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Tom Coughlin was the fourth and last head coach Ernie Accorsi hired as an NFL general manager — after Marty Schottenheimer, Bud Carson and Bill Belichick in Cleveland — and he likes to tell the story of the day he was ultimately sold on Coughlin to be head coach of the New York Football Giants.
“When John [Mara] and I interviewed him at the New York Marriott, he said, ‘Can I say something first?’ ” Accorsi recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ Well, about an hour later, we got a chance to talk. He was so prepared for us, and he had points he wanted to make before we ever asked him a question. So I said to John at the elevator when we left, I said, ‘He double-bogeyed the first three holes, but he finished and shot a 66.’ I wasn’t crazy about that first hour, but then the interview was so good from then on.”
Mara had been familiar with Coughlin, his father Wellington had coveted him as Giants head 11 years earlier before Dan Reeves was hired, and Accorsi had been impressed by Coughlin earlier at the NFL Scouting Combine, during a period when he was out of football after the Jaguars had fired him as head coach.
“He was working, he had his notebook out,” Accorsi recalled, “I said, ‘Tom, what are you doing? You don’t even have a team!’
“He said, ‘I will.’
“And of course he did — our team.”
And of course it worked out Super.
Adam Gase, not so much. Ray Handley, not so much. Rich Kotite, not so much.
Now it is Jets GM Joe Douglas who begins a desperate search for his Coughlin.
“Let me say this — I think it’s the toughest decision in sports,” Accorsi said. “I think the toughest thing is to find a head coach on an NFL team. To me, it’s the most important decision you’re gonna make. That’s the key to your future. It’s just a tough decision.”
Douglas has those tough decisions to make on the head coach first, and then he and his new partner must decide whether to keep Sam Darnold or trade him and draft Zach Wilson or Justin Fields. Douglas expressed his belief that Darnold will be a “great” quarterback, but would not, could not commit to him unless and until his next head coach agrees with him.
“Obviously, organizations that have long-term success, they’ve gotten the head coach and quarterback right,” Douglas said.
Douglas compared identifying a head coach the way he would a draft prospect, although he won’t be using a stopwatch to time the candidate’s 40 or three-cone drill.
“I think first and foremost we’re looking for a great partner,” Douglas said. “I think we’re looking for a person with great character and integrity. I think we’re looking for a person that’s gonna have outstanding vision of what they want the identity of this team to be moving forward, and then what’s the detailed plan on how they want to achieve this identity, someone that’s a great communicator, a great manager.
“It’s important that we find a person with high integrity, and outstanding leadership skills and communication skills.”
He later added: “Being able to connect and engage with everybody on this team. Being able to garner the respect of every member of this team … being able to hold everyone accountable … setting clear standards and expectations — this is how you’re gonna be rewarded if you achieve these standards, these are gonna be the consequences when you don’t.”
This is what Accorsi always looked for in a candidate:
“Leadership to me is No. 1,” Accorsi said. “You gotta be able to command the room. The one thing that I learned very early is you’re not gonna bluff players. No way. You gotta earn their respect.
“It helps when someone’s already been successful when they walk in there. When [Vince] Lombardi walked into Green Bay, they didn’t even know him. When he walked into Washington, he got their attention in a hurry, because he had already won five championships.
“Leadership and intelligence are No. 1 and 2. And then obviously you have to know the game, and things like that.”
Leon Hess, of course, looked at Kotite as a Deze-and-Doze Brooklyn reincarnation of Lombardi. This was at a time when then-Jets GM Dick Steinberg, who had fired Pete Carroll for his one-and-done 1994 season, was succumbing to stomach cancer, a reminder to Christopher Johnson that he must stay out of the head coach search and let Douglas conduct it.
Sometimes it pays to go with your gut. Mara and Giants GM Dave Gettleman went with their gut after Joe Judge blew them away during his interview. Accorsi remembers then-Browns owner Art Modell offering Schottenheimer, then the defensive coordinator, the interim head-coaching job for the last eight games of the 1984 season after Sam Rutigliano was fired. Accorsi had already been impressed with Schottenheimer.
“We brought him out to Art’s house, and Art said to him, ‘I’m gonna hire you as an interim coach and I’m gonna give you a little more money and you got an eight-game trial,’ ” Accorsi recalled. “And Schottenheimer said, ‘I don’t want the job. Players won’t play for me. I want a commitment of three years, or you get somebody else.’
“So Modell takes me in the kitchen, OK? And he says, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘No. 1, you’ve got a head coach here.’ I said, ‘If he’s that strong, and that much of a leader and so sure of himself, give him a three-year deal.’ And we did, and went to two [AFC] Championship games.”
Douglas was a scout when then-Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti hired John Harbaugh after Jason Garrett opted to remain with the Cowboys.
“You have to be willing to do things that the masses wouldn’t do, or I don’t think you will be able to separate yourself from the masses,” Bisciotti said at the time.
“You go with your instincts, and I have pretty good instincts.”
Douglas will scour the pro and college ranks for the right man. “With me, I’m a very pragmatic guy,” Douglas said.
Douglas is widely respected in NFL circles.
“He’s been successful everywhere he’s been,” Accorsi said.
Accorsi, though, wanted to make one thing perfectly clear: “I don’t have all the answers.”
No one does. But boy, do the Jets ever need Joe Douglas to have them.
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