Tom Coughlin last coached the Jaguars 10 years ago, but he remains enormously popular in Jacksonville. That was proven again this week, when Coughlin hosted the 17th annual Jay Fund Foundation Celebrity Golf Classic.
Coughlin started the Jay Fund in honor of Jay McGillis, a safety on his first Boston College team 21 years ago who died of leukemia on July 3, 1992. The fund provides families of children with cancer with emotional and financial support. Since 1996, the Jay Fund has distributed more than $4 million in grants.
The two-day dinner and golf classic – which raised $454,407 - is the organization's largest annual fundraiser. The event was again held at TPC Sawgrass, where Matt Kuchar won THE PLAYERS Championship the previous week. The dinner in the clubhouse on Sunday night was a sellout and on Monday, 34 fivesomes participated in the golf tournament.
Eli Manning, Chris Canty, Michael Boley and Chris Snee were among the 15 current Giants players who attended, as did former punter Jeff Feagles, Pro Football Hall of Famer Floyd Little (Coughlin's teammate at Syracuse), NFL coaches Mike Smith of Atlanta and Mike Mularkey of Jacksonville, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, Basketball Hall of Famer Sam Jones and U.S. Army Chief of Staff Raymond T. Odierno, who Thursday night in Virginia presented Coughlin with the Outstanding Civilian Service Award, the third highest honor the United States Department of the Army can bestow upon a private citizen.
Odierno and Coughlin both received long standing ovations when introduced at the dinner.
"(The Jacksonville community) has been tremendous," Coughlin said. "I go back to the spring after I was fired here and we really wondered what the support was going to be like. But it was probably our best, to date, and probably our most fulfilling Jay Fund Foundation Celebrity Golf Classic. The number of people who responded, the energy in the room, was greater."
Coughlin was hired by the Jaguars in 1994 to build an expansion franchise from the ground up. He strode the Jacksonville sideline from 1995-2002, taking the Jaguars to the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. Coughlin joined the Giants in 2004 and in eight seasons has won two Super Bowls, the most recent a 21-17 triumph over New England in Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis on Feb. 5.
His success with the Giants has elevated Coughlin's standing in his old stomping grounds.
"He's hugely popular in this community, probably one of the most popular sports figures still to this day, even though he coaches the New York Giants," said Tony Boselli, the former All-Pro tackle whom Coughlin made the Jaguars' first-ever draft choice. "It's interesting, the two years they've won the Super Bowl and made runs, it's amazing how many New York Giants fans pop up in Jacksonville. And it's really because they're Tom Coughlin fans. He's appreciated for what he did here as a coach, but more than that he's made an impact in the community and still does."
Boselli still lives in Jacksonville and attends the Jay Fund Golf Classic every year because, "I'm afraid Tom will come find me if I don't."
Boselli is among the legions of high-profile supporters who are loyal to Coughlin and the Jay Fund. Smith couldn't play golf this year because the Falcons had an organized team activity Monday morning. But he flew to Jacksonville to attend the dinner.
"Coach Coughlin and (his wife) Judy, they have a passion for this foundation and I've had the opportunity to come down and be a part of it, see it firsthand," Smith said. "I wouldn't miss it. I'd do everything in my power to get here. It's just a great organization, just starting with Tom all the way down."
Smith's presence was particularly impressive considering the Giants defeated Atlanta, 24-2, in an NFC Wild Card Game on Jan. 8.
"I'm very competitive and didn't like the outcome of the ballgame at all, but I'm very happy for Coach Coughlin and the New York Giants," Smith said. "There's only one team at the end of the year that is happy. You've got to support all of your coaches in the National Football League. We all have areas outside football that are passionate to us. Coach Coughlin and his family with the Jay Fund have raised lots of money and have affected hundreds and hundreds of families and it's an opportunity to give my support and I'm going to do it on every opportunity I can."
Coughlin is grateful a fellow head coach is so supportive of the Jay Fund, particularly when the new offseason schedule makes it difficult for coaches to leave their teams to attend such events.
"Mike Smith has been great," Coughlin said. "From the first moment that I asked him to come, he's been here, he wants to come, he does really believe in the cause, and he wants to add his support to what we're doing."
This was a particularly emotional Jay Fund gathering. July 3 will be the 20th anniversary of Jay McGillis' death. One of the attendees this week was Gene DeFilippo, the athletic director at Boston College, where the game that concludes spring practice each year is called the Jay McGillis Memorial Spring Game.
"My foremost thought (in founding the Jay Fund) was to keep Jay McGillis' spirit alive," Coughlin said. "And to share the way in which he would want us to work. I think it would be along the lines of trying to help these families who have children with leukemia or other forms of cancer."
Jay's parents, John and Pat McGillis, attend every Jay Fund Classic. His brother, Michael, and sister, Kathy, were also there this week, as they have been many times over the years. Brothers Paul and David attended for the first time. In addition, 10 of John and Pat's grandchildren were at the dinner.
All of them laud Coughlin for keeping alive Jay's memory and helping so many children and families in his honor.
"It's an amazing thing and it's really a tribute to his life," Paul McGillis said. "For him to be gone for 20 years and for this to continue, for this to keep getting bigger and bigger, it's just amazing. I'm grateful to Coach Coughlin for continuing to do this. I'm still amazed at the number of people and just the participation from so many people to keep his spirit alive."
"I can't believe it's been 20 years," Pat McGillis said. "It's traumatic as it was when Jay died. The legacy of Jay, you know, it's incredible. He's my guardian angel, Jay. I talk to him, I do. It's like he's just in another room. Anything that happened, I just talk to him and say, 'Jay, help me get through this.' But I think with everything that's happened, those memories, Jay's spirit is right with us thanks to Tom Coughlin."