Debate For The Ages: Bill Parcells or Tom Coughlin?


Mike and the Mad Dog, a wildly successful New York sports-talk radio program team, parted ways after 19 years together in 2008. They were still on top of their game and at the height of their popularity.  The duo would no doubt be tackling this question right about now: Tom Coughlin or Bill Parcells? Who is the best New York Giants coach of all time?

Parcells himself completed a 19-year hall of fame coaching career while still at the top of his game in 2006, securing a playoff berth for the Dallas Cowboys in his final season. With his protege, Tom Coughlin, now having put the finishing touches on his 19th season as a head coach in the NFL, the time seemed ripe to make the call: Coughlin or Parcells? We break down our analysis into 3 categories and follow with the definitive answer from The Giants Professor.

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Regular Season
Parcells was the master motivator and exemplified competitive consistency, often elevating under-talented teams to unlikely respectability. Most notably, perhaps, was turning a 1-15 Rich Kotite-led Jets team to immediate relevance and a 9-7 record in 1997. Within two seasons, Parcells led an inherited mess to the AFC Championship game.

Incredibly, outside of a one-season 9-7 effort by Al Groh, Parcells remains to this day the only coach in Jets history to have never coached the hapless franchise through a losing season. For the Giants, Parcells never suffered consecutive losing seasons, finishing 77-49-1 (.611) overall with three division titles (during a time when the NFC East had five teams, not the Coughlin-era four) and five playoff berths. In his 19 seasons, Parcells went 172-130-1 (.569), enduring only five losing campaigns and never coaching a losing season twice in a row. Consistency.

An impressive career, Coughlin’s has been slightly more erratic. After a 4-12 inaugural campaign with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he remarkably led the expansion team to four consecutive playoff appearances, including two division titles and two trips to the AFC Championship game from 1996 to 1999. The franchise faltered thereafter, enduring three consecutive losing seasons which led to Coughlin being fired.

With the Giants, facing a generally weaker (and smaller) division than Parcells, Coughlin has enjoyed regular season success –but less so than his mentor– delivering a solid 96-80 (.545) record, while matching Parcells’ three division titles and five playoff berths. The playoff berths are not equal, however, when you consider that Coughlin needed three additional seasons to match Parcells’ appearances.

Edge: Parcells

At first blush, the post-season numbers and similarities appear uncanny. Parcells and Coughlin each hold two Super Bowl rings, both with the Giants. Both coaches also own 8-3 playoff records with the Giants. Parcells sports an overall career playoff record of 11-8, while Coughlin holds a slight edge at 12-7. However, the numbers are –so seemingly indistinguishable– do not tell the whole story.

Because Parcells earned two first-round byes in the Giants’ Super Bowl winning seasons, his 8-3 playoff record is misleading, giving Parcells only six playoff wins in his championship seasons, whereas Coughlin accumulated all eight of his playoff wins in his two championship seasons with the Giants. In five playoff appearances, Parcells failed to advance to the second round only once with the Giants.

Coughlin, on the other hand, failed to get past the first round of the playoffs in three of his five playoff seasons. While both coaches have two rings, it must be recognized that Parcells won at least one playoff game in four of his eight seasons as Giants coach, while Coughlin has won a playoff game only twice in his eleven years with the team. It’s stark to consider that Parcells’ Giants moved deep into the playoffs in half of his seasons as head coach, while Coughlin’s teams did so, on average, less than once every five seasons.

Dec 14, 2014; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin during a time out during the third quarter of a game against the Washington Redskins at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Also not to be overlooked was Parcells’ third Super Bowl appearance in 1996 with the pre-Brady Patriots. Both coaches pulled off stunningly –historically– unlikely Super Bowl victories, Parcells against the Buffalo Bills in 1991 (with back-up quarterback Jeff Hostetler at the helm), and Coughlin twice against the heavily-favored Patriots in 2008 and 2012.

Edge: Parcells

Coaching Trees
Given the impressive legacy that has so often been left through the tutelage and lineage of the greatest NFL coaches, it has become impossible to rank the best of the best without considering the fruits of their coaching trees. Here, it would be an easy task to begin and end the discussion with Bill Belichick, a disciple of Parcells, and, arguably, the finest fruit of any coaching tree ever grown.

Some might even wonder whether Belichick was a product of Parcells or whether it was Parcells who was the product of Belichick (a terrific discussion for another day). But the Parcells coaching tree does not end there. Sean Payton, Tony Sparano, and, yes, Tom Coughlin are all students of the Parcells School of Coaching. Coughlin’s tree is far less impressive, having churned out a list that includes Steve Spagnuolo, Dick Jauron, and Bobby Petrino. Fine coordinators and an excellent college coach, to be sure, but NFL head coaching failures, nevertheless.

Edge: Parcells

The Giants Professor Says…
Tom Coughlin still has time on the clock and we reserve the right to alter our anointment until such time as he, a great coach in his own right, hangs them up. But, as Bill Parcells once said, “you are what your record says you are.” With a tip of the hat to Steve Owen, Parcells’ record tells us that he is the greatest Giants coach of the modern football era.

Winner: Parcells

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