BOSTON - Growing up, the toughest person in Tom Coughlin's life was not the local playground bully, the wise guy at the school bus stop, or any one of his rough and tumble friends.

No way. Not even close.

The person most respected and most feared was a St. Joseph nun. Her name was Sr. Rose Alice.

"She was tougher, faster, she could hit harder and she could out-talk anyone," said Coughlin, the head coach of the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

As an elementary school student at St. Mary's School in Waterloo, N.Y., and an altar boy at St. Mary's Church, Coughlin received a solid Catholic formation.

"The Sisters of St. Joseph were great," remarked Coughlin, who led the Giants to victories in Super Bowl XLII and XLVI. "They were totally dedicated to Jesus Christ, the Catholic faith and to the welfare of each and every one of their students. Who I am today can be traced to the values I learned from the faith-filled Sisters of St. Joseph."

Coughlin, 66, grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. He is the oldest of seven children. His father, Lou, worked for an Army supply depot. His mother, Betty, was a non-Catholic who went out of her way to make sure her children fulfilled their Catholic obligations.

"My mother was really more Catholic than anyone," said Coughlin in a telephone interview from New Jersey. "Every Sunday she made sure we were dressed and ready for Mass."

Beginning with his baptism, Coughlin looks to the tenets of the Catholic faith as the roots of his formation and development.

"The importance of conscience was pounded into you by the priests and nuns," he said. "We learned that there are consequences for our actions. Ultimately, there is a greater court, judge and jury. I am far from perfect so it has always been vital for me to know that you can't be a phony. There is no hiding from God."

In high school, where he first excelled in football, Tom set the school's single-season record for touchdowns with 19. That record still stands. He went on to Syracuse University where he played in a dream backfield with two of the Orangemen's all-time greats, Larry Csonka and Floyd Little. A wing back, Coughlin set the school's single season receiving record in 1967.

At Syracuse, Coughlin played for legend and College Hall of Fame coach Ben Schwartzwalder, who as a collegian was a scrappy 146-pound centre and wrestler for the University of West Virginia Mountaineers. Much of Swartzwalder's character and toughness rubbed off on the future Giants coach.

"I have great respect for him," said Coughlin. "At age 32, during World War II, he was one of the oldest soldiers to parachute behind enemy lines on D-Day. Because of his age, his airborne unit nicknamed him 'Gramps.' ”

Coughlin's life attests to the fact that faith without works is an empty proposition.

Before becoming the first head coach of the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, he was the head coach at Boston College from 1991 to 1993, where he posted a 21-13-1 record, including a dramatic last-second victory over top-ranked Notre Dame. One of his players was Jay McGillis, who developed leukemia while on the team and died from the disease. In his memory, Coughlin launched the Jay Fund Foundation, which has raised more than $2 million to assist families of cancer patients.

As a coach, Coughlin is known for his intensity, sometimes called competitive fire. Giants President John Mara, following a huge victory over the Jets that fueled the Giants' late-season march to Super Bowl XLVI, said about Coughlin: "He is never going to give up. He seems to be at his best when his back is against the wall."

Giants Chairman Steve Tisch added: "Look inside the locker room. He (Coughlin) has inspired every single player to play for each other and not just for themselves."

A disciplinarian and a detail-oriented taskmaster, cut from the same cloth as the great Vince Lombardi, Coughlin was asked how he would like to be remembered. He paused, then answered: "Fair, firm, honest and demanding."

Coughlin and his wife Judy, who were classmates in high school, have been married 45 years. The couple has four children and 11 grandchildren. He also coaches his son-in-law, Giants guard Chris Snee, who is married to Coughlin's daughter Katie.

Coughlin is no lace-curtain Irishman. Sometimes his rough, tough, no-nonsense exterior masks how much he cares. He is particularly gratified when former players return to see him.

"They thank me for helping them become the best that can be, on and off the field," said Coughlin.

"Those moments are special. Man to man. You can't top that."

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