous men he has long admired, notably John Wooden and Vince Lombardi – but he also cites the words from a diverse group of sources, including Michelangelo, Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, General George Patton and Andy Rooney, among others. He provides many absorbing and timely anecdotes and tidbits about players he’s coached, including Doug Flutie, Tony Boselli, Jeff Lageman, Fred Taylor, Eli Manning, Justin Tuck, David Tyree, Victor Cruz and Michael Strahan, who wrote the foreword for the book.

But the dominant theme of “Earn the Right to Win” is Coughlin’s forceful devotion to the time, effort and planning necessary for anyone to prosper in their chosen field. (The book’s subtitle is “How Success in Any Field Starts with Superior Preparation”)

Coughlin is constantly writing and revising schedules (both short and long-term), stresses consistency, reliability and determination, is a stickler for establishing a series of tough rules and enforcing them, is fanatical about timeliness (yes, he expects players to arrive at least five minutes early for meetings; the clocks in the Timex Performance Center are set to what is known as “Coughlin Time”), and building an organization with strong character.

Despite being comfortably perched at the top of the Giants’ football pyramid, Coughlin is careful to delegate authority to his assistant coaches, though he admits it was “one of the most difficult things for me to learn.” He is extremely detail-oriented, right down to knowing which NFL officiating crews are most likely to call offensive holding. Coughlin devotes entire chapters to scheduling, communication, motivation and hard work.

Coughlin is entering his 10th season with the Giants, his 18th as an NFL head coach and his 45th as a football coach. Yet many of the stories in his book are fresh and revealing and, for someone with a reputation for being rigid and uncompromising, quite humorous.

*Because he works such long hours during the season, Coughlin for decades has relied on his wife, Judy, to take care of family matters. “My wife learned a long time ago that during the season she isn’t going to see me very often,” Coughlin wrote. “I’m going to be working. In fact, she laughingly has told all our kids that if anything should happen to her during the season, they should just put her on ice until the season is over, because she knows I’ll be working too hard to deal with it.”

*One of Coughlin’s mentors was the late Ben Schwartzwalder, the “square-jawed old paratrooper” who was his head coach at Syracuse University. In spring practice his freshman year, Coughlin got tackled from the side, injured his MCL and fell to the ground in pain. Schwartzwalder walked over to Coughlin, shook his head and said, “That’s a shame. That will teach you to cut back to the inside on a screen pass.” The coach then turned around and returned to running the practice.

*Coughlin coached Flutie, the future Heisman Trophy winner, for three seasons at Boston College. When Coughlin returned to the school as head coach in 1991, the two men hadn’t seen each other in six years. Coughlin was delighted when Flutie showed up unexpectedly at his office one day. “Hi Doug,” Coughlin said, “when are you getting a haircut?”

*After Coughlin tabbed Manning to replace Kurt Warner as the Giants’ starting quarterback prior to the 10th game of the 2004 season, the rookie endured some difficult games. The day after a lopsided loss in Baltimore in which he had a 0.0 passer rating, Manning visited Coughlin’s office, worried the coach would go back to Warner. “I told him he was our guy, period,” Coughlin wrote. Manning, of course, was the MVP when the Giants won Super Bowls XLII and XLVI.

*After that season, Coughlin asked Warner for a list of things the veteran thought the coach needed to do to improve as a coach. Coughlin expected three or four items, but Warner provided several pages of suggestions.

“A key point in the list was: Rather than just making rules and enforcing them, I should explain to the players why that rule is important,” Coughlin wrote. “Not defend it, explain it.” Coughlin still occasionally refers to the list.

*When the stadium was built in Jacksonville, the locker rooms closest to the entrance to the field were for college teams, while the Jaguars’ room was perhaps an additional 45 steps away. Coughlin had an assistant with a stopwatch determine how much longer it would take to get from the sideline to the Jaguars’ locker room compared to the college locker room. “Anyone who has worked with me will agree that I am obsessed with the effective use of time,” Coughlin wrote.

*The Giants ended the 2011 season with a New Year’s Night, winner-take-all game for the NFC East title against their fierce rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. The victor would advance to the playoffs, the loser would slink home for a long offseason. When the team meeting concluded the night before the game, Coughlin had waiters in the team hotel serve everyone champagne. “You spend New Year’s Eve with your family, “Coughlin said, “and this is your family.”

*The night before Super Bowl XLVI, Coughlin made an emotional speech in which he told his players, “I am man enough to tell you guys that I love you, and these guys (the coaches) all love you. They love you! Let’s go climb this next mountain together, and let’s be world champions against all odds. Let’s be world champions”

Twenty four hours later they were, thanks in large measure to the principles Coughlin writes about in “Earn the Right to Win.”

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