By Larry Fine
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Finishing plays and games have been recurring themes this season for New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, who is urging his upstart team to cap the National Football League campaign with a Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots.
Coughlin eased his authoritarian style four years ago at the suggestion of the team owner and still produced a stunning Super Bowl upset over the then-unbeaten Patriots.
But now the coach, who is treasured by his players, looks to erase memories of one of the most humiliating defeats endured by the Giants with a Super Bowl title on February 5 in Indianapolis.
Coughlin's rallying cry of "finish" sprung from a late-game collapse last season against the Philadelphia Eagles that kept New York out of the playoffs.
With under eight minutes to play, Philadelphia exploded for 28 unanswered points, capped by a 65-yard punt return for the winning touchdown on the final play of the game, to propel themselves into the playoffs and shatter New York's season.
Coughlin preached the urgency of "finishing" from the start of the 2011 training camp and the team has responded, winning seven games this season in the fourth quarter, and winning the last two games to qualify for the playoffs.
New York opened their postseason by soaring past the Atlanta Falcons, followed by road wins over the top-seeded Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers and second-seeded San Francisco 49ers.
"The first thing I said to them (last) Thursday was 'finish,'" Coughlin told reporters about his message on the first day of practice for the Super Bowl.
Despite a spate of pre-season injuries that cost the Giants several defensive starters, New York raced out to a 6-2 record before a four-game losing skid started rumblings that the axe might fall on Coughlin, at age 65 the league's oldest coach.
"At 7-7 everybody and their mom was counting us out but he (Coughlin) just stayed persistent and stayed true to who he is as a coach and a person," said defensive end Justin Tuck. "It trickles down when you see a person has faith in you when nobody else does."
It was not the first time Coughlin, in his eighth season in charge, heard that his Giants job could be in jeopardy.
Before the 2007 season, club owner John Mara told Coughlin he should temper his domineering style and do a better job communicating with players.
Coughlin set up a players' council to meet regularly with him, and more often showed his softer side after years of harsh adherence to a long list of rules, including one that fined players if they were not early for scheduled meetings.
Players responded to the gentler side of the coach, who still maintained old-school virtues of attention to detail, discipline and character.
Against the Patriots in the 2007 regular season finale, Coughlin said his team would play full out despite being assured a wild card berth regardless of the outcome, because New England was trying to complete a 16-0 campaign.
The Giants battled the Pats fiercely before falling 38-35. Despite the defeat, the contest proved to the Giants they could go toe-to-toe with the league's best, and a little over a month later they stunned New England 17-14 in the Super Bowl.
Instead of mumblings over what some players in the past saw as excessive demands by 'Colonel Coughlin,' the coach has forged a bond with his players that he describes in terms sounding like a '60s love-in.
"There's a great feeling," said Coughlin, who regularly addresses the team. "I talk a lot about spirit and I talk about emotions, I talk about vibes, I talk about feelings.
"I talk about an atmosphere that has been created by the cooperation of players and coaches and the harmony and the great feeling that exists. It's been that type of feeling that has sustained us throughout the course of the year."
Giants quarterback Eli Manning said he most admired Coughlin's dedication.
"Just the way he prepares, the way he gets his team ready, his messages, the way his attitude is portrayed onto the players and the players kind of take on that attitude in their preparation and approach to play," said Manning.
"He's very passionate about football, about his coaching and being prepared and being committed all the way in to doing your job correctly. I think that's what ... leads his players to prepare and play that way."
Tuck said he appreciated the personal side of the coach.
"What I've learned from him ... is when he's all about football, he's all about football, " said defensive captain Tuck. "But he's more than a football coach. He's a mentor. He's more of a father-figure at times - my hats off to him for that."
(Reporting By Larry Fine; Editing by Frank Pingue)